Spoken For: The Magic of Books and Reading Aloud

“You may have tangible wealth untold,

Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold;

Richer than I you can never be

I had parents who read to me.”

–        S. Gilliland

I used to have a lot of nightmares when I was younger, as I suppose a lot of children do. This is not to say that I never do now. Just the other night I confess I woke up in cold fright as the echoes of a growling and hooded creature stalked after me through a black and white forest landscape. The echoing snarls faded away in under thirty seconds though and by morning I barely gave the memory a second thought.

As a young child however, dreams were so much more real, and didn’t disappear at my command after I woke up. Sometimes I could still see cruel, laughing eyes staring out at me through the closed closet door that reminded me of the sea witch from The Little Mermaid.

The eyes wouldn’t fade no matter how awake I became. After what seemed like hours of a stare down, I risked slipping my feet over the abyss that was the side of my bed, ran across the room to Olivia’s bed, and climbed in next to her. I told her I couldn’t sleep, that the sea witch was watching me through the closet door, and Liv blinked at me with sleepy eyes.

“What are you talking about?” The question would fade to a mumble and she was asleep again.

I pulled the blanket up to our chins and glanced back to the closet.

The eyes were gone. Liv’s sleepy confidence had driven them away, and I was able to sleep again too not long after that.

There were many other examples of dreams like these, even though eventually I decided not to wake up Liv because of them.

The furniture in our room would become strange shapes resembling curled up spiders, watching and waiting to creep closer when I wasn’t looking. Robes that hung on door handles became hooded figures, which I would describe as Nazgul now, with cold iron hands and no faces.

Fear can do strange things when it strides into the imagination unchallenged.

I would make sure my feet never crossed over the sides of my bed, where skeleton hands could reach up to grab them. I remember sleeping under my pillow instead of on top of it (so no bugs could crawl in my ears as I slept), and I figured that if I kept as much of me under the blankets as possible the monsters wouldn’t find me.

I would wake up sweaty, but not eaten by monsters, and that’s all my younger self really cared about.

This all changed one evening though.

A long-standing tradition in my family is reading aloud what we call “The Good Ones.” These books are not only incredibly awesome on their own, but also sound absolutely wonderful when read aloud.

Sometimes books and series are read to us individually and some as our entire family, but either way they just depend on their appeal to my sisters and I despite our different ages and interests (mostly).

I distinctly remember when the first four books in The Chronicles of Narnia were read to me, as well as The Hobbit phase, and The Lord of the Rings phase. My dad would sit in his rocking chair and my mom would sit on the couch with me, along with any of the other girls who were old enough to understand the story at the time. Recent favorites include The Wingfeather Saga and The Wilderking Trilogy.

Now, some of these I’ve heard at least three times, as my sisters grew older and it became their turn to hear them for the first time.

J is currently in The Chronicles of Narnia phase, and up until recently I was able to pass by her room and hear my dad reading to her about Reepicheep and Trufflehunter in Prince Caspian. They finished the book a few days ago though, and we all watched the movie with her. She vented afterwards about how different the movie was from the book, while Mel and I shared a knowing smile, remembering our own love of hearing the story and frustration when the movie got it wrong.

My parents have read so many stories to me over the years, but there was a specific time I remember when one became more than a story. It was one of the many nights spent by lamplight in the living room after dinner. On this particular occasion, we were partway through The Hobbit. Mel and J, too young to understand at the time, were already asleep upstairs while Liv and I were sprawled on the floor in the living room. My dad was in the rocking chair, the steady creak of its springs going back and forth, and his socks leaving prints in the carpet as he pushed the rocker again and again and again. Yellow lamplight reached the green hardback in my dad’s hands and turned the J.R.R.T. initials in silver letters on the front gold and glossy.

We were in the chapter when Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and all the dwarves reach Rivendell. It’s approaching evening, and the group is tired from their travels as well as hungry, and the smell of pine trees is making Bilbo sleepy while the stars are “burning bright and blue” over his head. They’re making their way down into the valley with their ponies and begin to hear voices. Elven voices, laughing and singing in the trees, welcoming them to their home where they can rest “here down in the valley in June.”

My eyes were closed, though not the slightest bit sleepy, and I could see it all. The river, the valley, the trees and the sky, the weary travelers and the magical elves. The elves’ song ended and I opened my eyes to see my dad had turned the book around. An illustration took up the right page showing Gandalf in a pointy blue hat, pointing down into the valley, and Bilbo on a pony looking down at the town nestled close to the riverside.

He flipped the book back towards him and read on about the elves who come out from the trees and greet them, talking merrily and inviting them to stay and sing with them. Bilbo wants to stay for a little bit since, “Elvish singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars, not if you care for such things” (p.46). The dwarves however want their supper so they continue on past the noisy river to the Last Homely House with its doors open wide.

The chapter ended not much longer after that, and my dad closed the book. Though the book itself is not a long one, this particular version always seemed too thick for its spine. Thick with all the descriptions and pictures and adventures in those pages, but also with that special depth and space that comes to pages that have been read over and over, as if the pages themselves breathe in with each word you read off them.

I went upstairs to sleep that night feeling like magic had been sprinkled on my head like Tinker Bell’s fairy dust. A magic that I don’t think I would’ve gotten if I’d simply been looking at the words on the pages myself.

My parents came to say goodnight to us and after giving hugs, my dad whispered to us before closing the door, “Dream of the elves singing down in the valley.”

And dream of them I did.

I’ve never forgotten those words since. Unknowingly, my dad had provided my escape, my weapon, my defense against the shadows, monsters, and dreams my mind would come up with.

The phrase simultaneously became my safe haven and my sword.

Every time I had a dream where my eyesight was slowly fading away, or an enemy was chasing after me and my legs were only moving in slow motion, or a giant wasp was growing on the floor until it was the size of my bedroom, I woke up in pure terror. I searched in my mind for the way out and it was my dad’s voice that came.

Dream of the elves singing down in the valley.

The images, colors and settings, and comfort that came with the little phrase overwhelmed the nightmares every time without fail. It was peace, and joy, and safety, and goodness, all in one.

There is no space for monsters in the valley. The elves that climb up the trees and sing their joyful songs will never let their legs get heavy like glue. There are no giant wasps in the Last Homely House where warm firelight glows and good food fills hungry tummies.

It’s a phrase that held its power through every scary story and every creeping nightmare that managed to fill my mind.

Later, I came to see the dreams as my dementors, while I got to be Harry Potter. They fed on the fears and darkness that I couldn’t shake from my mind, and the only way to fight them off was with a vision of light. A memory of happiness. Because that’s the only thing strong enough to drive the darkness away.

Dream of the elves singing down in the valley.

I hear the steady rhythm of the rocking chair as my dad clears his throat and reads, “Chapter Three.”

The monsters are in my head. They are not actually there. So if my head is going to take the reins, I want it filled with everything stronger than fear can throw. After all, we are asked to dwell on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). Why? “So the God of peace will be with you” (4:9).

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve read more and more books with more and more evil, and yet the little things that keep the darkness at bay are the glimpses of stories I’ve heard through someone else’s voice.

I remember belly laughing as my mom described The Bath Song that the four hobbits sing in The Fellowship of the Ring at Tom Bombadil’s house. I remember my dad telling me about how Lucy Pevensie wakes up in Prince Caspian when she hears the voice of someone who loves her calling her name, and she runs off into the woods after the voice through the magical trees.

The dreams became fewer and fewer as they retreated from the pieces of Good that were just too strong for them.

Dream of the elves singing down in the valley.

Now, I listen once again to each of “The Good Ones” as my sisters hear them spoken into the living room air with the sound of the rocking chair. They laugh and oooh and ahhh as they hear about the library in the Green Hollows with all its books and crannies, as well as Pete the Sock Man’s castle in the trees, and Dobro’s confusion over all things civilized, and I smile because I know why.

Yes, those stories have great evil as well, for every story worth telling does, but in the end the Good is too strong for it, even if the Good is only a mere memory to the characters as they journey on.

So we read, and read some more, and when each of us finds examples of our own swords and safe havens we pass it along. Who knows? Maybe a quote that I read one of my sisters might give them yet another stronghold against the darkness that tries so hard to keep them afraid.

“Maddie, listen to this, it’s so funny.”

“Mom, listen to this, it’s beautiful.”

“Mel, listen to this paragraph, it shares her thoughts so well.”

We smile, we’re stunned, and we share once again.

Every once in a while a truly terrifying nightmare decides to give it a go and rage inside my head with all the fear it can muster. In my most recent one I got shot in the shoulder twice and almost drowned within 15 minutes of each other (I’m into Sci-Fi right now). But in the end I blink my eyes awake and breathe until it fades as my elves and their songs help me see the firelight again.

Dream of the elves singing down in the valley.

There’s power in words my friends, especially when spoken out under yellow lamplight, with empty hot chocolate mugs on the coffee table and a sleepy golden retriever nearby.

“This is what a book does. It introduces people and places we wouldn’t ordinarily know. A good book is a magic gateway into a wider world of wonder, beauty, delight, and adventure. Why have a small world when you can walk with God into the larger place that is his domain? Young children, fresh uncluttered minds, the world before them – to what treasures will you lead them?” – Gladys Hunt

I’m so thankful for the treasures that my parents decided to share with me as they gave worlds life with their voices and helped me see them. Regardless of how many times I’ve read one of “The Good Ones” by myself, there’s an altogether different magic when I hear it spoken aloud yet again. The stack of “To Be Read Aloud” books has possibly gotten taller on our table. Oops. I wonder who’s doing that?

Thanks For Stopping By The Salt Compass: Madeleine Hagan

Why Reading Aloud Is Magical: Experiencing the Power of Books

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