Take a good, long look at that face. It’s not one many will recognize unless they watch a lot of British plays and dramas from the 1970’s. This man is Sir Michael Hordern, an English stage and radio actor with a booming voice and acting credits that extend from 1937 until 1992. Long lists of plays I’ve never heard of, movies I’ll probably never see, and dramas that have been lost to history populate his resume, but for me, Sir Michael Hordern will forever be synonymous with one of the most iconic characters in literature history.
None other than Gandalf, from Lord of the Rings.
Now, I have nothing against Sir Ian McKellen’s timeless performance as Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but please remember, I come from a generation that fell in love with Lord of the Rings before the big screen pushed Tolkien’s works into the mainstream. When I fell in love with Lord of the Rings, names like the Hildebrandt Brothers, Ted Nasmith, John Howe, and of course, Alan Lee defined the look of Middle-earth, each with their own interpretations of events and characters from the books.
In the mid-90s, those of us who wanted to experience Lord of the Rings beyond the realm of the books turned to Interplay’s old pixelated DOS games, Iron Crown’s collectible card game, and the animated films, Rankin Bass’ The Hobbit and Return of the King, the films that introduced me to Tolkien, and Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. Back before the film trilogy set a standard for the look of Middle-earth, we turned our own mind’s eyes on and filled in bits and pieces with these various works.
Those that fell in love with Lord of the Rings in the 60s and 70s didn’t even have those!
No interpretation better embodies this notion than the BBC’s 1981 audio play of Lord of the Rings. To this day, I can play these 13 episodes over a lazy weekend or a plane ride to Japan and just let the brilliant production values, dreamy narration, seemless musical score, and excellent voice work take me away to Middle-earth without ever opening my eyes. My personal Middle-earth was born from the descriptions that carried over from the book, and many of the characters have firmly entrenched themselves as my preferred versions, all through the power of voice.
I need not see Sir Robert Stephens bring a hint of compassionate royalty to the wilderness-born Aragorn to enjoy the performance. The vocals get it done all on their own. The BBC audio holds no shortage of amazing performances, most famously Ian Holm voicing Frodo, the same actor who would go on to play Bilbo in the film trilogy.
However, it is Sir Michael Hordern that forever stands out as Gandalf to me from this series. The character is one of the most difficult to play, with any actor needing to switch constantly between the cooky old man who smokes weed and lights fireworks with little people in the countryside, to the wise teacher who guides heroes through dark halls and soothes weary hearts with the lore of yesteryear, to a supreme badass wizard who battles ancient demons and traverses the afterlife.
Hordern performances covers all aspects of Gandalf. Here him below recite “All That is Gold Does Not Glitter,” the poem recited to Frodo to confirm the identity of Strider.
Unfortunately, this is the only sample of the voicework that I could find for this article, so you’ll have to check out the entire audio play for more. I highly recommend it.
This is the voice that carries Gandalf’s performance to unmatched heights. Battling the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, commanding attention as the voice of reason at the Council of Elrond, engaging in a battle of wits against his former leader Sarumon, putting Denethor in his place while Minas Tirith faces certain doom, bringing Frodo back to health after his treacherous journey, and finally, sailing over the sea from the Grey Havens.
It is this voice I will never be able to separate from the character. It’s not that far off from those who are unable to separate Kevin Conroy from Batman, in spite of the long list of actors who have played the character. Some voices just stick to a character, and even in competition with Sir Ian McKellen and the unmistakable booming voice of John Huston in the animated films, Hordern’s is still the iconic Gandalf that many do not even know about.
Michael Hordern’s performance stands long as a perfect example of why it is important to experience Lord of the Rings through the books or through audio long before you see the films. The character of Gandalf is so perfectly fleshed out through his performance, and yet, it’s up to the listener to put a face to that voice. Granted, everyone’s Gandalf would be pretty similar, but it also would not be set in stone as the charming mug of Sir Ian McKellen. That’s the beauty of imagination, though. Forcing audiences into a box and demanding conformity might sell tickets, but it is short-sighted to the power of human thought.
Our modern-day entertainment conglomerates might be taking it down a treacherous path, but Middle-earth is more than just a multimedia franchise. It was not born from the big screen like Star Wars or the panels of comics like Marvel, but rather through words, passages, and letters on a page, leaving interpretation and imagination to create infinite viewpoints and renderings of its scenes and characters.
Films and comics give creators only so much wiggle room to expand upon, but books and audio provide so many more options. This is why Peter Jackson’s, Ralph Bakshi’s, and maybe even Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings tales all look so different and yet, all seem like viable representations.
This is also why I’ll never introduce Middle-earth to my son through the Peter Jackson films. As much as I love them, they are little more than a piece of a larger puzzle in the grand history of Tolkien’s works. Solely leaning on them for inspiration into what Middle-earth looks like and how the tale unfolds is lazy and severely limits the boundaries of can come. The films are so perfectly made that I fear they would forever dominate his imagination.
As for Hordern, as much as I love the performance, he did not, stating in his autobiography that the role of Gandalf was “a bit of a slog.”