January 8, 2006.
The Age Company Ltd.
(These recordings) will whisper into the ears of kids that there is a world of high and mighty dreams and that one human voice armed with the magic of words is as marvellous as the biggest movie screen in the world.
Children can be kept happy on long journeys by an audio book.
One way to make a long trip pass peacefully is with talking books, says Peter Craven, after tackling Harry Potter and Narnia.
IT'S one of the early enchantments in life, being read to. That thing that a lot of people never experience again after early childhood of hearing a world unfold, with all its images and surprises.
Our sense of the power of the words as a wonder we hear is something we may rediscover like a lost paradise in the presence of a great actor or reading poetry, but in fact it's as available as the nearest cassette or CD player and you can enjoy it with your children (and without having to make your lips move) after you have bundled them into the car and you're settling into that long drive towards a holiday destination.
Nothing is more conducive to serenity and distraction than an enthralling story splendidly performed and it so happens that just at the moment, when the world is in the collective grip of fantasy - what with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and now Narnia - you can feast on God's plenty of derring-do and magical mystery tours even as you're thundering on endlessly to Lord knows where.
If you're a card-carrying Hobbit - or the parent of hobbitettes - you can invest in the recording of the whole of The Lord of the Rings by Rob Inglis, or if you can come at the idea of dramatisation there's the extraordinary BBC radio version, which will keep you busy for a good 13 hours or so and has a wonderful cast led by Michael Hordern as Gandalf and Ian Holm as Frodo.
It's a dramatic adaptation but some people think it's superior to the book it so faithfully dramatises. Peter Jackson used Holm as Bilbo Baggins at the start of the film as a homage to this version.
On the other hand, if your taste in magical adventure is a bit less Middle Earth (and trad) you might want to invest in the complete version of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials epic, which has the author among the participants.
In the age of Harry Potter, Pullman's books are generally cracked up to be the thing that will bear comparison with Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. But you can get hold of everything from Artemis Fowl (the Irish rival to Potter) to the Lemony Snicket books read by the beguiling combo of Tim Curry and the mysterious author.
My hunch, though, is that the most popular choices just at the moment are going to be the latest Harry Potter and whatever fraction of the Narnia Chronicles people can get hold of in the wake of the film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Stephen Fry has been reading the Harry Potter books since that period, lost in the mists of time, when J. K. Rowling was just another kids' writer.
Some time after I sent my lawyer brother the recording of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, he arrived home one day to discover his whole family sitting in the car, in the garage, waiting for whatever bit of the Hogwarts adventure it was to come to an end.
Fry reads Harry Potter with wonderful elan and if you're feeling snooty about Rowling's prose style you'll find the whole thing transfigured in his hands because he brings out all the strength and verve of her dialogue. There's a silvery old sage voice for Dumbledore, a pretty exact fit for Alan Rickman's Snape and a superbly spot-lit way of distinguishing the characters with the glide of the voice so that you see them running breathless down sinister corridors or soaring with excitement as they play quidditch.
The latest Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is a monster in size and Fry's reading of it lasts for 21 hours, so it will keep you going on the longest of trips.
It's one of the most bizarre books in the series, with one of the unlovably good characters seeming to go bad and one of the most central figures in the whole series appearing to bite the dust.
It's captivating stuff in Fry's hands and he is terrific in the way he can convey the difference between the nastiness, say, of Draco Malfoy and the truly black evil of some of the death eaters. He's also good at getting the heartiness and bounce of all the school stuff and all the girl/boy stuff which, in this book, tends to hover around Harry's white hot feelings for Ginny Weasley.
He's a whiz at the homeliness of the Potter world - life at the Weasleys, say - and understands both the lashings of sentiment in Harry Potter and the high-powered narrative excitement that Rowling can turn on episodically.
I listened to the full 21 hours of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Bloomsbury ISBN 0 7475 8259 9) in three days and I can't say I was bored. As Fry does it, the adult dialogue has a lot of poise and the way Hagrid - whether in grief for his spider or carrying a dead body - sounds precisely as he should is a wonder to hear.
This is a recording that will enthral young children and there's no likelihood of much murmuring against it even from dyed-in-the-wool Potter sceptics.
And a reading as vivid as this, of an engrossing piece of popular writing, can't help but turn kids on to books.
The furore about Narnia at the moment is enough to provoke the ghost of Oscar Wilde: are the anti-Aslan brigade mad or just pretending to be mad?
The unabridged versions of the Narnia books, produced by HarperCollins, are so well done they are likely to produce all kinds of traditional reverberations in the most mystery-denying breast.
Children, of course, don't subscribe to the secular imagination. That is why they'll thrill to the story of the great gold lion Aslan, how he sacrificed himself and then came alive again.
Anyone who wants to relive the thrill of the movie of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and has any concerted amount of driving to endure, should invest in the reading of it by Michael York (Collins CD 11732). It runs for four hours and it presents Lewis' classic in a dramatic performance as passionate and full-blooded as you could hope for.
York's rendition of the Pevensey children is utterly believable. They sound like ordinary kids but he knows how to pit them against the fabulous creatures they encounter. His White Witch is all biting, understated irony and his Aslan has a deep and tawny magnificence. And what a roar he comes out with when he expresses displeasure at the witch.
It's interesting in the light of the controversy about Lewis that the actors who read The Chronicles of Narnia take Aslan in their stride as effortlessly as if they were playing Prospero, Shakespeare's old magician in The Tempest. And they are each done very well indeed.
The Horse and His Boy (tapes T16162, four hours 40 minutes; also CDs) is read by Alex Jennings with great eloquence and panache. This is the one that's set in a vaguely Middle Eastern world and involves the talking horse, Bree, and the boy who turns out to be a king in a world of knights and armour.
It's a gleaming adventure story which is also made solemn and deep by the apparition of that looming lion, Aslan. Alex Jennings, who does a lot of Shakespeare and also appeared in films such as Four Feathers, is superb at darting between wily Arabs and beautiful feisty Arab princesses and loyal whinnying horses who quail at the sight of lions.
Girls will probably take particular delight in the HarperCollins version of the next Narnia story, Prince Caspian (Collins CD 16652, four hours), because it's read by Lynn Redgrave, who sounds like anyone's idea of a marvellous princess.
Remember how Caspian regains the kingdom he's been pushed out of and how Peter and Edmund, who are mighty kings now, come to lend a hand? Redgrave reads it ravishingly - she sounds like Homer's muse.
It's worth remembering, and is constantly brought home to anyone who listens to these wonderful versions of the Narnia stories, that Lewis wasn't straitlaced simply because he was a bit moral.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Collins CD 17301, five hours 52 minutes) brings together dragons and gold hoards and an Odyssey-like sea quest, as well as specific references to Ulysses and the sirens. I must say that I hadn't realised that it also, pretty effortlessly, incorporates a bit of Dante in its quest section.
In Derek Jacobi's hands it's a superb adventure story with the sting of the salt spray and that breathtaking sense - that children love - of being on the edge of the world.
And Lewis is a marvellous old romancer in the way he manages to convey that the quest for the ultimate world is a tremendous spiritual adventure as well. This is the Narnia world at its most Arthurian. There are intimations of Holy Grails and Fisher Kings but it also sparkles with a sense of chivalry.
Of course Lewis had as much Wind in the Willows in him as he had Malory and Homer and one of his greatest creations is the fiercely brave mouse, Reepicheep, who at the book's end is in quest of Aslan's world because he is so truly brave.
My immersion into the magic painting box world of Harry Potter and Narnia came to an end when I was in the midst of Jeremy Northam - remember him in Gosford Park as a piano-playing Ivor Novello? - reading The Silver Chair (Collins CD 17255, 51/2 hours).
What a world of dizzying snow-capped vistas as Eustace and Jill are blown by the breath of Aslan miles and miles down into that icy valley where the owls hoot in a kind of rhyme.
Northam is more a Rex Harrison-style actor than a Richard Burton so he tends to be rapid and pointed and his Aslan purrs and growls around majestically, like a dominating character in a Shaw play, but the effect is captivating anyway.
The cliche is in fact true of these recordings. Young and old will delight in them. They will remind the adults at the wheel of what it was like to believe in the beauty of furry animals who understood it all and they will whisper into the ears of kids that there is a world of high and mighty dreams and that one human voice armed with the magic of words is as marvellous as the biggest movie screen in the world.
The Narnia sets are $39.95 on CD; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on 21 CDs is $190; $160 on cassettes.
End of article.
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