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Rrrrrrrrreading Aloud

Your Humble Blogger has been reading The Lord of the Rings out loud, a bit at a time, as part of our household’s evening entertainment. Last night I read “The Bridge of Khazad-dǔm”. It seemed to go well, but my children were brought up in a world where everyone knows that Gandalf comes back. They were neither particularly surprised nor particularly alarmed by his demise; my Perfect Non-Reader was more emotional about the discovery of Balin’s tomb. Ah, well.

What I’m finding interesting about it is coming up with voices, and the things that I’m noticing about characters and dialogue having assigned voices to characters and having to stick to them. Let me begin by saying that I have read and re-read the series to the point of overfamiliarity, but this is the first time I am reading it aloud. Well, and it’s possible I read a bit of a chapter at a Story Reading back in college, but I don’t really remember. Any Gentle Readers who were present for such an event should remind me. I’ll also say that I feel strongly about giving voices to the characters as I read, mostly because I enjoy it, but also because I think it makes the story work better. Also, while I do love the sound of my own voice, I love the sound of my voice doing accents even more.

So, the thing about LotR is that not only is it probably the longest work I have ever read aloud, it probably has the most characters to voice. I say probably because Dickens, you know, but of course in reading Dickens the accent is often determined by the text: region, class, background, education all specified and the dialogue already written for it, often along with notes about pitch, pacing and timbre. Tolkien does not often describe the voices of his characters (you will find an occasional harsh or clear) and the milieu, of course, means that I can’t just use the accent from the region they are from, what with there not actually being a Gondorian or Rohannish accent in real life.

Well, and what did I do? First of all, of course, was Gandalf, for whom I took John Huston’s voice from the Rankin/Bass cartoon. For Bilbo Baggins, I used a raspy old-man South of England accent, confident that I wouldn’t have to do much of it and not terribly worried. Then we have our continuing characters: Frodo, who as the protagonist I voice in “my” voice (that is, the narrator’s voice). I wanted the other three hobbits to be, as I think they were written, from different areas of England. Sam, the gardener, I gave a strong Irish accent—to be frank a comic Oirish accent. His colloquial lines work surprisingly well that way; the rhythms of his speeches as well as his comic fright (in the beginning) and unswerving loyalty. Pippin, as the young scion of the aristocratic family of Tooks, I gave a sort Terry Thomas silly-ass upper-crust accent which (so far, anyway) has proved absolutely perfect for his combination of arrogance, idiocy and charm. My Perfect Non-Reader thinks it sounds too much like my Draco Malfoy; they are both very much upper-class English aristocrat voices, but I think I gave Draco an Eton drawl, with the elongated vowels, while Pippin’s is the quicker what-what sort of thing. Also a different way of holding the mouth, as Pippin has a stiff upper lip that Draco does not. Last of the hobbits is Merry, who has not been a success so far. I intended him to be Scots (the Brandybucks seem to me clearly Scots-analogues) but for some reason I have been unable to switch into a Scots accent for the single lines required for Merry’s dialogue. I have settled on a sort of Welsh (ish, at least that’s how it has been sounding to me) accent that at least is distinguishable from his fellows’.

I had originally had the idea that all of the Big Folk would have American accents, and the Breelanders were southerners of an Alabamaish stripe. Then Strider arrived, and for reasons I am unable to recall, he spoke with a German/Austrian accent, high-pitched and very clipped and precise. It gives him a real sense of menace, I think, which was a good thing in Bree but may not be what we want in the Houses of Healing. Well, we’ll see. At any rate, I went back to America for Boromir, who is Mayor Quimby—my plan is to have Gondor accents be Boston accents, each according to his class origins, because I can do the classes of Boston accents, which I would find difficult for any other American region. The accent makes Boromir rather unlikeable, I’m afraid, but then Boromir isn’t exactly likeable anyway. The test will be whether Faramir is likeable, but by then it will be too late.

The dwarves have Russian accents, of course, It’s the elves… I had imagined, when I was thinking about what accents to choose for the characters, that the Elves should have Scandinavian accents—Danes and Swedes and such. I wanted to place them geographically together, and I had a sense, I suppose, that the highfalutin’ language of the Elves would work well with that musical rhythm. Sadly, it turns out I can’t actually do a Scandinavian accent. It has been a total disaster. Also, Legolas’ dialogue sounds utterly awful. Just hideous. Also also—there are a lot of Elves in this book! There are only two dwarves with significant dialogue: Glóin and Gimli. They are father and son, so Glóin has a slightly deeper bass and slower pace but otherwise they are the same. The council of Elrond includes not only Elrond Half-Elven and Legolas the wood-elf but Glorfindel and Galdor and Elrohir and Erestor, and before the hobbits get to Rivendell there are Gildor and his crew, and we’re about to get to Lothlorien where we’ll have Haldir and his brothers and then Galadriel and Celeborn. That’s… um… more than ten different elves with dialogue, most of which have at least three or four lines. Yeesh.

I don’t know what to do at this point. I don’t really have the time or energy to learn Scandinavian accents properly, and soon Legolas begins to speak more frequently (really, he is almost entirely silent through Moria) and Galadriel is really important and eventually Elrohir and Erestor re-enter the story. And Arwen speaks at some point, doesn’t she? I am considering just telling everyone that the accent thing isn’t working and from now on Elves, including the ones that have already been in the story, will sound like they come from Latin America.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

With Strider, you have authorial justification from Appendix F for switching accents if you want--he speaks in different ways to different people, depending upon the aspect of himself that he is revealing at the time. If you shift him out of the Strider accent, which he has used with the Fellowship because that's how they know him, when he speaks to the Riders of Rohan (Gimli and Legolas note that he changes at this time), there would be an opportunity for Aragorn to make a verbal joke at Isengard when one of the hobbits says, "Look, Strider the Ranger has come back!" when he sits at his ease, smoking a pipe. Aragorn could then start speaking in the Strider accent again.

Why not give the Elves Elvish accents? Tolkien would probably argue that they wouldn't have "accents" as such: they would use a more antique, formal grammar because they prefer it, but such is their skill with languages that they could speak with any accent they choose.


I don't remember whether you read any LotR at story readings, but I do remember loving your accents in what stories you did read. I've tried to channel you whenever I've read Howard Waldrop's "The Sawing Boys", particularly at lines such as, "Large Jake is called that because, oh my goodness, is he large. He is so large that people have confused him for nightfall."


Well, and I pick up accents by listening to people talking, and I just don't have as much patience with Elves as Sam does.

Jim—thank you for the compliment. Waldrop has lovely language, doesn't he? And the rhythms. Excellent stuff.

Thanks,
-V.


There's 50 seconds of Tolkien reading Elvish on Youtube, as you probably know, which doesn't take vast quantities of patience.

Listening to him reciting Galadriel's song in Quenya, I am struck by the fact that the rolled "r" sound in Elvish does seem Scandinavian, although there's no trace of the sing-song pitch undulation and bent vowels that are part of the "Mock Swedish" type of Scandinavian accent. The vowels are long and musical, but tend to be pure, not diphthongs.


You could have Legolas speak with a Welsh accent, and Arwen, Celeborn, Elrond, Galadriel, Gildor, Glorfindel, and so on sound Finnish. Sindarin and Quenya were apparently partly based on those, so it would be appropriate.

It's been long enough since I heard spoken (as opposed to sung) Finnish, that I can't tell how close a fit the Tolkien recording is, but it doesn't sound unreasonable.

On the other hand, if you're having trouble with Scandinavian accents more generally, Finnish seems like it would be especially problematic. It's a weird language.

A Welsh accent might be doable, though. And you could use that for all the elves.

Given where the names for the Dwarves come from, I'd say you should go Icelandic there, rather than Russian, but I don't know where you would have learned an Icelandic accent.

And if outrageously fake accents are ok, for Russian there's always treating it like playing Kremlin.


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