I’m sorry I’ve been so absent, all: I just found this post that I’d forgotten to put up, so here you are.
When I was younger, I hated reading aloud. I loved to read, of course – I’ve always known that stories carry magic – but I remember sitting in my second grade class as we circled around with Charlotte’s Web and I just knew that my tongue would trip over the words in a way my mind never did and my mouth would get dry and my voice do something I didn’t want it to do. When I read to myself, I was swept up in the world of the book in a way that mimicked restfulness, and I’d look up from my book with the feeling that I’d just woken from a nap. Reading aloud, though, scared me. As I got better, I’m sure I became more cocky about it.
But recently, I’ve realized that there is a specific and dense magic that comes from speaking the written word, a magic that transcends what I’d expected from printed ink on a woven page of pulpy tree.
I think that children understand this magic deeply. I always love to read aloud when I babysit (once I read a self-abridged version of A Wrinkle in Time), but this summer, something really captivating happened. I was filling in for a family’s nanny for half a week, and the second day on the job was Homework Day. Everyone was upset about it, obviously, moaning and half-heartedly scribbling on their math sheets. The youngest’s only remaining homework assignment was to be read to.
I grabbed an abridged children’s copy of Treasure Island and began to read to him in a hushed voice, glancing up at him every once in a while. When I started, he was squirming, sliding out of his chair, and rolling his eyes up at the ceiling. Halfway through, he was looking at me. When I stopped after the first chapter and started to put it away, he grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye, and said, “Don’t stop!” By this point, the other two weren’t doing their homework either but had started listening to the story. One of them had crept around to look at the illustrations. After lunch, we relocated to the couch, huddling together to read about poor Jim Hawkins. I did some growly pirate voices and we all giggled over Ben Gunn’s cheese obsession.
We sat for more than two hours and read that whole book, cover to cover. They never once got bored or wanted to stop. The story had pulled them tight in a sort of magic, and even when my voice began to dry up they wrapped themselves around each word. Treasure Island has no deep moral or spiritual truth (upon first glance, at least); it’s an adventure story, but it knows how to speak. It understands the power of story, and so did the children. This got them focused like nothing I had ever tried before – no sports break, homework incentive, or movie grabbed them like Treasure Island did. It was absolutely unbelievable.
I think I finally understand the bardic tradition of the Celtic tribes, why the poets advised the kings and were revered as they were. I understand how powerful it would have been to have everyone gathered in a castle hall for their Michaelmas celebration, shuffling quietly as they listened to the bard unfold the tale of the brave, perfection-seeking Gawain and a Knight, green from the hair of his beard to his very skin.
As Tolkien best put it, it is a “Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.”
Also this summer, my grandmother, while visiting us, fell and broke her hip. It was terrible and scary, but she did such a wonderful job recovering. We would often come visit her to talk and chat, catching her up on everything and discussing different things. One night, her trigeminal neuralgia was acting up badly, and she was in a lot of pain. We headed over, and she couldn’t talk. In half an hour, the nurse could come and give her a dose of pain medication. I figured I would distract her. I held her hand tightly, pulled up my story on my dad’s iPad, and began to read.
I got very quiet as I did so, for I was self-conscious of reading words that I myself had written. I shook it off. My grandma relaxed perceptibly and smiled at me. The time passed. It was crazy, the feeling that filled the dark room, a comforting sort of heaviness that blanketed us. Before we left, though, we all prayed for her. I was fervent and earnest, and I could feel that the words coming from my mouth were not my words, and I felt the Holy Spirit there. It was love I was speaking, just love. The power of prayer was tangible and suspended, and the next day, Grandma was better than we’d seen her in weeks.
I keep running into the reading aloud. Oxford’s Keble has a chapel built into it, and it’s absolutely beautiful, with storytelling stained glass and a massive organ and echoey, cavernous ceilings. In one of my first weeks here, at the urging of the Bursar, I crept into the empty chapel’s side-room. There was a Bible and a list of the readings for the day, and I read them aloud in a whisper, turning from Jonah to Luke and having the privilege of letting God’s Word permeate the place through my voice.
I wrote a play for Oxford’s Cuppers competition, and that was a completely different rush, the joy of watching people speak your words in their voice and telling them how to act around them. There would be moments when they pulled something out that was exactly right, better, inventing, embodying an imagined thing. That’s magic, too, isn’t it?
And now we come to the vehicle of my remembrance of this post. My Paradise Lost essay from last week was all about speech: I wrote about God creating beautiful things through speech and Satan perverting them, about a blind Milton speaking his words aloud and fashioning himself into the old recitative epic poet, and I spoke my words aloud to my tutor.
Words are important, living, and active. God spoke the universe into existence through the force of his speech, creating the universe through a word and through the Word. The Word has saved our people by becoming like us, by dying for us, by refusing to stay dead. Do not discount what you speak; God’s words have power, and so do yours.
Read this: my story (“The Mason Jar”) if you like; Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories“ (you have to)