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The Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell, read by Richard Armitage

Part of Audiobook Month on Vulpes Libris

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).

25 comments on “The Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell, read by Richard Armitage

  1. bccmee
    September 10, 2010

    This audiobook is amazing. It took an entire month to get to my home in New York City but it was so worth the wait thanks to the fantastic work of Richard Armitage and Bernard Cornwell. The Lords of the North is not my normal genre either and yet it captivated me. I not only listened to it, I *lived* it.

  2. jaydee09
    September 10, 2010

    That’s a wonderful review for a wonderful audiobook, Hilary. You’ve managed to express so eloquently and with such passion all the things that make Richard Armitage’s reading of a great book so memorable. I sat there open-mouthed through all of it and also went on to read the other books in the series. Glad to see that it’s now more easily obtainable. Worth every penny!

  3. DebRA
    September 10, 2010

    Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful review. I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said. This is a breathtaking piece of work by Richard Armitage. I think, for most of us, we put it aside in a place of its own within his audiowork in the same way we put North & South aside in a place of its own in his video work. It’s not a ‘narration’ but a performance. It’s entirely his and he masters it. I think your observation about the strong sense of choreography is spot on. This is a physical and imaginative actor who appreciates how to imagine and convey physicality as well as emotion and psychology. More than that is the skill he brings to not just the voices but the shift in voice from one character to another within one scene, sometimes in a split second, so you forget it’s actually the one actor. And, you’re not the only one drawn to discover more about the background of the novel. In some of Richard’s fan forums there are pages and pages of responses in a growing number of threads from members ranging from how they feel about his performance to what they’ve then gone on to discover about the history of the period and its locations, and their ‘pilgrimages’ to Bebbenburg. Right now, I’m wearing a Bebbenburg Lion and a Thor’s Hammer a lovely RAC forum member bought me when she was there. To engage people’s imaginations in that very constructive way takes a special talent.

    BTW, you might like to know that in February 2008, the audio book was No. 3 in the Audio Times Top Ten Ratings.

    Richard has provided some very interesting insights to his approach to his audio work in his interviews for his Naxos Georgett Heyer audiobooks (sadly abridged but wonderful, nonetheless) and his Robin Hood 1 and Robin Hood 3 audiobooks.

    I hadn’t experienced much in the way of audiobooks before this and it’s opened a whole new world for me.

  4. Elisabet
    September 10, 2010

    Great review, Hilary. I also loved this audiobook. I listened to it on my commute by car for about a month, even sneeking out during lunch to drive around just to listen to another chapter. I am now also reading the books, which I like too. I have not yet tried many other audio books expect the ones Richard Armitage has read (I listend to them all, I am a huge fan since Robin Hood), but from the others that I have tried I have not yet had the same sense of wow.

  5. juliee
    September 10, 2010

    I feel the need to listen to this story repeatedly and find I hear something new everytime. So much to discover listening to his voice tell this tale. This Audiobook (my first) certainly provides an extra dimension to the novel experience and in this case the brilliant performance of Richard Armitage allows me to be transported back to my native North land from Australia – what a bonus!

    It would be wonderful if a documentary had been made about Richard Armitage preparing and reading the story and the behind the scenes set-up in the studio. Many would find it fascinating to learn about this recording industry process and business.

    I enjoyed the whole experience – the people at Chivers Audiobooks were very friendly and helpful and then there was the anticipation waiting for the audiobook to arrive and finally several marvellous hours obsorbed in Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg, so something a bit different from plucking a book from a shelf.

  6. Amandajane
    September 10, 2010

    Thanks for this review; it echoes everything I’ve thought about this amazing performance.
    I have read the other books in the series ( apart from The Burning Lands ) but I’ve not been able to get into any of the other audio book versions. Richard Armitage does a breathtakingly good job that is hard to equal.

    I agree that he is an amazing storyteller. I could just see him sitting by a fire in an Anglo Saxon hall and telling this tale.

    I lose count of how many times I’ve listened; and I’m still totally hooked on it.

  7. Lizzy
    September 10, 2010

    Wonderful review Hilary! You’ve put into words just about everything I feel about this brilliant audiobook. Richard Armitage’s reading is so vivid that after listening to it, I feel as though I haven’t just heard a book being read, but watched a perfectly cast movie of it up on the big screen.

    I find it almost impossible to imagine that some of those voices (Hrothweard, Finn, etc) belong to him; each voice somehow conveys the physical characteristics of the character to whom it belongs – and all of those characters (with the exception of Uhtred of course) look nothing like him!

  8. kaprekar
    September 10, 2010

    You are preaching to the converted here. It’s a brilliant and compelling reading.

    The only thing I would like to add is that I do not understand why it is so difficult to buy. It’s not available in shops, Amazon or any other online retailer and can only be ordered directly from Audiogo (formerly BBC Audiobooks) in Bath, UK by phone or email. The other (far inferior) versions of the same book are available much more readily. As a result it seems people either do not buy it, accidentally buy a version with a different reader or even sometimes pay overinflated prices to buy used copies from eBay and the like.

    If you are in touch with Audiogo because of this review I would love to find out the answer to this question.

  9. Susie
    September 10, 2010

    I loved “Lords of the North”. Richard Armitage with his wonderful characterizations had me practically wetting myself at times. Obviously his ability as an actor is a definite advantage, but I do think that he also has a natural ability for this kind of work. I certainly don’t think that someone without an acting background or training would be able to convey the storylines needed for audio.

    I love Bernard Cornwell’s books, they are always so historically and geographically accurate, often something of a rarity with some books and TV adaptations.

    I can’t imagine anyone else other than Richard reading it half as well, although I believe someone else has recorded another audio version. I think the ability of the narrator makes all the difference as far as the listener is concerned. In fact since Richard Armitage has started recording various audio books it’s made me rather lazy, in as much as I now listen to him reading the books, rather than reading them for myself the old fashioned way! Well that’s progress for you I suppose!

  10. William
    September 10, 2010

    Lovely review Hillary. I love Sharpe on audio Richard Armitage is indeed the best narrator for these audios. I will have to try and pick this title up ASAP. What else is there to say? You covered it all.

  11. Jackie
    September 10, 2010

    Really well done piece, Hilary! You are much more eloquent than I at being a fangirl. I’m also impressed that you further researched the background & setting. While this doesn’t seem like my cup of tea, it does sound very well done as an audiobook. And 10 CDs!! One would really need dedication & interest to listen for that long.

  12. OneMoreLuker
    September 10, 2010

    It really takes some dedication on you part to listen to 10 CDs, the key here is having Richard Armitage voice tell this story which forces you to make time for it.
    I’m just in the 3th CD and I’m in awe when in my mind’s eye I see the different characters, men, women, young, older and then I remember it’s the same man narrating and giving them voice.

    Before I bought it, I was told it was a treat to the ears, it is indeed.

    OML 🙂

  13. Annette
    September 11, 2010

    Hilary, you’ve articulated far better than I could my own response to this audiobook.

    Like you, I’d never have read Bernard Cornwell – he simply isn’t my cup of tea. But after listening to The Lords of the North, I read and enjoyed all the novels in this series. Richard Armitage brought Cornwells’s Uhtred and his world to life so vividly that I wanted to know more about this warrior and the times in which he lived.

    I hadn’t listened to audiobooks for many years, and I only bought this one with the intention of listening to a little of it – as an admirer of Richard Armitage’s work I wanted to hear how he tackled this. But from the very beginning, from the moment he spat out Uhtred’s disdain for Alfred and the paltry reward he’d received for his part in saving Alfred’s kingdom at Ethandun, I was hooked.

    I too found the central section of his enslavement one of the best parts of the recording. The bleakness of his situation in comparison with his life as a warrior is very well rendered – I found it heartbreaking and utterly absorbing. I can remember listening to part of this section in my car on a late night journey back to a hotel, and then once I’d arrived, staying in the hotel car park until nearly 1am so that I could finish listening to it.

    One of Richard Armitage’s strengths as a reader is clearly the range of voices he finds to people his recordings, voices with a huge variety of accent, texture, pitch and pace. It’s not the only way to read an audiobook – some very fine readers don’t differentiate the voices nearly as much as this – but done well, as here, it’s very effective at creating a vivid world using nothing more than a single human voice.

    The Lords of the North remains by far my favourite of Richard Armitage’s audiobooks, a perfect marriage of reader and novel.

  14. Susie
    September 11, 2010

    If only somebody could be persuaded to make a series of this book, as with Sean Bean in the Sharpe novels, casting Richard Armitage as Uhtred of course, this would indeed be a delight for all the senses, not just the ears but the eyes too!

  15. Myrtle
    September 11, 2010

    Lovely review Hilary. I can only echo what others have said, listening to Lords of the North is a magical experience and RA inspired me to go on and read the 4 other books of the Saxon Chronicles. I wonder if there will be book No5?

  16. Nikki
    September 12, 2010

    I read Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell and could barely get through it, I’m obviously not his target audience. However I’m a King Arthur geek so I’ve often been tempted by his Arthur novels, but turned off by past experience. Possibly the problem I had with the novel I read was that it was so action packed it didn’t seem right to be page-bound? After your review though I’m thinking that it might be worth trying them on audio… Don’t suppose the lovely RA reads those too, does he?

  17. jaydee09
    September 12, 2010

    I also read Harlequin, Nikki, and, just to show willing, I also read the other two companion novels. I ploughed through these three books because the 5 Uhtred novels had been such a wonderful read and RA’s reading of LotN had been such a wonderful listen that I wanted to extend the experience.

    Don’t be put off by Harlequin or you will miss out on a great experience. Read a synopsis of the first 2 books on Wiki; then listen to LotN with the book to hand because it contains some very useful maps, an intriguing glossary and an excellent historical note at the end which won’t spoil anything for you if you read it first. Then, if you enjoy this, go back and read the other 4 books with Richard’s voice in your head.

    The Saxon Chronicles have a special impact because the story is told in the first person, unlike Harlequin, and, what with RA’s realisation of the hero, Uhtred became a living person for me.

    Amazon reviewers seem to think that The Saxon Chronicles demonstrate Cornwell’s best writing, surpassing his Sharpe novels. The Arthur trilogy is supposed to be excellent too. Harlequin etc tend to get a bit of a thumb’s down. So sorry you came across this book first. Just trust me on LotN. It’s an experience you won’t forget and, quite importantly, if you’re English, tells you fascinating stuff about the making of this country that they didn’t bother to mention at school.

  18. Lisa
    September 14, 2010

    “Bernard Cornwell’s brand of historical adventure is not my taste in reading, either…”

    Interesting that a book you wouldn’t normally get on with, is so much more appealing when experienced as an audiobook. I’m encountering this phenomenon in the other direction, alas, with some high concept fiction that I adore in book form, and yet doesn’t work as well for me as an audiobook. One of our commenters Christine has just remarked on Moira’s review of The Picture of Dorian Gray that:

    “I’ve read books that I’ve loved and heard the same unabridged book read by someone and have hated it–sometimes because the prose doesn’t translate well to the oral presentation and sometimes just because the narrator didn’t do anything for me.”

    which I could identify with.

    Anyhow, excellent piece, Hilary.

  19. Hilary
    September 14, 2010

    Thanks for all the supportive comments. I wondered if I might strike a chord 😉

    Regarding the market for this particular audiobook: the original publisher, Chivers Audiobooks, has been part of my professional life for decades. Based in Bath (and a firm with a lovely old-fashioned approach, as has been pointed out, Chivers are specialists in the Library market, producing unabridged readings along with only a very few others. With the emergence of audiobooks in the retail market, Chivers were bought by BBC Worldwide, then sold on very recently to
    Audiogo. Chivers have never marketed their products through the mainstream channela very vigorously. A toe in the retail market was dipped in the past two years, and I’m sure Audiogo will be making a strong showing in due course. Meanwhile, the enduring Chivers presence is the most visible, aimed at libraries. I’m really looking forward to the retail side of Audiogo getting up and running.

    Lisa, how interesting that observation is. I think it’s a case of being ambushed by someone making the case for a novel. I think it would have to be exceptional to lure me away from a novel I love to the audiobook version. I keep being told how wonderfully Juliet Stevenson reads both Persuasion and North and South – but, no, not for me. I’m sure she’s brilliant, she’s bound to be – but those novels are so much part of me that I don’t want or need the listening version (as things stand, as I’m fortunate enough to be able to read them on the page).

  20. NovemberBride
    September 14, 2010

    I’ve been trying to find this audio book for a couple of weeks now. I’ve gone to the mentioned websites with no luck. Any advice? I really really want this one. Mr. A makes 4 hrs of lawn mowing go SOOOO fast!! Thanks! And thanks for the above article. Just found you today and am putting this site on my favorites list.

  21. Hilary
    September 14, 2010

    Currently not on a website, NovemberBride, though I understand that may be remedied soon. Currently available via the email link at the end of the post. I’m sure if you make an enquiry by email you’ll get a helpful reply. Thanks for the positive comment!

  22. Pingback: RichardArmitageNet News » Blog Archive » September 2010 news archive

  23. Pingback: The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell « Vulpes Libris

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  25. Pingback: The Convenient Marriage, by Georgette Heyer | Vulpes Libris

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