The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien:
Prepared for BBC radio in 13 episodes by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell

A Masterpiece Worthy of the Masterpiece

review by Ellen Brundige, fan of Middle-earth since 1977

This is the unsung hero of all the dramatizations of Tolkien, recorded over twenty years ago. Unlike more high-budget attempts, it sticks accurately and faithfully to the novel, yet makes it entertaining enough for anyone to enjoy it. This is not an audio book, but a full-length play. The songs and poems are there, the action is presented live, it covers a great deal more of the story than any film could encompass, and Sibley’s and Bakewell’s brilliant use of the text actually enhances one’s understanding of the story.

The arrangement of the narrative is ingenious, and Jackson owes much this production’s pioneering efforts. Action hops smoothly back and forth between Rohan and the Dead Marshes, Minas Tirith and Mordor. The script skillfully interweaves these several very distinct stories which had been walled off from one another in separate books in the original novels, a major obstacle for any dramatization. Following Tolkien’s timeline in the Appendix, this presentation actually enhances the story, since the parallels, triumphs and setbacks faced by different members of the Fellowship play off of one another when set side by side. The pacing and flow are good, although as always the long grim journey across Mordor drags in places. The whole Prancing Pony sequence is intact, from Nob to Frodo’s disastrous poetry recital to the acquisition of Bill, and the CDs are worth buying simply to hear the quintessential Barliaman Butterbur. Frodo and Farmer Maggot get to make up, the Conspiracy gets to unmask itself to Frodo’s surprise and relief, Glorfindel gets to decide who rides his horse, Sam gets to look in Galadriel’s mirror, the Ents get to make their minds up about pulverizing Isengard, Faramir gets to show his quality, and the Gaffer gets to nag Sam about his “weskit”. The Scouring of the Shire is hurried, but intact, as are the "aftermath" years in the Shire.

Inevitably, there is a lot of strategic abridgement in order to deal with time constraints and the needs of live dramatization. It has an odd side effect. Almost no reference or hint to Arwen, however fleeting, is removed, and so while she does nothing off-script, she seems to acquire a larger role. Although I had been reading Tolkien for twenty years when I acquired the tapes, it was not until hearing this version that it impressed upon me how much LOTR is the story of Aragorn proving himself worthy of her. Her one bit of dialogue very near the end of the saga seems like that of a long-awaited celebrity finally glimpsed and met, briefly, as a fitting end to the tale.

The voice acting is superb. There are none that fall short of their characters, as far as I can recall, except perhaps for David Collings’ rather stuffy Legolas: hindsight colors bias! Merry (Richard O’ Callaghan) and Pippin (John McAndrew) are especially good. The former is an earnest, dependable, and sweet-natured portrayal which suits the sentimental side of the character and hilights his affection for Théoden, and Pippin is eager, young, but determined rather than simply comical. William Nighy’s Sam has an appealling peasant voice, and when he sings “In Western Lands,” it is a truly heartbreaking moment, unpolished, spontaneous, and sincere; the melody given it for this dramatization is hauntingly beautiful. Michael Horden as Gandalf cannot of course match Ian McKellan’s incredible performance, but he still sounds like the great wizard, and in fact their voices are quite similar. Douglas Livingstone’s Gimli is a sturdy presence, occasionally humorous, but never mere comic relief. Arwen’s actress was an interesting choice: she has a clear, strong voice, yet I think the person speaking is actually a much older woman; the combination makes her sound timeless. Ian Holm is so good as Frodo that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to accept him as Bilbo in the films. And Robert Stephens as Aragorn is perfect: strong and commanding, yet compassionate to those who follow him; his gently teasing conversation with Merry in the Houses of Healing is another high point of this dramatization. About the only one I can’t praise to the skies is Marian Diamond’s Galadriel: I was extremely impressed with her strong performance before I saw the films, but Cate Blanchett’ voice is even better. Boromir lovers may also miss Sean Bean, but Michael Cox is plausible: a gruff, solid voice, somewhat blustering. Andrew Seear’s Faramir is gracious, lordly, shrewd, thoughtful and kind; he is another of the gems of this production, one who utterly fits the character I had envisioned. Peter Howell’s voice of Saruman is chillingly faithful to Tolkien’s description of it, both regal and personable, oddly hypnotic with its musical rhythm; but when he gets angry it suddenly becomes harsh and grating. Peter Vaughan’s Denethor is the very epitome of formidable, shrewd, yet shrewish older man. Jack May as Théoden carries the part better, to my mind, than the films: he truly sounds like a king of seventy years fighting the frailties of old age and striving to make a noble end to his life.

Finally, there’s the music. There’s less budget for a radio play, so don’t expect a score like Howard Shore’s. However, a good many of Tolkien’s poems have been squeezed in and set to music, and they add tremendously to the production. “The road goes ever on”, “Upon the hearth”, “To Rivendell”, “Gil-Galad was an Elven king”, “Seek for the Sword that was Broken”, “In western lands”, and “Sing all ye people” are all there, plus many more. Besides Sam’s poignant song in Cirith Ungol, the music for "Seek For the Sword that Was Broken" is particularly memorable: Boromir stands up and states that in a dream, he heard a voice, “remote but clear”, and then a haunting single voice rings out and performs the song. It is obviously a trained member of an English boy’s choir whose high, pure tones here and in other parts of the drama are well-suited to elven music or prophecy. Besides those which have been put to music, several others are recited, including included Frodo’s disastrous ditty in the Prancing Pony and Gimli’s Khazad-dûm poem, splendidly performed. Language is part of what makes the Lord of the Rings stand out, and radio gives it full wings to fly.

The Muster of Rohan and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is presented in a highly original fashion, since of necessity it has too many action sequences to avoid a bland narrator giving a play-by-play. Yet the BBC version manages it. The sequence begins with a very traditional bardic performance (nothing like the cheesy Rankin-Bass minstrel, I promise) starting with “Forth rode the king, fear behind him / fate before him. Fealty kept he...” and goes through the end of that song, set to appropriately stately yet not overdone music. From then on until the battle’s end, narrative is provided by stanzas of the ballad, linking together vignettes of live action and dialogue: Merry’s introduction to Dernhelm, Théoden’s arrival at the Rammas, his charge across the field, the whole Nazgûl sequence, and the other important incidents of that battle (I say vaguely, since Jackson’s ROTK is due in 5 months at the time of this writing). The sequence concludes with “Death in the morning and at day’s ending / lords took and lowly” through “red fell the dew in Rammas Echor.” It is very powerful. But the true brilliance is that Sibley and Bakewell meticulously combed through Tolkien’s narrative of the battle and adapted lines of its description, in meter, with appropriate alliteration, which fit so well that I had not realized lines had been added to serve as the play-by-play for the battle which in fact were not originally part of these songs. Yet they are still Tolkien’s words, or close enough to need the text on hand to find the changes: “crashed to the ground with the king crushed beneath him” maps perfectly to Tolkien’s “where long he had feasted ere the light faded.”

Now and then the attempt at immediacy, to act rather than tell what’s happening, goes a little over the top: the yowling and dribbling of Shelob is dramatic but unpleasant to hear, and Gollum’s shrieks and hisses can be grating. The confrontation with the Black Riders at the Ford is a little confusing if you haven’t read the books; it’s hard to understand Frodo’s cry for help as the river comes crashing over him. In Moria, a listener who did not know the story would not know by the thunderclap that Gandalf had broken the bridge, nor what the slithery whip-sound is just before he gives a cry of pain and calls, “Fly, you foooooools!”. There is a slight problem with volume, because there’s a full range from whispers to thunderclaps. Probably, if my car weren’t ten years old, I would not need to turn the volume up and down to keep combats from blowing out the speakers and whispers from being lost. Ian Holm takes Frodo’s ravings to extremes a few times towards the end of his ordeal, forced to convey with audio cues alone the anguish he’s going through.

One particularly effective sound effect is that of the Ring itself. Whenever it is tempting Frodo to put it on, there is an ominous faint hum and the voices of the Black Riders chanting the Ring-poem in the Black Speech, as if they’re calling to him from afar. I suspect Peter Jackson had this in mind when he had his Ring whispering in the voice of Sauron.

It is not as high budget as the films, but it is a rich, full, and varied performance. There are echoes of it that will always stay with you, and speaking from experience, it never gets old. This is Tolkien, the Tolkien you can read while driving to work and home, when you can’t actually have the book in your hand. While it was originally designed as a 13-episode radio serial, through the magic of modern technology you can buy it on cassette or CD from many online catalogs and major bookstores. But when shopping for this gem, be very careful not to purchase the Mind’s Eye Theater production by mistake. Even its inclusion of Bombadil cannot make up for him singing doggerel off-key, obviously improvised on the spot rather than with any prepared music. He is only one of many disasters by which that dramatization managed to turn an epic masterpiece into the Tolkien Horror Picture Show. Make sure it’s “The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Prepared for BBC Radio in 13 episodes by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell” — no lover of Middle-earth should be without it.

Appendix A: For Those of Us Who Actually Read the Appendices

So how faithful is it to the books? Sibley and Bakewell use Tolkien’s words almost exclusively, except for stage directions (e.g. Frodo exclaiming, “the river is rising!”) to make sound effects intelligible. They present incidents in sequence, instead of having characters talk about them after the fact. The only time this really matters is when we hear Saruman’s betrayal of Gandalf as it happens, so that the listener knows Gandalf’s whereabouts before Frodo reaches Rivendell. The radio play shuns flashback and the narrator’s voice as much as possible. Additionally, a few bits of Tolkien have been borrowed from supplementary writings. The main example is Saruman’s conversation with the Black Riders when they come to Isengard, taken from Unfinished Tales. That particular scene conveys the alarming fact that Frodo was being pursued— and did not know it— while adhering to Tolkien’s story. The only other example I have noticed is that a few snippets from The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen have been worked into the story (see below). There are abridgements, and Tom Bombadil, Gildor-Inglorion & co, and the Old Forest have once again suffered the axe. The Hobbits set off from Crickhollow and the narrative skips forward to Bree in a few lines. Otherwise the snips and tucks are so seamless that I have to check the book to find them. The only real loss is the feast of Elrond after Frodo’s recovery, so we do not see Glóin at all; Gimli delivers his father’s message to the Council and reports that the messenger from Mordor came to his father, with no mention of Dain. The other major adjustment of this sort is that (alas) Imrahil does not appear; Aragorn, Éomer, and Gandalf plan the last battle together. In Bree, there’s just Nob, not Nob and Bob. Fatty Bolger, Beregond, and Farmer Cotton have vanished. There are a few other cast simplifications of this sort.

Sadly, some poems have lost verses or vanished: Sam’s troll song has been dropped, as well as Bilbo’s on Eärendil and Legolas’ ballad of Nimrodel. Aragorn tells the tale of Beren and Lúthien, instead of singing it, starting with, “Beren was a mortal man...” and goes through “...they have lost her whom they most loved.” Bits have been cut here and there: Barahir’s name is dropped, and the wording goes, “Yet at the last Beren was slain, and he died in the arms of Tinúviel,” omitting reference to Carcaroth and Angband. But the essential story is there, and this is typical of the sort of abridgements made in this production.

The most drastically altered scene in the entire 13-hour drama is the following conversation between Bilbo and Frodo in the Hall of Fire. Keep in mind that with the feast at Rivendell dropped, there would have been no mention of Arwen whatsoever until the end of the story.

BILBO: Let’s have some real news! Tell me... tell me all about the Shire.
FRODO: Well, it’s— it’s so difficult to know where to begin. I— oh, but here’s Strider!
BILBO: Strider? I’ve never heard him called that before. He’s Dúnadan.
ARAGORN: They call me Strider in Bree, and that is how I was introduced to him. But are you fully recovered, Frodo? Gandalf told me you were on your feet again.
FRODO: Yes. A little thinner, perhaps, but my arm is healed!
BILBO: Where have you been, my friend? Why weren’t you at the feast? The Lady Arwen was there.
ARAGORN: Often I have to put mirth aside. There were tidings out of the wild that concerned me.
BILBO: The Lady Arwen was there.
ARAGORN: So I have been told! Now that I have seen Frodo’s recovery with my own eyes, I am going to find her. Until tomorrow! At the Great Council.
FRODO: Yes... [sound of footsteps going away] Bilbo, why do you call him Dúnadan?
BILBO: The Dúnadan. I thought you knew enough Elvish at least to know “Man of the West”, Númenorean!
FRODO: Ah... And Arwen, who is she?
BILBO: The Lady Arwen. Well surely you saw her at the feast?
FRODO: [hushed] There was one lady. She sat alone, under a great canopy. I’d never believed such loveliness could exist on earth. And she— ?
BILBO: She is loved by Aragorn.
FRODO: [amazed] I see! But who is she?
BILBO: She is the daughter of Elrond and Celebrían. And like all of her line she had the life of Eldar. For many hundred years she dwelt in Lórien in contentment before she met Aragorn— or Strider, as you call him. To marry him she must renounce her immortality. And her father has decreed that she shall not be the man of any bride less than King of both Gondor and Arnor.
FRODO: Strider, become a king!
BILBO: It’s not so remote a possibility as you might imagine.
SAM: [approaching] Ah, Mister Baggins?
BILBO: What is it, Sam?
SAM: I’ve come for Mr. Frodo, sir— beggin’ your pardon. ’E only got up today for the first time, and there’s a council meetin’ early tommorow...
BILBO: Quite right Sam, quite right. Well, goodnight, Frodo.
FRODO: Goodnight!
BILBO: I’ll take a walk, I think, and look at the stars of Elbereth in the garden. Sleep well!
[end of scene]

This is how this script presents Aragorn’s and Arwen’s backstory, and is an example of how Sibley and Bakewell abridge the text to adapt it to a live dramatization, avoiding straight narrative wherever possible. If, as a dedicated lover of Tolkien, you can stomach the changes and gaps in this conversation, you will be able to handle the rest, which are less extreme.

More than anything else I am grateful for a Faramir whose voice and courtly speech “show his quality” as much as his deeds: proof that one can capture Tolkien’s larger-than-life heroes faithfully yet have them sound like flesh-and-blood people. Aragorn, too, is both human and hero, his manner of speech altered not a jot. “Forth the three hunters!” makes me want to get up and follow him. The production is not perfect, because it simply isn’t possible to capture the entire scope of Tolkien’s vision, but in my opinion there will never be a more authentic dramatization of Lord of the Rings until someone manages to achieve all this and do justice to Bombadil.

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