We're on the brink of what I think of as the season of rereading; if there's any time of the year when people are prone to returning to old favorites, it's the holidays. And chances are that the books they come back to -- for comfort, for nostalgia, for another taste of the wonder that infused them the first time they fell in love with reading — are written by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Until last week, the only downloadable recordings of Tolkien's most celebrated works, "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," were either abridged or dramatized. About abridged audiobooks, the less said the better; I am not sure why anyone ever bothered with them (I guess they reduced the expense and bulk of physical media like tapes and CDs), and publishers seem to be phasing them out.
Dramatizations are trickier. There are some very fine ones, such as the 10th-anniversary edition of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods." More often, however, a dramatization radically multiplies the peril every audiobook is subject to: a narrator who's simply inept or (just as bad) one with a misbegotten interpretation of the text and its characters. No matter how accomplished the rest of the cast, all it takes is one bad voice in a dramatization to ruin the whole thing. This is a particular problem with comic characters, who tend to be portrayed too broadly, with a risible over-jollification that provokes a sensation I can only describe as a full-body wince.
That was exactly the case with the previously available dramatized audiobook of "The Hobbit," a novel I've been meaning to revisit before the December release of the first of Peter Jackson's three films based on it. There is an unabridged, single-narrator recording made in the 1990s by Rob Inglis, but it was only available on CDs. Now, at last, downloads of Inglis' narrations of that book and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy can be obtained in the U.S.
So far, I've only listened to "The Hobbit." Originating in a story told to Tolkien's children, it's nevertheless a book cherished by many adults, and Inglis strikes precisely the right note in his narration. Those made uneasy by the avuncular tone of Tolkien's narrative voice may bridle at it, but I find Inglis' rendition of that tone to be immensely appealing. It is an old-fashioned audiobook narration, one that feels more read than performed, although the voices of the many characters are all well-developed. It's ever so slightly prosy, and the sensation conveyed is exactly like listening to a favorite relative read to a beloved child the same book he (beautifully) read to you when you were a child.
Do I even need to explain that the book relates the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, "a hobbit of good family and unimpeachable reputation," according to the wizard Gandalf, after he is enlisted by a troupe of dwarves in their quest to recover treasure stolen by a dragon? That's as superfluous as identifying Sherlock Holmes. I suspect that prospective listeners to this audiobook have either read the novel already and just want to know if Inglis bungles it (he does not), or are wondering if it would make a suitable diversion for a long family car trip (it would).
There's plenty in this audiobook to amuse and entertain adults. One of the things I enjoy most about "The Hobbit" are the flashes of humor derived from Tolkien's occasional juxtaposition of the sagalike context of the tale with the language of shrewd bourgeoise tradesmen. The dragon Smaug points out that sneaking the gold out of his lair is only half the task: "What about delivery? What about cartage? What about armed guards and tolls?" There's little of that light satire in the adult novels Tolkien would write later, so even those grown-ups who have been put off by how seriously Tolkien takes his imaginary universe in "The Lord of the Rings" could well be charmed by "The Hobbit." You may end up wishing the ride to grandmother's house would never end.
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New to Audible? Listen to "The Hobbit" for free, or check out a sample.