Over the course of the last month, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to the audio book version of The Lord of the Rings, as read by Rob Inglis. I highly recommend it if you have the opportunity. What I particularly found interesting is how listening to LR causes the experience to change. Not only that, but how different the experience is compared with The Hobbit.
The Hobbit is eminently suited for the audio book format. It is after all meant to be an epistlary book. Though, being part of the Red Book of West March, LR is also a diary of sorts, in truth it is more of a historical account in character and tone. In a sense this makes it less suited for listening; or should I say, casual listening?
The Lord of the Rings, both in print and in audio form, challenge the reader or listener. It is not a passive endeavor. Hearing the tale only reinforces this quality. I’ve found listening to the tale allows it to take on a much more philosophical and thoughtful tone…or at least causes my mind to wander down strange paths more than usual.
That being said, I was drawn this time around to the meeting of Strider and Frodo (and later in their room) at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. I particularly noticed that throughout, though Strider’s true name is mentioned, he is almost exclusively refered to as Strider except for a few memorable moments. His naming as Elessar in Lorien, his naming as Aragorn/Elessar son of Arathorn and heir of Isildur at the Argonath, and his meeting with Eomer, where he is also named Wingfoot. What is interesting here is how Tolkien uses names to convey different aspects of Aragorn’s character and personality, as well as indicating the way in which others regard him. There is a noticeable difference, for example, in how Aragorn holds himself, speaks and even looks as opposed to Strider.
To continue the discussion of names, I was also struck by Treebeard’s reaction to Merry & Pippin’s giving of their names and request for his. His true name is long and tells the story of who he is. It is truly its own lexical device. The same is also true of the hill on which they meet. In Entish particularly a name is a powerful thing, telling of the true nature of a person or thing and as such grows and develops as time passes.
One of the truly awesome parts of Robert Inglis’ performance is the fact that he is able to create a voice and a personality for each character. Not only that, but I could recognize the speaker (character) even before Inglis stated who was speaking. And to make it that much more awe inspiring, he keeps this up across the entire trilogy for close to sixty hours of reading! It made for a pleasant addition, which was only improved by Robert Inglis’ acting skills. Using only his voice, tone and pace, he is able to evoke such emotion. This was particularly true at the Mirror of Galadriel, the Pass of Cirith Ungol and throughout the entirety of The Return of the King. I don’t know if it was Inglis’ reading or just the freedom afforded by listening rather than reading, but for me many passages were intense emotional roller coasters.
Recently, over at the Grey Havens Group, we had a discussion regarding our favorite parts of the Lord of the Rings. Jokingly, it was mentioned how this seemed to change constantly for some of us. Well, now it’s happened to me yet again, and will continue with each new reading.
We often talk about wishing we had the opportunity to relive our first experience. To read LotR again for the first time. In some ways the varied applicability of our current state in life allows this with rereading. However, listening to the LotR is a new first. I realized many things I never noticed before and I discovered favorite characters and events I’d never known were so dear to my heart.
For instance, listening to the Two Towers and the Return of the King, I realized how much I love Theoden; his goodness, his courage, and his ability to cast aside doubt and despair and do what he must even if it should cost him his lift. It is much the same as my love for Treebeard and the March of the Ents. When asked in the past who my favorite character was from Tolkien’s work, I’d usually respond Gandalf. However, I think deep down it has always been Theoden, and it wasn’t until I listened to the tale that this struck me. I spent the majority of The Two Towers and the beginning of The Return of the King looking forward to one single line:
“Sometimes where the way was broader he (Merry) had ridden at the king’s side, not noticing that many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy grey pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse. (775)
I also made an observation regarding the structure of the book, which I had largely overlooked in previous readings. Particularly in The Two Towers, the narrative is really a tale of tales. The TT represents the many meetings of cultures in Middle Earth; where the first meet and are described. The interesting thing is how much is told about the character of each place and people by their tales. Eomer’s haunted tales of the “Lady of the Golden Wood…net-weavers and sorcerors” is mirrored and opposed by Faramir’s wistful reverence for “Hidden Land.” So too the twin warnings of Galadriel regarding Fangorn and Treebread’s opposing agreement, say much about the character of each land. The references to tales and trading of them is pervasive in The Two Towers, culminating in Sam and Frodo’s discussion of their own tale and the realization that is nothing more than the continuation of the great tales which came before.
Another thing I noticed is the great pairing of Theoden and Denethor. They act as foils for each other, in many ways reacting to the same events and forced to make the decided how to act in the same situations. Both are a lesson in hope and despair. Theoden rises out of despair into hope, even though the hope is slim. It is better to strive and fail than to sit idly by. Theoden is woken up, reborn to health and grim joy in life, and ready to sacrifice it for his people if need be. Denethor too must face this decision, and ultimately fails in the test. The true parity of these two characters is never more striking than at the swearing of fealty by the hobbits Merry and Pippin. One is an occasion for joy and love, the other a grim matter, dominated by duty and pride.
I have always found The Lord of the Rings to be an emotional experience, but I was surprised listening to the Return of the King how much it toyed with my emotions. Tolkien’s imagery in this part of the book is particularly strong, and often brings a lump to my throat, whether in joy or sadness. Aragorn phrases it wonderfully during the Last Debate:
“We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. (862)
Whether it’s the coming of the Outland armies, or the horns of Rohan in morning, or the death of Theoden or the death of the Ringwraith lord or the final moments before the Black Gate and at the Cracks of Doom, emotions are exceedingly high. And often it is hard to tell whether it is hope or despair that is felt, for they are two sides of the same coin.
So after much rambling, let’s return to the discussion of audio book. I unequivocally recommend it. It includes the prologue, read at the end of FotR, and Concerning Hobbits and Appendix A. If you are looking for a new way to experience The Lord of the Rings, nothing gets better than this! (It’s great for listening in the car, if you travel a lot)