In another online community, we recently talked about the new Andy Serkis Lord of the Rings recordings. Well, it turns out that the pull of The Ring is still mighty strong, for however much it may have been destroyed in Mount Doom. I had barely gotten my hands on these audios and I found I had to listen to them immediately, work and other obligations be damned. (Sleep, too — sometimes you just have to prioritize.)
And what a glorious series of recordings these are … in their own right, as well as, of course, given the book being read, or, rather, performed. Because this isn’t merely a narration; this is a bravura, tour-de-force performance pulling out all the stops. I don’t even know where to begin talking about it; so be prepared for this review to turn into a full-out fangirl gush — sorrynotsorryatall.
I think overall what impresses me the most is how phenomenally well Andy Serkis succeeds in transporting the magic of Tolkien’s Middle-earth; both the ensemble and every single one of its constituent details, however minute. He puts an enormous amount of care into remaining faithful to Tolkien’s text and writerly intent … while at the same time also acknowledging that to many fans, ever since the release of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, Tolkien’s iconic characters have taken on the incarnations they were given in those movies: his performance is a marvelous blend of both aspects (writing and movies), fully respecting both of them, leaving both entirely intact and still forging them into a coherent new whole.
What most helps him in doing so is his wide vocal range and the absolutely fearless, masterful way in which he uses that range. His natural speaking voice is quite a bit darker than the “Sméagol” voice he uses in the “finding of the Ring” scene at the beginning of the movie version of The Return of the King — it’s a fairly dark, slightly husky baritone –, but his range easily covers everything from various shades of contralto for the female characters and the tenors of the younger Hobbits (Sam, Merry and Pippin) to the bass tones of Gandalf and Saruman. (Gollum, of course, is a creature entirely apart and wholly his inimitable own.) And yet, it’s not only range but also character and textual context that influence his performance.
So, in the preface (more precisely, the now-famous second-edition foreword, which sets out Tolkien’s own perspective on the text) we hear Professor Tolkien himself speaking about his work; pointing out — say, in the context of a lecture — that this is a work of (imagined) history, not allegory; reminding his listeners that in his personal and his generation’s life experience, while WWII was a horrific experience and Hitler unquestionably a monster, the horrors of war were already visited upon them in what used to be known as “the Great War”, World War I; and voicing his discontent with the narrow reading that, in his view, any reading of his work merely as allegory (specifically, an allegory on WWII) would contain. *
Then, with the beginning of the actual story, Serkis’s voice shifts — ever so slightly — from professorial to storyteller mode: We now see Tolkien’s intent to mimic the mythological lore of the ancient cultures and peoples (and, yes, also religious texts such as the Old Testament), whose double function was not merely to glorify the deeds of these peoples’ ancestors (and / or deities) but also, in a context relying for many generations on oral rather than written history, to maintain a record of the respective people’s history. It’s no coincidence, after all, that even Roman history, so painstakingly written down in later generations by chroniclers like Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius, loses itself in the mists of mythology and oral tradition halfway on the way back into the past towards Romulus and Remus. Even more so, this was the case with the Norse, Germanic, Celtic, Old English, and other peoples that formed a core part of Tolkien’s academic studies, from whose languages he took his inspiration in creating the Elvish and other tongues we hear being used in this book (and in The Hobbit), and ultimately, in shaping the text of The Lord of the Rings as such, with its frequently deliberately archaic language and innumerable songs and leys. All this, Serkis makes us understand without a single word of his own, merely by way of his intonation. (And in case anybody has any lingering doubt, we’re back to the chiefly academic, professorial rendition of the history of the First and Second Ages in the Annexes at the end of The Return of the King. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) *
One aspect into which Serkis puts particular care in remaining truthful to Tolkien’s “this is history, legend and lore, not allegory” approach is in the innumerable songs contained in the narrative; not only in singing them at all (which not all audiobook narrators do), but also in finding perfect melodies to match the theme, tone, and contents of each song. These songs and poems have plenty of charm such as they appear on the page, and of course they’re an integral part of the book both in form and substance, but they’re the one thing than can bog down an audio rendition if merely recited in a speaking voice, just because that’s not at all how they are meant to be heard (if even only in the reader’s / listener’s mind) … because that is not how they would have been voiced in either the cultures that inspired Tolkien’s text, nor in that narrative itself. A bard, in the Olden Days, was a singer; not “merely” a poet. Serkis understands and respects that and uses it to absolute perfection.
But of course it is in the actual narrative of The Lord of the Rings, too, that book and movie adaptation come together. Because Serkis understands that for millions (billions?) of fans, Gandalf now sounds much like Ian McKellen, Gimli much like John Rhys-Davies (Welsh accent and all), Pippin like Billy Boyd (Scottish accent and all), this elder version of Bilbo like Ian Holm … etc. Yet, I would very much like to believe that the close approximation of his fellow actors’ speaking voices that he gives to many of the characters is not merely a matter of meeting audience expectations, nor (let alone) cheap mimicry, nor even a somewhat cheeky hattip (which wouldn’t be in keeping with the tone and contents of Tolkien’s narrative), but an expression of personal and professional appreciation. Many unforgettable moments from the screen adaptation, too (not least, Gandalf’s “You cannot pass” to the Balrog on Durin’s Bridge) are closely mirrored in Serkis’s narration — in some instances, he even achieves with his natural voice an effect for which the movies had to rely on technology; perhaps most notably, in the change of Galadriel’s voice when being tested by Frodo’s offer of The Ring, culminating in the vision that “[i]nstead of a Dark Lord, you would have a queen, not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn.” And when Fangorn (Treebeard) tells Merry and Pippin that “[t]here is naught that an old Ent can do to hold back th[e] storm: he must weather it or crack,” you literally hear the wood of a very old tree slowly splintering, cracking apart and collapsing in the statement’s last word.
But Andy Serkis goes his own way, too: Frodo’s voice, for example, is a bit darker than Elijah Wood’s in Serkis’s performance (which to me fits well with the fact that, as the movies easily make us forget, Frodo is quite a bit older than Sam, Merry and Pippin — he’s passed his 50th birthday and is, even for a Hobbit, well into middle age by the time he leaves the Shire), and Legolas’s is a beautiful, melodious, fairly high baritone that leaves not a shred of doubt about his Elvish blood. (Ditto, but with a slightly darker and not quite as melodious voice, Elrond.) I could have wished for a bit fewer “little boy” notes in Sam’s and Merry’s voices (though I’ll acknowledge that there really is a bit of this in Sean Astin’s Sam at least), and I wonder what made him decide to give the Stewards of Gondor — Boromir, Faramir, and Denethor — a slightly working class-sounding Mancunian accent (they’re tough warriors, yes, but also of the highest nobility; higher even, as Tolkien expressly tells us, than the Kings of Rohan, who originally received their kingdom from the Stewards’ land grant … and Serkis gives neither Théoden nor Éomer nor Éowyn any kind of accent). But taken all in all, these are small quibbles, all of which come down to personal taste, preferences, and readings of the text.
As for Gollum … obviously he will be forever Andy Serkis’s own. What still blew me away, however, was how exactly, literally down to the most minute vocal inflection, those lines from the book that did make it into the movies are reflected in this audio version. This is no mean feat: David Suchet (who to many Christie fans created “the” iconic version of Hercule Poirot to end all Poirots) once said that while during the production of the series’s initial seasons, he had reached a point where he could literally slip Poirot on “like a glove”, even the comparatively short hiatus between the initial shorter episodes (based on short stories) and the later seasons (based on the Poirot novels), which were begun to be filmed in response to audience demands after the original series had already been concluded, caused him to have to reacquaint himself with the role, and “finding” Poirot again in the first of the movie-length episodes was much harder work than producing him had been during the initial sets of episodes. And Suchet was talking of a few years’ hiatus at most. Andy Serkis, by contrast, had to bridge two entire decades between his portrayal of Gollum in the movies and the recording of these three new audio versions. Even taking into account that he also was Gollum in the screen adaptation of The Hobbit (halfway between the LOTR movies and now), it only takes a very brief glimpse at his biography to see that he has been anything but idle in the interim, and has had to acquaint himself with many characters that couldn’t possibly be any more different from Gollum (for however much they, in turn, gave him an opportunity to flex both his vocal and his character actors’ muscles). So, double extra props to him not only for creating his own, iconic version of Gollum in the first place, but for repeating that performance, flawlessly and down to the last guttural inflection, 20 years later — and of course, for extending it to all the scenes and lines that never made it to the big screen to begin with.
A final word on the minor characters, because these, too, just show to what extent Serkis’s performance honors and respects Tolkien’s work, and to what extent he took care to be in tune with the story’s characters — as well as the movies, to the extent that those characters appear there, too. Given all of the above, it should come as no surprise that the minor characters voiced (without credit) by Andy Serkis in the movies (the Witch-King of Angmar; Snaga, one of the Orcs involved in the squabble over Merry and Pippin after they have been captured near Amon Hen; and Mauhúr the Uruk-hai leader whose band had been sent to reinforce the Orcs that had captured Merry and Pippin) also sound in these audio recordings exactly like they did in the movies. But if possible, I got an even bigger kick out of the characters that didn’t make it onto the big screen; from Tom Bombadil (who in Serkis’s narration is, for all his apparent wholesomeness and largely rhymed manner of expression, nevertheless an ancient force to be reckoned with at all times) to the Warden of the Minas Tirith Houses of Healing, who, in his discussion with Gandalf and Aragorn as to how Faramir and Merry are to be treated once they are fit enough to walk about again after having recovered from their battle injuries, sounds like the embodiment of your essential modern-day chief surgeon who takes as much scientific as practical interest in his patients. “They are a remarkable race,” he says of the Hobbits, nodding his head. “Very tough in the fibre, I deem” … and right in the midst of all the doom and gloom preceding the battle outside the Black Gate of Mordor, I had to laugh out loud, because what appeared before my eyes was not a venerable (perhaps even white-bearded, long-haired and toga-clad) healer of old, but instead, a white-coated veteran 21st century doctor snapping off a terse bedside comment to a junior colleague during their morning ward round.
I’ve always found Tolkien’s narrative, as written, emotionally draining (if I didn’t, I’d probably revisit it much more frequently than I’m doing anyway); and it is doubtlessly yet another mark of Andy Serkis’s skill that this effect was even greater than usual this time around: after having finished the final audio last night, I felt like I’d been put through the wringer like never before — never mind that the narrative as such ends on a positive note and is followed by the rather academic-in-tone appendices on the history of the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth. Obviously, even taking into account that Tolkien said he didn’t intend the text to have the narrow meaning of an allegory (on WWII or anything else), * it is also impossible to revisit this particular tale, at this particular point in history, without drawing parallels between its fictional juxtaposition of the forces of Good and Evil, in battle and elsewhere, and the war that is currently raging not so terribly far away from here in Eastern Europe. In fact, listening to these three audiobooks, it was borne in on me, perhaps clearer than ever before, that my own instinctive response to the war in Ukraine (“evil must actively be resisted and fought with all we have; there is no point hoping it will suddenly go away again all of its own accord”) was shaped as much by family, high school education (notably on the Nazis and WWII, of course), and other elements of real-life influence, as by my reading material from childhood on — The Lord of the Rings forming a core part of the latter.
Emotional wringer or not, I can see myself moving on to more tales of Middle-earth in the foreseeable future: May seems to be morphing into my month for revisiting complete sets of classic tales — last year, it was Conan Doyle’s complete Sherlock Holmes canon (my excuse being that I’d owned the Stephen Fry audio version for way too long, and why not finally listen to it in the month of ACD’s birth); but this past week was just as fitting, seeing as it included May the Fourth, and between them Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the Star Wars universe have pretty much coined and cornered every single epic fantasy trope in existence.
* I’m not planning to get into that particular debate here; instead I’m going to let Tolkien’s own words speak largely for themselves. He writes in the foreword:
“As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches: but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in the war that began in 1939 or its sequels modified it.”
“The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.”
And he adds:
“Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. “
I think when it comes to authorial intent (which may or may not be the same thing as a given reader’s interpretation, and which has nothing to do with the question whether an author may demand readers to interpret books only in the way set down by that author, which was actually the exact opposite of Tolkien’s intention), there is a lot to be said for, at the very least, listening and giving careful consideration to what the author him- or herself has expressly said along those lines. That being said, many of the elements commonly identified as giving rise to a view of the narrative as allegory — chiefly of course, its “quest” nature as such and the notion of the ultimate juxtaposition of Good and Evil — are also contained in the historical texts on which Tolkien’s text is modelled, not least the two that likely were Tolkien’s most proximate templates, Beowulf and the Welsh Red Book of Hergest, both of which combine elements of quest, legend, history and heroic poetry (in the case of the Red Book of Hergest, a rendition of the legend of the Mabinogion, combined with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and a series of triads; i.e., text fragments in turn combining folklore, mythology and traditional history). So to me personally, it makes absolute sense that a text written, in the first instance, to entertain (Christopher Tolkien on the front, the readers of The Hobbit in their desire to learn more about the Halflings, and J.R.R. Tolkien himself in his quest to find out to what extent the literary forms of old can be translated to modern times) should be taken in the first instance in this spirit, too, and in the spirit of an experiment in making ancient literary forms serviceable to a modern audience.
The most notable sentence in Tolkien’s foreword, though, to me is his suggestion that
“many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
In other words, try to read this text as allegory (only), and you’re needlessly binding yourself to what you — rightly or wrongly — perceive as authorial intent. Read it as history, or as a text written with no other purpose (vis-à-vis the reader, at least) than to entertain, and you are free to apply it to any situation and give it any meaning you, as a reader, want. (Including applying it to any war started by an evil despot that happens to be going on while you are reading the text.) Personally, I much prefer that latter take.
Oh, and since Tolkien never intended this to be a “trilogy”, didn’t write it as one, and I’m consequently only counting it as a single book for purposes of my reading challenges, here’s the lovely one-volume edition I won many years ago in a BookLikes giveaway.
… and finally, à propos of nothing in particular: