J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Audio version) (BBC Worldwide Ltd., 1995)  
 

I just returned from a road trip to the "woolies" where I brought Middle Earth, mocha, and a Hobbit-like sense of adventure. Taking Tolkien on a trip is both a good way to stay awake and keep oneself and any passengers thoroughly entertained. It's also fun to pull into a gas station and watch startled faces when, opening the door, Gandalf is heard shouting down the Balrog in the mines of Moria.

The boxed thirteen-CD set of the British Broadcasting Company's The Lord of the Rings is a splendid companion to the books and the developing film trilogy. It is not a book on CD but a dramatized production -- an adaptation rather than an abridgement. The general plot, of course, is well known -- or should be. Synopses can be found in Green Man reviews of the books and the film. Sibley is responsible for much other Middle Earth material -- most recently creating The Lord Of The Rings Official Movie Guide for the recent film version. He's also written C. S. Lewis Through the Shadowlands, on which the film Shadowlands (about another Inkling) was based.

Appropriate to a radio release, Brian Sibley's adaptation is dialogue-driven, so that every moment is a treasured conversation. The narrator (Gerard Murphy) steps in only when most appropriate, and the narrative tone and emotion are proper to each scene. The dialogue takes relatively few liberties with the beloved original, and the whole presentation is delightfully detailed.

Stephen Oliver's music is clever but generally unobtrusive. The singing voices, especially William Nighy's as Sam, are eloquent in handling the poetics of the author. I would prefer less operatic singing where battle is at hand. Something like the non nobis of Branagh's film Henry V would have been better, or simply a male a capella chorus, but what we have is admirably performed. Likewise, the sound effects are natural and not overawing. The first musical-speech of elves talking in the woods outside Lorien was like chimes in the wind and yet like voices on the air. The Nazgul's cry was chilling. Only during the Black Riders' raid on Bree did I think the sound of galloping hooves an awkward fit to the action of carving up beds in the inn.

The casting is nothing short of spectacular. The ethereal loveliness and confidence of Galadriel's voice (Marian Diamond), the fastidious earthiness of William Nighy (Sam's voice), and the erudite joviality of Gandalf's voice (Michael Hordern), were marvellous. Gwahir the Great Eagle was, to my ear, least convincing, but perhaps the attempt was to give more of an animal quality to his voice. Aragorn's (that of Robert Stephens), while a little dry at times, is the voice of a man -- a grown man, less pretty and merely roguish than the Aragorn of the recent film. Gollum (Peter Woodthorpe) shows a wide dramatic range, suitably nasty, pathetic, monstrous, and yet sentient (one would say "human" were that actually true of Gollum). But all paled in comparison to the dramatic range of Ian Holm (Frodo). By the time initially innocent Ian/Frodo makes Mordor, his is a worldly, commanding, yet weary voice capturing the burden and the knowledge at once. The emotional subtleties a lover of the books expects are here in abundance with this excellent cast's performances.

Each CD is briefly introduced (in case one doesn't listen to all thirteen hours in one sitting), and there are credits at the end of each one. The packaging is elegant, with a map (each CD also bearing a map of Middle Earth as the label design), a concise but detailed biographical sketch of Tolkien tracing the development of the story, and credits. The fonts are vaguely if appropriately elvish and runic in style. Here, too, is the reference-standard artwork of the incomparable Brothers Hildebrandt. Simply put, the physical beauty of the packaging is a lovely setting to the lovelier jewel of its contents.

This is a superb gift for fans of the old-time radio dramas and cliffhangers (Green Hornet, The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes, General Mills Radio Adventure Theater), those who cannot or do not read, and definitely for lovers of Middle Earth. While the books are certainly essential, this form of dramatized oral storytelling does more than increase one's love for the original. It refreshes and enhances it. Buy it for yourself and pretend it's for the whole family.

If one has the winamp media player, one can hear the entire production broadcast alternating with a less-interesting version of The Hobbit on an all-Tolkien Internet radio station on the Shoutcast network.

The BBC is here. Nostalgic tours of early radio productions and their history are at Old Time Radio,and this private collection of links. And just for fun, if you really really like Saruman and think he's just misunderstood, look at this.

[Asher Black]