Sunday, 10 August 2014

"Well I'm back" a review of Lord of the Rings in various forms.

Unlike Sir Christopher Lee, I am not a great re-reader (though possibly a better e-reader).  I would rather read something new than revisit an old book, no matter how much I loved it.  The most I might do is re-read key scenes to draw out again the visceral emotional response that the book invoked, replaying the highlights as Gary Lineker might think of it.  Why watch the whole 90 minutes of Germany vs Brazil, when you can just watch all seven goals on youtube over and over again?

So even though Lord of the Rings remains my favourite book - the one I would select if ever invited on to Desert Island Discs  (Kirsty Young you know where to find me) - I have only read it cover to cover once. However, while Sir Christopher (or Saruman as I prefer to think of him) fits in an annual reading between commitments to Peter Jackson's increasingly sprawling Tolkien adaptations, I am sure I have enjoyed the story in a greater variety of forms.

This summer, I was reunited with one of those forms when the long overnight drive to Bordeaux was enlivened by the 1981 Radio 4 production of Lord of the Rings in thirteen one hour episodes.  In my own home I have long ago surrendered all rights to the TV remote. As one whose ventures into the living room usually last just long enough to get a joke on "The Big Bang Theory" I have accepted the fact that my youngest daughter is the one true guardian of the channel changer and long may she hop to it.  However, as long haul night-time driver I hold a authority over what gets played on the car CD so absolute it would make a Russian Tsar look like a republican.

I first heard these shows back in 1981 when it was a Sunday broadcast of 26 half hour programmes.  It was in that gap between failing my first driving test and passing my second. My parents thought my skills could be usefully honed by driving them to Deal in Kent every Sunday where my sister was doing a gap year in some strange residential youth centre.  The ritual included listening to the radio show en route and, thirty three years later, the complete CD set was appropriately enough a 50th birthday present from the same sister. It just took me eight further months to create an opportunity to listen to it.

However, neither the book, nor the radio show was my first experience of Lord of the Rings.  No, my first true spark of interest was struck by the Avalon Hill game "War of the Ring"

War of the Ring     

This was an old fashioned paper map and cardboard counter game.  My father bought it -a slight digression from his world war 2 based war games - but I quickly appropriated it for myself.  I had made a few half hearted attempts to start the book since finishing the Hobbit, but always found myself giving up in the mire of the first chapter a long-extended party.  My father sorrowfully complained that the game began when the company were all assembled in Rivendell, missing out half of the first book.  This, to my callow teenage mind, was an excellent endorsement of the game.  

My first question on reading the rules was "why are there two Gandalfs?"  My dad explained and so I met my first spoiler for my subsequent reading of the book, but also a big incentive to get on and read it, so maybe spoilers aren't too bad.  The game was a cunning mix of individual character counters with their key attributes, together with lots of other counters to represent armies of different strengths and speeds.  In so doing it closely mimicked the epic scale and nature of the book where the actions of a few named individuals could influence the course of a war and the fate of thousands.  Even now as I write this, little waves of nostalgia ripple through me as another detail surfaces from my memory.  

There were the event cards, a bit like chance cards in monopoly but for each player to play.  The "Boromir attempts to seize the ring" was one such card and another spoiler for my reading of the book.  Then there were the "Servant of Sauron" squares on key points in the map where the travelling fellowship played a form of russian roulette with only a 2 in 6 chance of passing safely.   With random allocation, Shelob could turn up in the mines of Moria.  The image on the Balrog card, I remember, looked like nothing more scary than a bright eyed teddy bear.   

A key part of the fellowship strategy was to get Gandalf the Grey killed as quickly as possible so that he could be replaced by the more potent Gandalf the White.  As an unsentimental game player, the balrog could never come soon enough and if he'd failed I'd probably have pushed Gandalf off the bridge of Khazad-Dum myself.

It was also axiomatic that the free people could not win by force of arms and a host of black orc and red haradrim counters were intended to be sufficient to swamp the light blue counters of Rohan and the white counters of Gondor.  But, in the many games where I managed both sides, I tried to manufacture a win for the forces of good.  Many times the Rohirrim rode and with Dain and Brand and Thranduil to aid them I frequently found I had the military victory that Aragorn never managed.  A victory so complete that Frodo could have walked to Mount Doom across a carpet of orc bodies and flicked the ring into its depth with no more care than one might toss a coin.

But that game, which I must have seen in late 1978 or early 1979, rekindled my interest in the book.  So I turned again to Tolkien's classic and waded my way through the long-expanded party and came at last to the Halls of Elrond in Imladris.   

I doubt there are many people for whom the Game came before the book, but maybe I am wrong.

The Book



My first faltering attempts to read the book had been with the copy in my Grandmother's house during long dull Sunday afternoon visits when she had gone for an afternoon rest and no-one could make any noise.  The cover of trees and valleys only exacerbated the confusion I felt as a lover of The Hobbit who expected more of the same blend of fire and riddles.  However, fresh from the fascination of the game I got myself my very own boxed three volume set of the books with its bright 1973 cover design.

I loved the book it was a story of heroism and majesty and spoiled though my reading was, I savoured every word.  Jon Boorman's Excalibur film had come out around that time.  The film was memorable for many things, not least of which was a scene of a man in full plate armour (Uther) making love to a naked woman (Igraine) but then that was the 70s and the man always got to keep his clothes on.   Alongside that baffling indeed misleading insight into an adult world, the film inspired in me a sad geeky love of Wagner.   So while the music of Gotterdaemerung filled my ears, the words of Lord of the Rings filled my eyes.

I don't remember crying at it but certain images and passages were so ingrained through constant rereading that I knew them almost off my heart.  
"Begone foul dwimmerlake, Lord of carrion, leave the dead in peace."   or 
"Is there anybody in this rabble with authority to treat with me, or indeed with wit to understand me, not thou at least.  It takes more to make a king than a piece of elvish glass and a rabble such as this, why any brigand of the hills could show as good a following." or
"Where such laws hold it is customary for ambassadors to use less insolence."  
I read them aloud to myself, curling my voice around Eowyn's defiance, or sneering as the haughty Mouth of Sauron. That was the year of O'level English.  Coursework was just coming in and we had to choose a piece to read aloud.  In my case it was more a recitation than a reading, and I still know most of it by heart.
"The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen..."

The Radio Adaptation

Those long ago Sunday journeys to Deal in Kent were irregular in their start times and somewhat fewer in number than the 26 episode length of the original series, so I never heard the whole thing until this week, this summer.

Listening to it now, I am struck by how clunky some of the dialogue is and also how difficult a work it was to adapt.  Radio does not lend itself so well to action as film does and time and time again (in Moria, on the Pelennor fields, at the crack of Doom itself) the sound is of screams and shouts and a wait for someone to explain what just happened.  The limitations of  budget and cast size are also apparent, when the great shouts of praise from thousands in the open air is so plainly seven people in a recording studio. The sound effects of Gollum being tortured in Barad-dur were also somewhat laboured, more reminiscent of the banda copying machines of my early days in teaching than a sophisticated instrument of torture.

However, Michael Hordern had the right gravitas of tone for Gandalf and Ian Holm played Frodo both as the naive but worthy Hobbit and the burdened ring monster in the making.  My mother did complain about Robert Stephens portrayal of Aragorn.  She claimed he had a speech impediment, the kind that became Jonathan Ross's trade mark, and was affronted that Aragawn could not say his own name.  Listening to it again, I think she was a little harsh.  Stephens' voice reminds me now of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, a voice with its own sense of majesty.  However, it certainly does not carry off Aragorn remotely so well as Viggo Mortensen did.  

The concept of "The voice of Saruman", however, was well done on radio, more so than the film.  A change in tone and emphasis served well to convey the persuasive power of the once white wizard.  A feature that the films rather skipped over.  And the radio show gave full weight and credit to the epilogue of Lord of the Rings, the scouring of the shire.   Something that the impatience of film, even one so long as The Return of the King could not allow.  However, both radio and film skipped the Tom Bombadil episode, and neither were much the poorer for it.

The depiction of Gollum is great. For all Andy Serkis's visual brilliance in the films, the voice acting of Peter Woodthorpe is outstanding and brought alive scenes that had travelled slowly in the book. Bill Nighy too, as Samwise Gamgee lifted the pace and the humour.  Faramir's reflectiveness, by contrast, seemed a little smug to my ear.

But there is the music too, not quite Enya or Annie Lennox, but inspiring in its way.  I bought the record of the music and played Gilgalad was an Elven king over and over, drawing deeply on my college room mate's reservoirs of patience.

But, the evening draws in and I am at the end of my nostalgic tour of early Tolkien memories and returned also from the distance, distraction (and drink) of a fortnight's French holiday.  Like Sam Gamgee as Rose put little Eleanor on his lap, I must look to all the things that will keep my busy in the present and immediate future and, reflect - in mind as well as body - "Well, I'm back"

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