Wednesday 15 January 2014

Review of JRR Tolkien audiobook Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Orfeo - read by Terry Jones (1997)


Rating - three stars (out of five)

This is a complete recording (on four CDs) of Tolkien's translations of three Middle English poems, plus his introductory editorial comments.

The actual material, and what Tolkien has to say about the poems, is excellent - consequently I have listened to this audiobook set many times over the past several years.

If I had a gun held to my head, I would need to acknowledge that I do not think Tolkien's translations capture the spirit of the original poems - in particular, Pearl in its original language seems to me one of the very greatest of poems in my experience - and I don't think that greatness comes through in the modern English version. Nonetheless, it is very helpful in appreciating the original - and I think that was Tolkien's primary intention.

My major reservations about this audiobook relate to Terry Jones as the reader.

To be brutally honest, he is inadequate. His voice is not very pleasant to listen to for long periods, he has several intrusive speech impediments; and worst of all he is not a good enough actor or dramatic reader.

Jones does his best, and his main virtue is an earnest sincerity - so that I do indeed listen to these CDs with enjoyment. But they could be so much better with another reader.

Terry Jones is best known as one of the Monty Python team, and it might seem surprising that he was even considered for this job. But the reason is fairly obvious in the sense that Jones is a 'professional' medievalist who has published a monograph on The Knight's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, plus some popular history (albeit he is a skeptical, debunking and anti-Christian kind of medieval historian - of a sort which would have been uncongenial to Tolkien and even more so to CS Lewis).

On the whole, this is the weakest by-far of the Tolkien audiobooks I have encountered - but it is likely that we will be stuck with this version for some considerable time to come, because I don't suppose that there is much demand for recordings of these works.


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