A Radioplay Review: Hobbits… Why Did It Have to be Hobbits?

The Lord of the Rings

By J. R. R. Tolkien

Produced by the British Broadcasting Company

Published by Random House Audio

Adapted by Brian Sibley and Michael Blakewell

The Story:

I reviewed audiobook editions for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings way back (less than a year and a half ago, really) when I started reviewing audiobooks. Years before I found an actual reading of the series, however, I came across this BBC adaptation in 13 episodes. I enjoyed listening to it several times, but it was on cassette and I never got around to digitizing it, so when I came across a copy already in MP3 format, I got it!

You can find my original review for The Lord of the Rings at https://jonathanfeinstein.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/an-audio-book-review-will-someone-please-shut-the-hobbits-up/  and I later summed up the whole series with the high concept description “The Lord of the Rings: Some little people undertake the task of destroying a magical ring…” and hilarity ensues! The Lord of the Rings is one of the great classics of the Fantasy genre and deservedly so regardless of one’s personal preferences. Naturally as a classic it lends itself to equally classic parodies, my favorite of which has to have been The Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings has become the staple, and in some cases the template for epic fantasy works. This has both good and bad points to my mind. It is good in that this trilogy set the standard and developed what have become a number of fantasy staples. It’s unfortunate in that many authors have adopted the tropes of The Lord of the Rings all too slavishly so that an observant reader can look at another book and say, “Hmmm, this magic user might as well be Gandalf, this warrior is Aragorn (or Boromir)” and so forth. The underdog character who finds himself saddled with an almost impossible task is frequently Frodo squeezed into a new body and his sidekick is either going to be Sam or Robin the Boy Wonder. Well, that’s the Fantasy genre for you. This is not to say that all fantasy authors are rewriting The Lord of the Rings. Trust me, we are not, but it is sometimes difficult to completely cast off the trappings of a story that sets the standard for epic fantasy.

The Radioplay:


In 1981 the BBC did a nice job adapting the trilogy into thirteen one hour-long episodes, each with a full cast of actors. Even with thirteen hours to play with, however, they did not have room for everything. Just as Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson did later, the writers of this play cut out all mention of Tom Bombadil (who remains one of my favorite characters). I do not agree with Jackson who stated that Bombadil’s scene had nothing to do with the long-range narrative of the story. However, something had to be cut – Ghân-buri-Ghân doesn’t appear in this adaptation either – I suppose although this adaptation does include the scene in which Gandalf encounters Radagast the  Brown on the road, something mentioned only in passing later on. However, this adaptation remains the most faithful one to Tolkien’s work I have encountered and includes a related bit from Unfinished Tales and “Bilbo’s Last Song” a poem by Tolkien that had not been included in the original.

I was struck by the similarity of voices and mannerisms of many of the characters when compared to how they were played in Jackson’s movies. I would have to play this side by side with Jackson’s sound track to tell Michael Hordern’s Gandalf in this radio play from that played by Ian McKellen in the movies, and Ian Holm’s Frodo was not entirely unlike that by Elijah Wood, for that matter. Interesting note, Ian Holm, who plays Frodo in this adaptation, later played Bilbo in Jackson’s trilogy. The point, however, is that someone who has only seen the movies will have no trouble picking out the major characters, and even some of the minor ones merely by listening to them.

Another point of comparison is among the sound effects, but not with any other production of The Lord of the Rings. No instead several of the dying monsters sound like something from the early seasons of Doctor Who and The Hitchhikers’ Guide o to the Galaxy radio series. I suppose it should not surprise anyone that this is so, but when the Eagles came to rescue Gandalf and later go to rescue Frodo and Sam, it sounded not entirely unlike the TARDIS materializing so that for a moment, I expected a guy with curly hair and a very long scarf to step out of a mysterious blue box and help the hobbits get away from Mount Doom. Unintentional comic relief, I suppose.

I think a lot of people, even fans of the series may completely appreciate what sets this epic apart from most other long works of fantasy. Tolkien was an expert on Early and Middle English and the works of literature written in them and The Lord of the Rings is a combination of modern writing style with medieval and ancient story construction. The epic stories of those ages, such as Beowulf and Gilgamesh are as much legend as they are mythology. Gilgamesh’s name appears on the Sumerian King List and Beowulf…well maybe he was based on a real person or not, but the saga reads as much as a history as it does a stirring tale for a winter evening.

As such, these ancient epics were seen as historical to their original audiences and so they do not completely follow modern literary conventions. The saga of Beowulf does not end with the death of Grendel or his mom. It keeps going on until fifty years later Beowulf and his army go out to fight a dragon that may have been the model for Tolkien’s Smaug. Gilgamesh does not end with his vengeance for the death of Enkidu or even with his race against the sun in his attempt at immortality, it keeps going.

One could argue that Homer’s work is similar in nature. Sure, the Iliad is only about the end of the Trojan War and the Odyssey concerns Odysseus’ long way home, but there were six other parts of the “Epic Cycle” about the Trojan War and by other authors that were considered in the ancient world to be the complete story. Most of them we only know from commentaries and fragments, but my point is, the stories did not just end with a fast climax and a short denouement.

Had The Lord of the Rings been written in a wholly modern form, the climax would have been the destruction of the one ring, the rescue of Frodo and Sam (possibly by the Doctor) followed by an epilogue that essentially would have told us they all lived happily ever after. But, no, it is written in an older format, so the story is not even close to being over with the destruction of the ring. The world needs to be rebuilt and while we don’t get the full details of that, we do see how it begins. And then the Hobbits must return to the Shire and put affairs in order there and yet the story keeps on going until finally Frodo and Bilbo set sail on the Love Boat and go into the West. This is old-style storytelling and that is, I think why these series is so different from most of the fantasy genre. And I think the BBC captured it beautifully.

For a rather long time, this was the only decent adaptation of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and so far as I am concerned it continues to shine as the leading example. If you enjoyed Tolkien’s stories, by all means find a copy of this to listen to. You will not regret it.

This entry was posted in Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Radio Plays. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Radioplay Review: Hobbits… Why Did It Have to be Hobbits?

  1. Susie Schroeder says:

    Jonathan, re your comments on epics ancient and modern: Have You read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces?” I am quite sure I would not have if not for a college course in World Literature when the Prof made it a book requirement. It really opened my eyes. The cover of that edition had inages of Gilgamesh, Frodo, and Luke Skywalker on the cover. All the stages of the epic: the quest, the leave-taking, the kindly old counselor, the dark night of the soul, and the epiphany were covered. I have still got that book and have reread it twice, gaining new insights each time.

  2. I’ve missed reading that one for myself, but I have encountered the concept he covers on quite a few occasions. Campbell does roll up all and Medieval and modern epics into the same model, though I believe that most modern examples are actually cases in which writers were following the .well established patterns and memes of earlier works. I don’t quite accept, however that all these elements are necessary to the telling of a good epic.

    Also the ancient epics did not all follow Campbell’s model exactly. I do not recall a kindly old counselor in Gilgamesh, for example. Utnapishtim does not really count as his tale is too late to make any difference in Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality and there is a good argument that this is just a retelling of the Atrahasis myth (known to Biblical schloars and Noah and the Flood, Sumerian style). And Atrahasis did not really deal with personal issues in the way Gilgamesh did. Actually in the world of cuneiform tablets, Gilgamesh seems to be the exception, not the rule.

    I would agree that Campbell did an amazing study of mythology, but I would contend that the further back you go the more exceptions you are going to find, However his model does follow from the time of Beowulf until the modern age when many authors started trying new sorts of stories although many cling to the old models (or even copy them and just change names and settings).

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