For this Throwback Thursday we have a rare treat with a guest review from my awesome editor/wife, Alex. Long-time readers of this blog may remember that Alex previously provided some guest reviews of books like The Power and The Testaments, although she hasn’t provided us with anything for a long while (don’t worry, I’ve judged her very harshly because of this, so much judgement!!!). Alex recently endeavoured to read all three The Lord of the Rings books, and I of course convinced her into writing a review for them. I think her review below is pretty awesome (I may be slightly biased), and it has made me interested in listening to the latest audiobook version of The Lord of the Rings novels.
Publisher: HarperCollins and Recorded Books – Audiobook
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
First of all, this is not really a review of The Lord of the Rings. You don’t need me to tell you that these books are good, and Tolkien scholars have already built up mountains of literary analysis over the decades. This is instead a review of one particular way to enjoy the story: the audiobook edition recently published by HarperCollins and Recorded Books and narrated by Andy Serkis.
But I should say that this review is written from the perspective of someone who adores the Lord of the Rings movies but had never before read the books. I loved reading The Hobbit as a kid, and the cinematic masterpiece of The Fellowship of the Ring blew my 10-year-old mind. At that age, however, I found myself too impatient to enjoy the slower pace of the novel (not to mention the preliminary chapters on hobbit anthropology) but also too prideful to simply skip to ‘the good stuff’, so Fellowship was sent back to the library in frustration before Frodo had even reached the Prancing Pony. But recently watching The Rings of Power reminded me that I have been missing out on the full, glorious Tolkien canon experience.
Regular readers of The Unseen Library will know that the Chief Librarian is constantly praising audiobooks as the very best way to absorb a story, so when I heard that there was a new edition narrated by Andy Serkis, I had to have it. And of course I loved it, as I always knew I would. The world Tolkien created is beautiful, and the themes, histories, cultures, languages, characters and journeys within defined an entire genre. The story is epic in the truest meaning of the word, but you already know that. Here instead let me answer two things you will want to know about this particular edition of the story:
- Yes, it is unabridged.
- Yes, he does the voices.
The first thing I checked before starting this audiobook was that it was an unabridged edition; if I were to finally read The Lord of the Rings, I would do it properly! This audiobook is actually an extension of a charity project in which Andy Serkis livestreamed himself reading The Hobbit to raise money for the NHS in the early days of the pandemic. This was followed up by an official reading of The Hobbit published later in 2020, and then The Lord of the Rings in 2021.
I can think of few more appropriate actors for this project than Andy Serkis. An audiobook demands a distinctive voice for each character, especially for a book with such an enormous cast of characters, and Serkis definitely delivers, seizing the opportunity to show off his acting talents. What’s more, he has made an effort to echo the voices of his fellow Lord of the Rings film alumni. For example, he affects a Scottish accent for Pippin, a West Country accent for Samwise and Merry, and a gruff Yorkshire brogue for Boromir. He gives Aragorn the same strong but quiet dignity Viggo Mortensen did, and he gives Frodo a higher, younger-sounding voice that echoes a 20-year-old Elijah Wood more than the 50-year-old Frodo of the books. And, of course, he reproduces the definitive portrayal of Gollum for which he has been so celebrated. As a fan of the films, I greatly appreciated these choices as it meant I didn’t have to recalibrate my imagining of the characters too greatly. It would have been rather distracting if, say, Merry sounded Scottish and Pippin didn’t, and I had to concentrate all the more simply to work out who was speaking. Instead I was able to relax and focus on simply enjoying the story.
But while the voices are clearly based, for the most part, on those of the film actors, the performances are wholly informed by the text, and Serkis has made it his own. For example, whereas Ian McKellen almost whispered Gandalf’s final command, ‘Fly, you fools!’, Serkis performs the line as if shouted while falling from the great height of the Bridge of Khazad-dum. He brings the poetic prose and dialogue to life with amazing energy and passion. He uses a narrative voice that perfectly fits the text and adjusts the pacing of the telling according to each scene, keeping the story flowing and keeping the listener totally captivated. Each of the three books is a little over 20 hours long, but with the combined storytelling skills of Tolkien and Serkis mesmerising me I was never eager to hit the pause button and get back to real life, so it took only a few days for me to get through each book.
Howard Shore’s brilliant film score sadly isn’t featured; instead, the audiobook relies wholly on the talents of Andy Serkis. The films were very sparing in their use of the songs Tolkien wrote, which made Pippin’s haunting ballad in The Return of the King all the more impactful. I was delighted that the songs are here performed in full and in the voices of their singers—no mean feat! I’m sure Serkis exhausted himself playing the boisterous Tom Bombadil in particular, whom I had always found quite tiresome, but Serkis gives him a mysterious charm. The songs are a core element of the books, giving us glimpses into Middle Earth’s cultures and histories that aren’t otherwise shared in the prose, and I’m so glad they’ve been given such a treatment.
There are a few small drawbacks to an audio edition of these books. A few times I would have wanted to flip back a few pages to double-check my understanding of certain details (‘Hang on, was that the name of a person or a river?’), but that wasn’t all that easy to do without losing my place, at least not with the media software I was using. The other thing missing, because it could not possibly be reproduced in audio despite Andy Serkis’s considerable talent, is the maps of Middle Earth which usually feature in any Tolkien book. As a kid reading The Hobbit I would be constantly checking the map to trace the hero’s journey through the world. I can highly recommend the interactive map at lotrproject.com as a companion piece to this audiobook for those who wish to do the same.
The Lord of the Rings, as read by Andy Serkis, is the ultimate audiobook for fans of the films. I can highly recommend it to those who have never read the books before, and I’m sure it would be a similarly excellent experience for those who have and who would like to revisit the canon after watching The Rings of Power. I can only hope that Serkis completes the series with a reading of The Silmarillion and other supplementary works by Tolkien, because I am so in love with this telling of the story of Middle Earth that the 75-odd hours’ worth already recorded simply isn’t enough. I am so glad to finally say that I have read The Lord of the Rings; I only wish I had done it sooner.