Our family reads The Hobbit aloud every winter. It’s awesome—we love telling the story, we love spending time together just reading, and we love doing the voices. We have a family headcanon about some of the characters and we even do activities, like drawing the scenes for our preschooler as the book is being read aloud, but we have a minor Middle-Earth dilemma: we never know what to do with J.R.R. Tolkien’s songs. We’re cool with reading aloud, but breaking into song mid-chapter makes my husband and I a little uncomfortable.
And you can’t really ignore the songs in The Hobbit. There are a LOT of them, 10 to be exact. The dwarfs sing. The elves sing. Bilbo sings. The humans sing. Even the freaking goblins sing.
What are we supposed to do with these? I mean, we do have some options:
- Do we just read them aloud, like poems? That never seems right, because they were clearly meant to be sung. Plus it’s sort of awkward to just read them.
- Do we just just ignore them? You technically can, but as an author myself, I don’t feel right about it. Tolkien lets a few of the songs do some backstory heavy-lifting for him, and some of the songs serve as character development. They seem integral to the story.
- Do we make up our own lovely elvin/dwarven/goblin/hobbit songs? Ha ha, no. I’ve tried that. It’s terrible.
- Do we try to imitate the songs in the films? Yeah. No.
Most of the time, when we come to a song, whoever is reading that particular chapter just sighs deeply and half-reads, half-sings a song to some random half-hearted tune.
This makes me feel bad, because you just know that when Tolkien originally told The Hobbit to his kids, the songs were performed with enthusiasm. (They must have been, because there are 10 freaking songs.) And we are NOT enthused about them.
But this year we fixed the problem. We’re screaming the songs like a punk band.
It started as a joke. It was my turn to sing one of the songs, and I had just seen “This,” the recent Ramones-heavy episode of The X-Files. My husband, happy to not have to sing, handed me the book and, because I’ve always been at an utter loss when it comes to knowing what an elf-song sounds like (Enya? Loreena McKennitt?), I Ramones’d it.
It was a hit. My husband, he who loves rock and hates musicals, was instantly into it. My 3-year-old was excited that Yelling-Plus-Music is a real thing.
And so that’s how we’ve continued to read The Hobbit. Every song gets punked now. We’ve even gone back and re-done the earlier songs.
Of course, it doesn’t always work well. Something about the rhyme scheme in the dwarves’ ballads makes them particularly difficult for me to punkify. The best ones are—hilariously—the elf songs, and also the one dwarf song about breaking all of Bilbo’s plates.
There have been a bunch of (mostly unintentional, occasionally educational) benefits to punking up The Hobbit:
- Music appreciation and history. I have to admit that I know very little about punk rock. Growing up, I was always intimidated by it. It seemed like I wouldn’t be able to understand the music without getting into the scene, so it felt like this rarified angry art form I’d never be able to get into. So, to make sure my elf-song game was on point, I Spotified classic punk, and found that not only did I already know a ton of the music, but it was not at all what I expected it to be. It’s not all angry, and unlike the music of my own teen years, it’s not all screaming. (But our favorite songs are the shouty ones.) Also, I did some reading about punk history (I didn’t want to have to BS my way through answers if my son asked any questions about the music) and the origins of punk remind me a lot of the independent bands I ran with back when I was single and cool and the radio was dominated by what seemed like the same eight Top 40 artists.
- It’s developmentally perfect music for a three-year-old. My preschooler has taken to classic punk like a fish to water. He’s been asking to hear “the yell-singing” whenever he sees I have Spotify open. His new love of punk makes a lot of sense: his favorite word is “no” and he is often dealing with angry and rebellious feelings. After a long day of being told when to eat, when to nap, what not to do, and when it’s potty time, anarchy seems like a good deal to him. Our doctor once described 3-year-olds as “walking middle fingers,” and punk really celebrates the middle finger.
- It’s also perfect music for a sleep-deprived parent who has been hearing “no” all day. Look, I know I’m the authority that’s being rebelled against in this house, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need also need the catharsis of yell-singing, son. In fact, I’ve needed catharsis more than I’ve ever needed it in my adult life.
- We’re (sort of) reading the book the way the author intended. Hey, we’re enthusiastically singing now, even if Tolkien certainly didn’t mean us to be shouting while singing.
Obviously this trick isn’t exclusive to punk; you can set Tolkien’s poems to any music you want. You can freestyle them or make folk rock out of them or sing them like you’re on the Top 40 (and if anyone has done any of these things, please comment because I want to know what you did and how it worked). But punk is what’s worked for us.
What can I say? This family loves the yell-singing.