Regendering bedtime stories

Female Bilbo

When Michelle Nijhuis reads The Hobbit aloud to her five-year-old daughter, she doesn’t quite recite Tolkien’s original prose. There’s one major change: Bilbo is a girl-hobbit. As she explains at Slate:

You know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

Someday, when my daughter is old enough, I’ll read her some of my favorite stories. Although Kat is just two months old, I’ve already started to plan. I’ve picked out a few beloved books: The Hobbit. Narnia. Harry Potter. I’ve even considered charting out distinct voices for each main character; if I get started now, I can perfect my dwarvish brogue.

And thanks to Nijhuis, I’ve made one more decision about Kat’s bedtime stories: Bilbo must change genders. Middle-Earth desperately needs girl power—in fact, there are no female characters of note in The Hobbit. I don’t want my daughter to detach from the hobbit’s adventure—or worse, downgrade her own—because the book’s heroes are all male.

This live “translation” poses some challenges. First, it requires quick thinking. When Gandalf tells Bilbo, “You are only quite a little fellow,” for example, I’ll have to improvise a revision. Something like “quite a little person” instead? In other places, Bilbo’s reimagined gender could cause confusion. In Tolkien’s world, female hobbits are typically named after flowers or jewels: Primrose, Marigold, Pearl. Why, my daughter might ask, is Bilbo so different?

Another problem: what will my daughter think when she inevitably discovers Bilbo’s true gender? Will the weight of the world’s patriarchy come crashing down on her head? I suspect not; for one thing, she’ll know that her papa cared deeply about her self-worth—and that counts for something. And second, I hope that adapting Tolkien will train her to “rewrite” a few other inhospitable details in the world around her.