Reading J.R.R. Tolkien by Audiobook and Adaptation: Thoughts on a Portland Discovery

It was pouring rain in Portland as Nicolas and I wove our way through the artisan-filled streets of this renewed East Coast City. I love Portland, though we were not visiting on the best of circumstances. Just a couple of hours earlier, with too little sleep, Nicolas and I had left a sunny Boston behind. Our pilgrimage complete, we had seen one of our favourite bands, Twenty One Pilots, live at the Gardens. Boston is only a 10 or 11 hour drive from where we live, so it is worth the time and money when the right conference or concert comes our way. That we left Prince Edward Island only a few hours after I had landed from my research trip to England was part of the fun. The torrential rain would later become heavy snow as we headed North to Canada, causing us to seek refuge in a nondescript roadside motel. But we were still riding high as we hit Portland with one destination in mind: The Green Hand.

The Green Hand is testimony to the fact that one of the best gifts that Science Fiction has given us is time travel. Stepping into the Green Hand is like stepping back a generation, in the days before big warehouse bookstores become the digital and analog norm. While Portland has a number of great indie bookstores, the Green Hand is entirely dedicated to speculative fiction: fantasy, ghost stories, horror, the supernatural, the weird, classic and contemporary SciFi, and all manner of genre fiction at the edges of our imaginative possibilities. The Green Hand is my destination for hard-to-find Stephen King and Ursula K. Le Guin editions or stumble-upon classic sf discoveries. It takes hours to truly explore the store, including occasional deposits of pirated fan papers like early Tolkien language guides. That it has an entire section dedicated to Philip K. Dick says much.

Heading back to the car, we popped into Enterprise Records. Our excuse was to let the hardest rain pass by, but it is hard to resist the lure of used vinyl. There are a few great places in Downtown Maine, like Moody Lords and Electric Buddhas, but Enterprise Record’s vintage sign and straight-up bin-discovery set-up means there is usually something to find for collectors and something leftover for abecedarians like me. This time, I was content to find a $3 Abbey Road–playable, but not good enough to be collectable.

On a whim, I checked the audiobook bin and made a startling discovery. I found a beautiful, library withdrawal copy of the Nicol Williamson’s abridged reading of The Hobbit. Although there are some pirated versions of this edition that make their way through the Tolkienist versions of the not-so-mirky web (i.e., it’s on Youtube), the LP is a pretty rare find. I was able to get this copy in pretty good shape for $30–a bargain at twice the price, though still a conversation I would have to have with my very patient wife.

I am hardly any kind of collector as so many Tolkienists are. I have a US 1st edition of The Silmarillion, which I got for $10 at a used bookstore in Vermont where the owner did not seem like she wanted to sell any of her books. I have a nice boxed anniversary edition of The Hobbit, printed beautifully and well-illustrated. I have that original wide-sized printing of the Tolkien-illustrated Mr. Bliss, and I purchased the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth Bodleian coffee table book because I love Tolkien’s work in pen and ink. And I like the look of my UK 2nd edition Lord of the Rings on the shelf, though nothing of mine is terribly valuable.

What drew me to the Nicol Williamson recording was my particular love of well-produced audiobooks or audio rarities, like the recordings of Tolkien that are now digitally available but were once pretty hard to find. While I would normally consider any abridgement a kind of literary sin–more because of the terrible quality of most abridgments rather than any authorial loyalty–this version has become a kind of cult classic. I have no interest in Martin Shaw’s abridged reading, but I was curious about this Nicol Williamson LP. I only found out later that I had done well in the bargain.

Truth be told, listening to Tolkien’s tales on tape has produced mixed results for me. Nicol Williamson’s version is peppy and lively, very hobbit- and dwarf-focussed, bringing dialogue and adventure to the front of the story. For a Hobbit audiobook, I prefer Rob Inglis’ voice in the unabridged reading–including all the little details that, for me, make The Hobbit a gateway to Tolkien’s epic. Right now, I am listening to Inglis’ version of The Lord of the Rings and quite enjoying it. I don’t love the voicing of Gimli and Legolas–I think Peter Jackson‘s characters have burrowed into my imagination–but Inglis brings the world alive for me, creaky singing voice and all.

Still, I remain a little hesitant. I did not love the bits of the dramatized versions that I have heard of The Lord of the Rings–though I have it in a full audiocassette boxset if I want to give it a try. I liked the BBC’s Tales from the Perilous Realm stories, though Derek Jacobi wins the prize there, for me. I read Andy Serkis’ version of The Hobbit earlier this winter. It was excellently done, but I did not love it. When reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I want the books in my hand–and not the fancy versions, but my trusty, cheap, well-worn paperbacks that I bought in Japan when I was missing the sound of the English tongue. So I have Timothy and Samuel West’s Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin on my audible wishlist, as well as Christopher Lee’s The Children of Hurin, but I have never pulled the trigger. I see that Unfinished Tales will land on audio by the Wests, but I probably won’t pre-order it until I’ve read the other attempts.

My hesitation is a little strange to me. I love audiobooks, and I think Beren and Lúthien one of the best things I have ever read. Also, Martin Shaw’s deep, resonant reading helped The Silmarillion come alive for me. While I had powered through–as I discuss here–now I reread the tale of the Silmarils with a new kind of delight. The audiobooks are a fun way to reread quite a number of the tales that might slide to the edge of my bookshelf otherwise. And yet it was that reading by Andy Serkis that made me yearn for the text itself rather than a storyteller’s interpretation in my ear.

As I thought about this seeming contradiction, I realized that what the audiobooks were doing for me was to push me back to the text. This is undoubtedly a good thing. As I read (i.e. listened), I found myself wandering over to the bookshelf to look up a passage I had not noticed before.

The Andy Serkis reading of The Hobbit was fresh for me because his voicing of the text began to match with certain elements of the films that I had seen only years before. This is no surprise. Serkis was the voice of Gollum in the Peter Jackson films, including brief appearances in the first installment of the Hobbit trilogy. Back when they were released, I wrote reviews about the bumbled but interesting nature of the Hobbit films, admitting that I loved more of Tolkien’s world, but they had rather overdrawn the story. What was surprising to me, however, were a number of tiny text details that I had never noticed before that flashed into my mind as film images, provoked by Andy Serkis’ reading. These include little turns of phrase, particular details of costume, the habits and movements of the characters, and the way the poetry is capturing either an element of atmosphere, a critical point of lore, or foretelling an aspect of the adventure.

In the original Jackson LOTR film trilogy, which I still love, there simply is not time for the long, luxurious time that The Fellowship of the Rings spends in Rivendell, particularly at the council–one of Tolkien’s longest chapters. In over-drawing the Hobbit films, however, there may be more details available to us than would have been the case with a nice, three-hour fairy-tale film like The Hobbit deserves. By an odd circuitous route, then–from the fan-favourite Nicol Williamson reading that was fun but unfulfilling, to the excellent Andy Serkis reading that I did not love, to the over-produced Peter Jackson films that I enjoyed with grave reservations–I have found what I love best about both audiobooks and adaptations: they send me back to the text richer, inspiring me to read more deeply and to hear the text with different voices.

It really is amazing what you might discover in downtown Portland!

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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23 Responses to Reading J.R.R. Tolkien by Audiobook and Adaptation: Thoughts on a Portland Discovery

  1. KimP says:

    I just just read Beren and Luthien for the first time, as I’m reading The Silmarillion, and loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Gough says:

    This is, as always, interesting in many ways, Brenton.
    (In passing, I am not a Philip K. Dick enthusiast, having been persuaded by a friend to read “Ubik”, and finding it harsh and gritty, and ultimately unbelievable — a ridiculous thing to say about sci-fi/fantasy. Then, reading about Dick’s troubled life, I felt “Ubik” is more like self-therapy for a drug-addled psychiatrically damaged surviving twin. I prefer sci fi that is scientifically plausible — John Wyndham, John Christopher, Fred Hoyle, for example — but I betray my age, and there is no accounting for taste, and this was an aside.)
    For book-readers, the sound of the author’s words will be in our heads — half-heard maybe, but OUR version of the sound. This is especially the case if we have been able to read the book (silently, probably, to ourselves) and then re-read it later to a child, grandchild, or partner who is too young to read it, or unlikely to read it, but who will accept a dramatized reading, with expression — and “the voices”.

    Voice-casting, for reading aloud / audio books, is crucial. Norman Shelley, for example, seems to me to be PERFECT as the narrator of “Christopher Robin” stories, and the voices of Winnie the Pooh. (No, Stirling Holloway was NOT the first voice of Winnie the Pooh, and not the best: but I betray my age and origins again.) Anyone else is not right, and I try to imitate Norman Shelley when I read Christopher Robin — I knew that voice as a child, and it is IN my head. It is how Pooh sounds!

    We hope that the original author will know the definitive sound of that author’s words, and his, or her, characters. But there is a difference between writing well, and speaking/dramatizing well.
    Would Tolkien have read “The Hobbit” to his children, when it was new, in the same way he would read it for adults when he was being recorded?
    Tolkien did have a declamatory style for his academic lectures, including recitals of poetry, such as “Beowulf”. He also had an ear for the tunes of his poems, as he explained, more or less to Donald Swann, when Swann was setting some of Tolkien’s poems (in English and Elvish) to music. (“It has a tune in Middle-Earth”, Tolkien insisted, with one of his Elvish songs — and he sang it for Swann.)

    On the other hand, some authors are not the best read-aloud performers of their own words. (You may choose whichever names you like. There is a difference between skill with writing and skill with performing dramatically.)

    All of this leads me to my own sense of hesitation, feeling reluctant to spend time listening to another person’s recorded performance, rather than re-reading (probably silently) the text, or, if possible, reading it aloud to a willing audience. Then there is a blended sense of your own enthusiasm for the text, and enjoyment of re-living it, and the newly kindled enjoyment of the listener, hanging on YOUR version of the AUTHOR’s words.
    First, find your audience, …

    Alternatively, take the time to READ ALOUD the book you love.
    I remember the story of Joseph Conrad who was criticized for presenting the long novel “Lord Jim” as an oral story recounted one long night by his fictional narrator “Marlowe”, retired ship’s captain. Conrad’s rejoinder was to spend an evening, with brandy and cigars, reading “Lord Jim” aloud. Indeed, it took a long evening, but it was the oral tale of an evening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks John, I do read aloud poetry, often enough–particularly while trying to find the rhythm and feel of the thing like near the beginning of an epic or with a difficult approach to the verse.
      I don’t know what an author has in mind, voice wise. I sometimes can guess for a character or narrator. But as I have written fiction, I am not hearing it in terms of a particular voice, but in rhythm, accent, pitch, and feeling. So I think there are a lot of voices that can work in a text (I’m listening to a good Northanger Abbey, but the voice interpretation does not fit my reading of the text; that happens). And then there are voices that are just simply wrong–often of iconic pieces.
      You ask: Would Tolkien have read “The Hobbit” to his children, when it was new, in the same way he would read it for adults when he was being recorded? — no, I don’t think so. Tolkien wasn’t a strong speaker, except in reading poetry, or so I’ve heard. It would have been nice to hear him recite more.


  3. H.P. says:

    I am familiar with Derek Jacobi from the Claudii audiobooks. He reads Claudius the God and plays Claudius in the BBC radio dramatization of I, Claudius (making him also the narrator).

    My daughter was treated to the best audio version of The Hobbit of all, as read by me (half in the womb and half outside of it). The language of The Hobbit is just so beautiful that I think it would be particularly well served by a good audio performance.


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  5. danaames says:

    I think I left a comment on your post about powering through the Silmarillion, in which I said it was very dry for me and a burden to finish – probably because I didn’t really connect it in my mind with what I had read in LOTR. Hearing it read sounds like a good suggestion. My local library facilitates Hoopla, a free audiobook collection; maybe I’ll see if it’s there.

    You may not know that there’s a northern California connection with Ursula LeGuin; she grew up in Berkeley. Her parents were Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, well known anthropologist and author, respectively. Alfred befriended Ishi, a Yahi man from the Sierra foothills east of Oroville, California, who was presumed to be the last survivor of his tribe, and kept him relatively safe in San Francisco for the last years of his life. Theodora wrote his biography, “Ishi in Two Worlds”. If you haven’t read it, you might check it out of your library some time. It’s difficult to read about all the evil that was done to Ishi’s people as documented; Ishi’s circumspection and humanity shine through, and it’s also an interesting study of the attitudes of turn-of-the-20th-century EuroAmericans toward the Natives they had pushed toward extinction. A&T had the greatest respect for him. Ursula didn’t know him; she was born 13 years after he died.



    • Hi Dana,
      Yes, the Martin Shaw reading of The Silmarillion is pretty cool. It’s still a longish book. I’ve listened through once, I think, slowly over a month or two.
      Brilliant story about Le Guin. I knew her parents were anthropologists, and I am glad to see that they were humanitarians too. It’s definitely a hard story. I am slowly trying to be open to Canada’s First Nations stories, but it is hard on the heart and leaves all quandaries and worry. So I admit some weakness there.
      I can see both the anthropologist and the humanitarian in her stories.


  6. Steve says:

    The problem I have with audiobooks is that my mind tends to wander. Words, phrases or concepts spark off thoughts in me, and by the time I get back to the text, the text has moved on. Videobooks, whether paper or ebooks, let me pause and think for a while and come back to the text at the point where I left off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Intriguing, I don’t know videobook. One of the key think with audiobooks is that you have to give yourself the permission to pause. It’s a discipline for me–but an easy one, as I love the stories.


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  10. K says:

    You know Tolkien painted the front of that Lp cover Himself. Its his own painting of Bilbo riding on the barrels full of dwarves on the way to Laketown from the Hobbit. He was a very good painter too.

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. Lily Yu says:

    Interesting remarks! The Silmarillion is actually my favorite novel out there and it was Martin Shaw’s reading of it that first brought me to it. I prefer reading the text now, but I will always be thankful for the audiobook.

    Liked by 1 person

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