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Back in 1981, the BBC undertook a particularly challenging project: To bring Tolkein's "The Lord of the Rings" to the listening masses. This is a huge piece of work, spanning 13 hours of listening time. If you missed it first time round, tapes and cds of the recording are availble - Amazan has the cds for about fifty eight pounds.
Better still however is the news that radio Four are running the series again (You've missed the first two, but there is time to catch up.) This January (2002) onwards, you can hear the classic serialisation at 2.30pm every Saturday, in hour long blocks. ( 92-95 longwave or 198 fm) Well worth catching if you can.
Radio Four has a website devoted to the series, with message boards, competions, photos of the original cast, a full cast list and lots of useful information. Visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/lordoftherings/ to have a look for yourself.
If you don't know about the original books, I'm not even going to try to do justice to them here. Basically, the story is high fantasy, following a small group of humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits and a magician as they attempt to destroy a powerful magical artifact (A ring) and save Middle Earth from the grip of an evil tyrant. There are numerous sub plots and many characters. There are struggles between good and evil, there are magical beings and strange powers, chases, fights, betrayals, daring rescues and tragic demises. It's a very full and rich text. Have a look at the beeb website or read some reviews on the book for more detail. It's a book that deserves a whole reivew, and really what I wanted to do was talk about the audio version.
The recording: Remarkably faithful to the book (although Tom Bombadil and the barrow whights are absent) this takes you slowly through the narrative, making time for detail, characterisation and the like. It tends to run chornologically, rather than following the book, which cuts back now and then - I find this following time rather than the book makes it easier to follow.
The cast is very strong, with the likes of Michael Hordern, John le Mesurier and Ian Holm (who went on to play Bilbo in the recent film). The only problem is, there are some huge battle scenes in the book, which don't come across that well as audio, and you do have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. (I love this about audio work, but many people are unused to responding only to voices and to imagining the settings.) The recording does use music to good effect - a very stirring and memorable theme, some nice hobbit songs, and some moody ambient sound - remarkably atmosphereic given how little they actually have to work with. Most sound effects are convincing.
The language in this version is consciously high brow, but that said, I first heard this when I was about four, and I managed to take most of it in - you have to give it your full attention, but it is well worth the effort. It takes me a while to get into the language sometimes, and if you lack patience, you might be put off by this.
Some people find that when first encountering pure audio, they struggle to follow the different voices and to tell between them. You may find at first that everyone sounds the same - hobbits are all alike, etc. Believe me, with time your ear will adapt and you will find yourself able to follow the narrative and distinguish between voices. To maximise your chances, try to lsiten to this when you don't have any other distractions. You really do have to give it your full attention for best effect.
You do not need to know the story at all in order to follow the audio version - the plot is well handled, and its a good way into the text if you don't have time or patience enough for the book.
Paying out the best part of sixty pounds might seem like a lot, but it is good value for money - 13 hours of listening (think what 13 music cds would cost!). It does stand multiple listenings, and is a great way of occupying children on long car journeys. (I know, I was thus occupied when small)A thumbs up fro me.
I will admit, I don't own a copy myself, and have been following it on the radio instead, which has been a delight. I do know people who own copies, and have listened to extracts, so I can vouche for the quality being good, and the packaging beeing decent as well.