The past six weeks or so, we’ve been reading The Fellowship of the Ring as our before-bed family read aloud.
Having not read The Lord of the Rings books for a dozen years, I have been floored by Tolkien’s language, his ability to paint a vivid picture with nothing but words. Here, for example, at the beginning of the chapter, “A Knife in the Dark,” he evokes the blood-chilling terror that is the Black Riders:
Darkness lay on Buckland; a mist strayed in the dells and along the river-bank. The house at Crickhollow stood silent. Fatty Bolger opened the door cautiously and peeered out. A feeling of fear had been growing on him all day, and he was unable to rest or go to bed: there was a brooding threat in the breathless night-air. As he stared out into the gloom, a black shadow moved under the trees; the gate seemed to open of its own accord and close again without a sound. Terror seized him. He shrank back, and for a moment he stood trembling in the hall. Then he shut and locked the door.
The night deepened. There came the soft sound of horses led with stealth along the lane. Outside the gate they stopped, and three black figures entered, like shades of night creeping across the ground. One went to the door, one to the corner of the house on either side; and there they stood, as still as the shadows of stones, while night went slowly on…
There was a faint stir in the leaves, and a cock crowed far away. The cold hour before dawn was passing. The figure by the door moved. In the dark without moon or stars a drawn blade gleamed, as if a chill light had been unsheathed. There was a blow, soft but heavy, and the door shuddered.
For those of you who are only familiar with the movies, you’re missing out. Doug, who’s a big fan of those movies, said the other night, “You know, rereading this, I find I like the book better than the movie. Tolkien tells such a compelling story. And with such amazing language.” Indeed.
During the day, I have been re-reading Little House on the Prairie to Jack and Jane (at their request). I love this book. Laura Ingalls Wilder, like Tolkien, is a master at creating a picture with words. Consider this:
Mary and Laura…could smell bacon and coffee and hear pancakes sizzling, and they scrambled out of bed….
They washed their hands and faces in the tin washbasin on the wagon-step. Ma combed every snarl out of their hair, while Pa brought fresh water from the creek.
Then they sat on the clean grass and ate pancakes and bacon and molasses from the tin plates in their laps.
All around them shadows were moving over the waving grasses, while the sun rose. Meadow larks were springing straight up from the billows of grass into the high, clear sky, singing as they went. Small pearly clouds drifted in the immense blueness overhad. In all the weed-tops tiny birds were swinging and singing in tiny voices. Pa said they were dickcissels.
“Dickie, dickie!” Laura called back to them. “Dickie bird!”
“Eat your breakfast, Laura,” Ma said…”It isn’t good manners to sing at table. Or when you’re eating,” she added, because there was no table.
There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there.
In all that space of land and sky stood the lonely, small, covered wagon. And close to it sat Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie, eating their breakfasts.
Wilder’s writing is like the sky on a sunny blue day: clear and so beautiful it catches at my throat and makes me want to be caught up in it, to become one with it.
I want to write like that: evocative, engaging, vivid…edible.
Since April is National Poetry Month, I thought I’d highlight a few of our family’s favorite poetry books.
First is the classic Favorite Poems Old and New, compiled by Helen Ferris, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. This is really more of a resource for parents than a read-to-your-kids book, though I’ve read to my kids from it on many occasions.
It’s a great place to find poetry to memorize, or to find a number of poems by a single poet—Eleanor Farjeon, say, or Rachel Field, or Walter de la Mare. We (try to) study one poet per season and this book has been indispensable in introducing us to our poet-of-the-quarter.
Second is the Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, compiled and illustrated by Jackie Morris. This is a beautiful book. The selection of poetry ranges from poems by Robert Louis Stevenson to Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, and Dylan Thomas…and many, many more poets whom I don’t tend to think of as “children’s poets.”
This isn’t just a great book to share with children. It’s also a great way for adults who want to start reading poetry to dip their toes into poetic waters. With just one poem and a gorgeous illustration on every page, this is a book to sip and savor.
Third is the newest addition to our poetry library: Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart, compiled by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Michael Emberley. As we read it, Jack, Jane, and I, dipping in here and there, I feel inspired to choose a couple of my favorite poems from the book to add to my mental repertoire of things-I-can-recite-by-heart.
Now it’s your turn: what books have wowed you recently with their pristine or evocative or beautiful language? What poems have you savored in this month of celebrating poetry?