A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that, when the name of actor Richard Armitage comes up on Vulpes Libris, I am never far away. Yes, I am a fan – as I said in my piece on the TV adaptation of ‘North and South’, after his outstanding performance as John Thornton, that strange sense of identification, affection and shared experience that comes with fandom has led me to seek out his work.
Apart from a deep love for Martin Jarvis reading ‘Just William’ stories, with that wonderful way he has of making his very grown up voice sound just like a bad little boy’s, I’ve not seen the point of audiobooks for myself – though I do know for many people and for many different reasons they are wonderful. Consuming a book while doing the ironing might be an attractive idea, but for me, reading has always been an escape from multi-tasking – just me and the book, and nothing else to do, and with the voices that I choose in my head. Bernard Cornwell’s brand of historical adventure is not my taste in reading, either, although I can now recognise what a consummate story-teller he is. It’s formulaic – a linear narrative of set-pieces linked together, journeys, battles, body fluids, savagery, sword geekery and sadism, with an unlikely combination in a narrator of a macho sword-wielding killing machine, who is also a principled hero (Cornwell may not have invented the Vegan Viking, but he’s certainly cornered the market in its Anglo-Saxon equivalent), set in a chosen (and very brilliantly researched) historical background. The style is picaresque, not plot-bound – after all, there are sequels to be written. It’s the reign of Alfred the Great this time, instead of the age of King Arthur, or the Plantagenets, or the Peninsular War. But for me in this audiobook version, novel and performance together create something new and special.
The focal point here is Alfred the Great, and the background is his struggle to defend the kingdom of Wessex against the Danes. The hero of the sequence of novels is Uhtred, an Anglo-Saxon lord, exiled from his family fortress of Bebbanburg (aka Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland). He loses his father at a young age (sees him killed in battle) but is saved by one of the Viking lords of the North, Earl Ragnar, so he grows up in two different cultures, which sows the seeds for divided loyalty later on. By starting with The Lords of the North, we step straight into the third novel of the sequence, and have to hold on tight, although one of Cornwell’s great skills is in feeding in just enough of the back story to keep the reader/listener hanging in there. These novels are written as a first person narrative, with this charismatic, articulate hero telling his own life history in old age. His character is rich and complex, and he’s composing his own legend, just as he would have done in that era. His persona is by turns sardonic, angry, awe-inspiring, sarcastic, nervelessly courageous and sentimental. He is a vivid creation, and, rushed along by the energy of the narrative, one does not have much time to wonder if he has perhaps got somewhat 21st century sensibilities in certain areas of his life.
At the time of the novel, Uhtred is 21, but he’s been a warrior since his early teens, old before he’s young, and has done the deeds of heroism that are his calling card already – the man who slew Ubba Lothbroxen by the sea, and toppled Svein of the White Horse at Ethandun – as he tells repeatedly anyone who cares to listen. (These hieratic legend-building phrases give a sense of the past to a pacey prose that is not bogged down by archaisms.) He has been of immense value in battle to Alfred the Great, but has been given a very meagre reward. So, he picks up his swords (cue much geekery … but that did not stop me from visiting the British Museum to see the fine replica sword of Sutton Hoo, to see how the blades were forged from twisted rods) and his apostate-nun girlfriend, buries his treasure, and heads north on a vague quest for revenge, repossession of his lands and rightful dues. On the way he finds a dispossessed King from Cumbria, and makes common cause with him. Now listen on …
Richard Armitage takes on the mantle of the story-teller hero perfectly. He has chosen for himself a hybrid accent, a mixture of Yorkshire with hints of East Midlands, which fits the character and the era well. He has a tremendous time choosing accents for the rest of the cast of characters, from a rip-roaring Geordie, through nasal London, to soft and gentle or bucolic West Country. Characters from the elite range from roaring clerics to a soft-spoken but steely King Alfred. For the Danes, heroic and villainous, he chooses curiously lilting differentiated accents that point out a distinction between denizens and invaders but without undue emphasis. As so many accomplished readers of audiobooks do, he finds a tone and quality of voice for his women characters without resorting to a change of pitch. Most of the time we hear a voice in character as a man in the prime of life and physical condition, but from time to time we are reminded that this is all being told by a man of eighty – an unimaginable age for a warrior, who would be lucky to see 40. The vocal contrast in these passages is subtle, but enough to bring me up short to savour passages that I’d probably speed read past on the printed page. Finally, and I have it on the authority of people who have studied it that it’s the real thing, there is the delicious thrill of the few words he speaks in Anglo-Saxon, from Beowulf:
… com on wanre niht scri∂an sceadugenga
(… from out of the wan night slides the shadow walker)
One of the things I most admire about Richard Armitage is his gift as a physical actor, and strangely enough this comes to good in his reading of the set-piece fights and battles. He’s telling them as if he’s seeing them in his mind’s eye, and marking the movements – the sense of choreography is so strong. That artifice certainly has helped me through the blood and the dismemberment at certain points, and it occurred to me that the best sort of reader for this sort of book has to be an accomplished stage-fighter with the certificates to prove it.
In the centre of the novel is an altogether more sustained section that I found fascinating. The hero is betrayed and taken into slavery. There are no battles, there are no great affairs of state, only long voyages and dark winters, There’s a cumulation of daily grind and humiliation, and a mystery as the slaver is pursued by a ghostly red ship – who is it, and what will happen? I can understand why readers might speed read through this part of the book, so differently paced it is, but here Richard Armitage knows just how to convey the bleakness of the hero’s situation, and a slow but inexorable build up of tension. Strangely, my favourite part of the (audio)book.
I’ve tried here to describe my reactions to this particular interpretation, and how I relate to it as a reader who ordinarily would probably have hurled The Lords of the North at the skirting board by the end of chapter three, but who listened avidly to every word of this reading. It was a completely different experience – I was not reading the book, I was listening to a dramatic performance, an interpretation by an actor with an intelligence and conviction that drew me into this violent and rather repellent world – where nevertheless a civil society was being forged. As a result, I became curious and learnt more about Alfred the Great and his age, the political geography of the British Isles in the time of the Viking invasions. And I am now an audiobook listener, discovering other wonderful voices. A Bernard Cornwell reader? Well, I’ve now read the rest of this sequence, enjoying the voice of this narrator in my head, Sadly, this is the only novel out of the (so far) five that Richard Armitage has read. To me, his voice is that of Uhtred the hero, so I am not seeking out the others.
So this is not about the book so much as about the actor reading it, and in particular how he uses the voice and the physical grace that are two of his greatest strengths, to make the case for this book to someone who otherwise would have turned away from it. And I do know that what I’m saying about one actor stands for so many other gifted readers who do such a brilliant job in bringing a book to life, by the thoughtfulness, intelligence and craft in their reading. How to create a world, how to invent, and achieve consistency with, a large number of characters of all ages, genders and backgrounds? All the time I’m listening, I’m wondering where those elements come from within the mind of the actor/reader. I’ve had the advantage of reading Nicolas Soames’ brilliant interview at the beginning of this month, and now some (if not all) of my questions are answered.
One of the reasons why this reading succeeds so brilliantly is that it is a first person narrative. This actor takes on completely the character of the narrator hero; he manages to sound as though he’s wearing the clothes, carrying the swords, sporting the trophy arm rings of this Anglo-Saxon warrior. By his commitment to the hero and his voice, Richard Armitage has connected with the story-telling tradition of the age of Beowulf and earlier, and has shown himself to be a true ‘Skald’ – a bearer of tales of heroes.
The Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell, read by Richard Armitage. Chivers Audiobooks, 2007. Unabridged, 10CDs, 12 hours playing time.
Available for £22.99 plus postage from BBC Audiobooks (now part of AudioGo), but only currently via email (info AT audiobookcollection DOT com) or by telephone (01225 443400).