A Voice From the Deeps of Time: Christopher Lee and The Children of Hurin

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children_of_hurin_audio_bookIt was almost two years ago to the day that I first learned of the (then) forthcoming audiobook dedicated to The Children of Húrin. Despite the heads-up from Mr. Tompkins, it was only in the waning days of May 2009 that I finally acquired my own copy. Having some unforeseen time on my hands this last week, and an anniversary to commemorate, I sat back and gave a listen to Christopher Lee’s (and Christopher Tolkien’s) performance on the night of June 22, 2009.

I purchased my copy of The Children of Húrin audiobook for twenty-five dollars and received it still in its cellophane coll, pristine as driven snow. HarperCollins cut no corners with this production. The eight compact discs are sturdily packaged in an attractive box (though, agreeing with others, I find the Alan Lee rendition of Túrin to be underwhelming). Nestled snugly within the box are two CD cases, each of which contain four compact discs. Within the first case is a booklet containing a complete table of contents pertaining to all eight discs. The booklet also presents plates by Alan Lee for the print edition. The second CD case contains an excellent reproduction of Christopher Tolkien’s map of Beleriand. The covers for both cases are derived from Alan Lee’s The Children of Húrin calendar, paintings not found in the print version. All in all, a sumptuous package.

The first disc comprises the audio rendition of the preface and introduction for the print version by Christopher Tolkien. Mr. Tolkien delivers an excellent performance. No surprise. I own a compact disc collection of Christopher’s earlier readings, excerpts from The Silmarillion.

Disc Two is the true beginning of the set. The production (wrought by the able hand of Peter Rinne) begins with a worthy symphonic flourish. Then, Christopher Lee begins to speak and the sonorous spell is cast.

I could not have predicted what I found to be Mr. Lee’s “best” performances. For me (while all his portrayals are memorable and commendable), Christopher delivers best in the “lesser” roles. Húrin is given audible shape and form and character, at once steadfast, valiant, headstrong and wise, before his nearly three decades in Angband warped his judgement. Sador Labadal, the liegeman of Húrin and confidant of Túrin , takes what I always thought (since I read Unfinished Tales) his central role in the narrative. Mîm the Petty-Dwarf springs fully to life through the magic of this audiobook. Lee’s “young Túrin” (i.e., before the hero’s days in Doriath) is endearing and heartbreaking.

Surprisingly, it is the figures of evil that I feel Christopher Lee does not quite do justice. Morgoth is a bit too sibilant and Glaurung a shade blustery, for my tastes.

All said, Sir Lee had a very tall order to fill and I begrudge him not when he falls a handspan short, here and there, now and then. The majority of the characters in this epic tragedy had iconic status in JRRT’s own mind, perhaps moreso than in the minds of most of his devotees.

Like Steve Tompkins (apparently), I’d never had the desire (nor opportunity) to listen to a full-length “audiobook” before this performance of The Children of Húrin . I’m still not sure that I am a fan of the genre en masse. What I do know, is that Christopher Lee was born to do this type of thing. His timbre, his cadence, his inflection is nearly always right on, in my opinion. No effort is required to imagine Lee declaiming his lines in some fire-lit mead-hall, hard-bitten thanes and gesiths hanging on his every word.

That brings us to the general subject of audiobooks. I’m now of the opinion that perhaps they have their place. Were not the Illiad and the Tain Bo Cualinge first declaimed, not written? I feel that when the narrative and narrator are well-matched, then something worthwhile may result.

Steve Tompkins had his own speculations on the topic:

I could handle Liam Neeson or Seamus Heaney himself reading “The Dark Man,” Tommy Lee Jones assaying “The Horror From the Mound,” or Cormac McCarthy, the creator of the most terrifying character in all of Southwestern weird fiction/Frontier Gothic, honoring “The Valley of the Lost.”

What of Christopher Lee narrating “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” or “Skulls in the Stars”?

Lee’s performance is a triumph, but it is a dark triumph. Look not for a final message of reassurance. You will not find it. If you want uplifting humor, seek instead the performances of former Cimmerian blogger, [redacted], as he and his troupe of Violet Crown Players bring the adventures of Sailor Steve Costigan to life.

Funny how that works out.