J.R.R. Tolkien, Using a Tape Recorder for the First Time, Reads from The Hobbit for 30 Minutes (1952)

Having not seen the first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, I am required to withhold judgment. As a Tolkien reader from the first time I could struggle through the prose, I’ll admit, I’ve been on tenterhooks (and not all reviews fill me with hope). In any case, I plan, like many a fan, to re-read Tolkien’s fairy tale novel before seeing Jackson’s film. It was my first exposure to Tolkien, and the perfect book for a young reader ready to dive into moral complexity and a fully-realized fictional world.

And what better guide could there be through The Hobbit than Tolkien himself, reading (above) from the 1937 work? In this 1952 recording in two parts (part 2 is below), the venerable fantasist and scholar reads from his own work for the first time on tape. Some dutiful fan has added a background score and a slideshow of images of the author, as well as artists’ renderings of his characters (including stills from Jackson’s Rings films).

Tolkien begins with a passage that first describes the creature Gollum; listening to this description again, I am struck by how much differently I imagined him when I first read the book. No doubt Andy Serkis deserves all the praise for his portrayal, but the Gollum of The Hobbit seems somehow so much hoarier and more monstrous than the slippery creature in Peter Jackson’s films. This is a minor point and not a criticism, but perhaps a comment on how necessary it is to return to the source of a mythic world as rich as Tolkien’s, even, or especially, when it’s been so well-realized in other media. No one, after all, knows Middle Earth better than its creator.

These readings were part of a much longer recording session, during which Tolkien also read (and sang!) extensively from The Lord of the Rings. A YouTube user has collected, in several parts, a radio broadcast of that full session here, and it’s certainly worth your time to listen to it all the way through. It’s also worth knowing the neat context of the recording. Here’s the text that accompanies the video on YouTube:

When Tolkien visited a friend in August of 1952 to retrieve a manuscript of The Lord of the Rings, he was shown a “tape recorder”. Having never seen one before, he asked how it worked and was then delighted to have his voice recorded and hear himself played back for the first time. His friend then asked him to read from The Hobbit, and Tolkien did so in this one incredible take.

Also, it may interest you to know what Tolkien’s posthumous editor, his youngest son Christopher, thinks of the adaptations of his dad’s beloved books, among many other things Middle Earth. Read Christopher Tolkien’s first press interview in forty years here, and watch him below reading the ending of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Looking for free, professionally-read audio books from Audible.com–including, for example The Hobbit? Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free trial with Audible.com, you can download two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and scholar currently completing a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.

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