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Tolkien and the Tape Recorder

December 31, 2013

Having read some erroneous comments online about Tolkien’s use and ownership of tape recorders, Christina reviewed the ‘Recordings’ essay in our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, as well as related information in other parts of the Reader’s Guide and Chronology volumes. But the comments quickly disappeared (at least, we now can’t find them*), and since Christina had done so much work, we decided to turn what could have been the basis of a reply into a blog post. Most of this material is in the Companion and Guide, but consolidated and with some further information added.

Caedmon Hobbit LPIn late August 1952†, while Tolkien was staying with his friends George and Moira Sayer in Malvern, his hosts produced a tape recorder‡ to amuse him. According to Sayer, Tolkien ‘had never seen one before’ – these were very early days for portable, consumer-level magnetic tape recorders in Britain – ‘and said whimsically that he ought to cast out any devil that might be in it by recording a prayer, the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic. He was delighted when I played it back to him and asked if he might record some of the poems in The Lord of the Rings to find out how they sounded to other people. The more he recorded, the more he enjoyed recording and the more his literary self-confidence grew. When he had finished the poems, one of us said: “Record for us the riddle scene from The Hobbit,” and we sat spellbound for almost half an hour while he did. I then asked him to record what he thought one of the best pieces of prose in The Lord of the Rings and he recorded part of The Ride of the Rohirrim [Book V, Chapter 5]’ (sleeve notes for the LP album J.R.R. Tolkien Reads and Sings His The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring).

Sayer repeated this story, with additions and variations, on two occasions. In ‘Tales of the Ferrograph’, Minas Tirith Evening-Star 9, no. 2 (January 1980), pp. 2–4, he says that Tolkien recorded the Lord’s Prayer first in English and then in Gothic. Sayer comments also that Tolkien ‘had a very poor speaking voice, although we produced very good recordings of him with that old Ferrograph by putting the microphone very close to him really’ (p. 2), and that he was astonished to hear what his voice sounded like. In ‘Recollections of J.R.R. Tolkien’, Proceedings of the J.R.R Tolkien Centenary Conference 1992 (1995), Sayer refers again to the occasion, but mentions the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic only. He says that when Tolkien recorded some of the poems, ‘some he sang to the tunes that were in his head when writing them. He was delighted with the result. It was striking how much better his voice sounded recorded and amplified. The more he recorded, and the more often he played back the recordings, the more his confidence grew. He [rather than one of the Sayers] asked to record the great riddle scene from The Hobbit. He read it magnificently and was especially pleased with his impersonation of Gollum’ (p. 23).

A letter Tolkien wrote to his publisher, Rayner Unwin, on 29 August 1952 shows that Sayer was not exaggerating Tolkien’s interest. Tolkien was surprised at how well the tapes sounded, and with his success as a reader, and wondered if the BBC might be interested in using the recordings. Unwin suggested that he might discuss this with Tolkien at their next meeting, but nothing seems to have come of the suggestion. Nor did anything come of Tolkien’s suggestion in a letter to George Sayer on 28 August 1953, that he visit Sayer again and make a two-voice recording with him.

Selections from the private recordings Tolkien made in 1952 were issued in 1975 by Caedmon on two long-playing vinyl albums and on audio cassettes. It would be very interesting to know what happened to the original tapes, which included material in addition to that found on the recordings as issued. In ‘Tales of the Ferrograph’ Sayer comments that ‘Caedmon very foolishly, infuriatingly’ cut out Tolkien’s readings of the Lord’s Prayer, as well as conversation which occurred in between his readings from his works. Nor, Sayer complains, did Caedmon ‘make any attempt to reduce the background noise. They thought the American public would be disappointed if the recording didn’t sound old’ (p. 3).

After this experience, Tolkien also thought about how a tape recorder might be of assistance professionally to himself and to other members of the Oxford English faculty. On 6 July1953, he wrote to the Secretary of Faculties, asking for a grant towards the purchase of a tape recording machine, which he said had impressed him when he had the opportunity of using such recorders outside of Oxford: ‘For seminars or small classes they are extraordinarily effective in the exhibition of phonetics and of linguistic change; and for “practical philology”, the reconstruction of past forms of speech and literary modes (a department in which I have long been especially interested and active) they have become an indispensable assistant.’ He said that he was fairly familiar with such machines, and had made a number of recordings, ‘some of which are in use for instructional purposes elsewhere’ (Oxford University Archives, Chronology pp. 401–402). He had in mind a portable recorder, which would be housed in his room at college but could be transported easily to lecture rooms or lent to other members of the School. At the English Faculty Board meeting on 16 October, his application for a grant was forwarded to the General Board with the English Faculty Board’s strong support; this was successful, and Tolkien was authorized to purchase a tape recorder with a grant of £100 to the Committee on Advanced Studies. It was agreed that this would be lent to Tolkien on the understanding that it would be kept in the English Faculty Library when the machine was not in use. It seems, however, that this arrangement was not generally followed: Tolkien retired at the end of Trinity Term 1959, and it was not until sometime in May or June 1960 that the recorder – a Ferranti – was collected from him by C.L. Wrenn and only then placed in the English Faculty Library.

During the summer of 1953, Tolkien was corresponding with P.H. Newby of the BBC about a projected radio broadcast of his Modern English translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tolkien hoped that he might be allowed to read the poem for broadcast himself, but the BBC were not keen to have him do so, as Tolkien told George Sayer in a letter of 31 August 1953. In the same letter, Tolkien said that to work on Sir Gawain he had hired (rented) a tape recorder, an old Sound Mirror, the best he could get locally, which was ‘very helpful in matters of timing and speed. With the help of Christopher and Faith [Tolkien], I made some three voice experiments, and recordings of the temptation scenes. An enormous improvement – and assistance to the listener. Chris was making an extremely good (if slightly Oxonian . . .) Gawain, before we had to break off’ (George Sayer, ‘Recollections of J.R.R. Tolkien’, p. 24, emended with reference to the original letter, Chronology, p. 408).

Beorhtnoth cassette linerOn that same day, Tolkien also wrote to P.H. Newby that he had spent a couple of days conducting experiments with Sir Gawain on a tape recorder, ‘which have suggested various points to me. Among them, that the translation, as reading copy, needs smoothing and easing a bit at some points, even if it neglects the accuracy required in a printed form for use (largely) together with the original text. . . .’ (BBC Written Archives Centre, Chronology, p. 408). In consequence of the successful broadcast of Sir Gawain, Tolkien asked Newby in a letter dated 3 May 1954 if the BBC might be interested in broadcasting The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, a play concerning the battle of Maldon, which he had written in alliterative verse, commenting that he himself had made a recording of it and thought it sounded very good. For this, he played all the parts and even made his own sound effects, including moving furniture to suggest the sound of wagon wheels. The play was ultimately broadcast by the BBC, but again not using Tolkien as an actor. He commented to the BBC producer on 22 September 1954 that ‘visual directions’ in Beorhtnoth could be disregarded, ‘though I am considering some additional lines. I have tested this by recording the whole thing on tape’ (BBC Written Archives Centre, Chronology, p. 440). Tolkien’s private recording was released, with other material recorded by Christopher Tolkien, as an audio cassette tape by HarperCollins, London, in a complimentary limited edition for the Tolkien Centenary Conference at Oxford in 1992.

Early in 1966, Tolkien’s publisher George Allen & Unwin agreed terms with the composer Donald Swann for the recording of his song cycle of Tolkien poems, The Road Goes Ever On. Originally the album was intended also to include readings of Tolkien poems by Swann’s At the Drop of a Hat colleague Michael Flanders, and for this, Tolkien used tape recordings to provide advice and assistance. On 28 March 1966, Tolkien wrote to Swann from the Hotel Miramar in Bournemouth that he had failed to find a tape recorder locally on which to record Galadriel’s lament (The Lord of the Rings, Book II, Chapter 8). If the matter were urgent, however, he was willing to make more enquiries, but if it could wait until he returned to Oxford, he would then make a tape; in any case, he sent some notes. This might suggest that Tolkien owned a tape recorder at this date, but later correspondence suggests that this was not the case, rather that he knew of one he could use.

During a visit by Donald Swann and his wife to the Tolkiens on 20 December 1966, it was agreed there should be a long-playing record with the song cycle performed by Swann and baritone William Elvin on one side, and Tolkien reading his own poems (rather than a reading by Michael Flanders) on the other. In early May 1967, Caedmon, the company producing the LP, sent Tolkien a Philips cassette tape recorder on which he could practice before making the actual recordings in Oxford on 15 June. While reading The Sea-Bell, he discovered an error in the text printed in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from The Red Book (1962). Later, with two men from Caedmon on hand, he made a finished recording of at least eight of the poems in the Bombadil volume, as well as the Elvish verses A Elbereth Gilthoniel and Namárië from The Lord of the Rings

Caedmon replaced the loaned machine on which Tolkien had practised with a gift of one for himself, sending him brochures from which to make his choice. Guided by Joy Hill, he chose the Philips Automatic Family De Luxe model. He received this on 8 August 1967, but since he was about to go away and needed some assistance in its use, it was not until 27 August that, with help, he spent ‘some time making recordings and investigating the capabilities of the Philips machine’. He found it easy to use, but the recordings not very good. He suspected that ‘the microphone provided is not equal in quality to the machine. Recordings that I made nine or ten years ago when reproduced by it were very superior to those made direct’ (letter to Joy Hill, 30 August 1967, Tolkien–George Allen & Unwin archive, HarperCollins, Chronology, p. 706). Nonetheless, he felt that it would be useful for practising. (We have not been able to find a reference online to this particular Philips model, but if Tolkien was able to play back tapes from the 1950s, which pre-dated audio cassettes, his new machine had to be of the reel-to-reel variety.)

In a letter of 6 March 1968, Tolkien offered to lend his grandson Michael George the tape recorder given him by Caedmon. He commented on the superior quality of the tapes made on his previous machine, the Ferranti provided by the University of Oxford, relative to his new recorder, which again he described as good except for its microphone. He also noted that he had had to have some of his older tapes renewed because of deterioration.

Images: Sleeve for the Caedmon LP of Tolkien reading from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; liner for the private audiocassette release of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beohrthelm’s Son.


* We think the comments were made on a Facebook page, which is to say, on a page that changes and shuffles almost constantly and has an internal search mechanism that’s no help at all.

† Tolkien had much earlier (July 1929) worked briefly as an ‘actor’ for the Linguaphone Conversational Course in English, issued by the Linguaphone Institute of London as a set of 78 rpm records. He read the introduction to, and played one of two roles in, Lesson 20, ‘At the Tobacconist’s’, and again was one of two readers for Lesson 30, ‘Wireless’. In these he was joined by the author of the lessons, A. Lloyd James of the University of London. But this would have been a very different kind of recording than was done with the Sayers’ machine, in a studio rather than the home.

‡ In ‘Tales of the Ferrograph’, Sayer names the model as the ‘Mark I Ferrograph – it was their very first tape model’.

§ Five of these, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, The Mewlips, The Hoard, Perry-the-Winkle, and The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon, were first issued later in 1967 as part of the LP Poems and Songs of Middle Earth (sic). The J.R.R. Tolkien Audio Collection, first released in 2001, includes of all the material from the Caedmon LPs (except the song cycle) plus four poems recorded in 1967 but not previously issued: Errantry, Princess Mee, The Sea-Bell, and Namárië. A recent e-book edition of The Hobbit (not in our collection) evidently includes more recorded material from that work and is possibly part of The Hobbit material promised to accompany a facsimile of the first edition to be published in 2014.

  1. January 1, 2014 11:03 am

    Fascinating article! Have you ever heard anything about a possible reissue of the tape of The Homecoming? I’ve been wanting to listen to that for years.

    • January 1, 2014 11:02 pm

      Hi, Janet. We’ve never heard of any plans for this; a pity, as the recording is very good. No doubt one problem would be that it would be considered a ‘niche’ item, for a small core of fans, and not a big seller. We can, however, suggest it to the right people, and these days there are new options, such as embedded audio in an e-book.

      • January 2, 2014 9:46 am

        That would be a great idea! I wanted to do a critical edition of The Homecoming with a good deal of extra material a few years ago, but they said it was too “niche” a project to back. But perhaps adding a CD of Tolkien reading the play to the package (or embedded audio in the e-version) would make it more attractive.

  2. January 1, 2014 12:13 pm

    Is the ebook edition you note above the “Enhanced Edition” of The Hobbit for Kindle with audio? It appears to still be for sale in the US at . Unfortunately, the audio clips only work on the Kindle Fire, which I do not own and thus cannot provide additional details therefor, aside from the titles given: ‘Chip the glasses and crack the plates’, ‘Far over the Misty Mountains cold’, from ‘Roast Mutton’, and from ‘Riddles in the Dark’.

    • January 1, 2014 11:01 pm

      Yes, that’s probably it. According to the listing, it’s supposed to play on a wide variety of devices, including the Kindle app on a non-Kindle device. But we’ll look into this further. We remember when this first came out, and we couldn’t see any way to get it in the U.S. We don’t have a Kindle or Nook, but have e-reader software on Android devices.

      • Bill Hicklin permalink
        January 1, 2014 11:36 pm

        One would think that in this day of electronic distribution, there would be little sunk cost for a publisher in putting out even niche products that way.

  3. Bill Hicklin permalink
    January 1, 2014 1:29 pm

    Quick note on reel-to-reel vs. cassettes: although the audiocassette had been introduced three years before, in 1967 cassette players were still quite uncommon; certainly during that same year we corresponded with my father (aboard his ship off Vietnam) via a multitude of 3″ tape reels, and it was in 1968 that he bought in Japan a big high-fidelity Sony reel-to-reel deck.

    • January 1, 2014 11:00 pm

      Thanks, Bill. Wayne remembers when cassette tape decks came out in the U.S. He had a 3-inch reel-to-reel recorder received as a Christmas gift, a poor-quality Westinghouse, and when trading up years later skipped over the cassette models (which had a poor reputation) in favor of a full-size Wollensak.

      • Bill Hicklin permalink
        January 1, 2014 11:33 pm

        Poor reputation: quite so. Until sometime in the early 70s with fine-grain tape (and Dolby), the little 3mm cassette just didn’t have the information density for hi-fi and was really only good for dictation and audio-letters. If you wanted decent sound you threaded leader and dealt with the whap-whap-whap afterwards…..

  4. January 2, 2014 12:12 pm

    Great article! I love reading about Tolkien’s past, it helps reveal a lot about his writing and the literary choices he made. Thank you, I look forward to reading more.

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