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Listening to Lord of the Rings
By Hilary Williamson, July 2001

I first read Lord of the Rings as a teenager, and have re-read it many times since, the most memorable being while bouncing in the back of a Bedford truck in Afghanistan and Baluchistan - the remote and arid surroundings seemed somehow appropriate as the Fellowship struggled slowly and painfully towards Mordor. One of my millennial projects has been to introduce my own children (11 and 12) to the works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. My older son is happily reading through the seven volume Millennium Edition; they have both enjoyed The Hobbit; I introduced them to the thrilling trailers of the movie under production in New Zealand; and we have recently listened to the BBC audio version together. This is a thirteen hour dramatization starring Ian Holm as Frodo. There are a variety of other voices and many stirring songs.

We tried this medium on a camping holiday in the early evenings, watching the sun set on the lake while we listened enthralled to the unfolding of Tolkien's unique epic. The CD box includes a biographical summary on the author. I had not realized that the he had fought in the trenches in World War I and this helped me to understand his ability to depict war, the horrors of the Mistwraiths and of Mordor, and the despair with which the good must contend. He himself lived in a time in which the West was embattled and he must have experienced personal tragedy. As I listened to the gallant young voices of Merry and Pippin, setting off at Frodo's side, their English accents made me think of young men heading off to war with excitement and anticipation - very much as in the television serialization of young flyers in A Piece of Cake.

Frodo himself is the typical, honorable young officer, his faithful batman Samwise at his side. He volunteers to be Ringbearer in full knowledge of the dangers to be faced, and is ready (and indeed expects) to sacrifice all for the cause. Frodo is wounded early, in both body and spirit, and fades steadily through the tale to become only a shadow of his former self at the end. I wonder if Tolkien himself felt faded after the horrors of war and the loss of friends in it. I remember on first reading, used as I was to happy endings, that I found the end of this story unbearably sad. Surely Frodo deserved more? Re-reading as an adult, the ending seems somehow fitting and Frodo's departure from Middle Earth with Bilbo and the Elves very suitable. His is a great character but so is the indomitable Sam, the embodiment of loyalty.

Characters (and subsidiary stories about them) that come across more strongly on subsequent readings (and listenings) are the young hobbits, Merry and Pippin who have their separate adventures; the Ranger / King Aragorn who loves elf maiden Arwen; and Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf who develop an unlikely friendship. Tolkien's writing is always light on the ladies, who tend to be remote and lovely, mainly to be venerated. The only one who gets into the action is Eowyn of the Rohan, who hides her sex and sets off to war in helm and armor. Of course, in the author's day, war and grand endeavors of any kind were not meant for women. The range and variety of his magical and fantastic creatures continues to amaze me each time I encounter the story, from the charming halflings themselves to the (generally) slow-thinking Ents, the orcs and Dark Riders and his masterpiece, the manic Smeagol / Gollum.

The BBC audio version (available in both CD and cassette formats) is done in multiple (British) voices which adds greatly to the interest. While the English accents fit well for the Hobbits, Gandalf and Strider, I was not so happy with the depiction of Sauron as an English aristocrat. It was just not menacing enough for the Dark Lord. However, the rendition of Gollum's manic mutterings of 'My Precious' were absolutely marvelous and made up for all. Galadriel's diction also fully matched my imagination of this perfect Elven lady, who could even charm Gimli the dwarf, from a race traditionally enemy to her own. And the kids loved the rousing ending when the returning travelers ejected the noisome rabble in Hobbiton.

The audio version is an expensive purchase for anyone who is not a Rings fanatic like me (I often wonder why talking book prices are generally still so high). However many libraries have growing audio collections, so that it may become more generally available. While listening, I wondered if someone new to the epic would be able to follow it in audio - some of the complexities of re-telling of old Elven histories and lore seemed a little confusing and the story is abridged - but my eleven year old who had not read the book yet, was still spellbound by this radio version.

As in other stories, audio brings a new perspective to an old favorite. We enjoyed this BBC version very much and will listen to it again and again. When I first read Tolkien, his approach to epic fantasy was new and exciting. Though many have followed in his footsteps (the most notable in my view being Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and Michelle West's Sun Sword series) they have in no way overshadowed Tolkien's achievement. Sauron's menace and the depiction of remote Elven magic and homey comfortable, endearing Hobbits has never been surpassed. Like countless others, I enjoy this tale in any media available and await the movies with bated breath.
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