Thursday, March 3, 2016

Heirloom Audio Productions: The Dragon and The Raven (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

We have become huge fans of Heirloom Audio Productions' series, The Extraordinary Adventures of G.A. Henty.  Their newest release, The Dragon and the Raven, takes us back to Medieval times, when King Alfred the Great of England fought off Danish invaders. This audiodrama runs just over 2 hours long.  In addition to the 2-CD set, we received an eStudy guide, a printable copy of Proverbs 21:31 (as quoted by King Alfred in the story) and the official The Dragon and The Raven Soundtrack MP3 download.

This is Heirloom Audio's fourth release in their G.A. Henty series.  The first one, Under Drake's Flag, took us back to when Sir Francis Drake sailed to the New World.  In Freedom's Cause: The Real Story of Wallace and Bruce recounted the bravery of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce as they fought to set Scotland Free. In With Lee in Virginia, we got to experience the US Civil war from an unusual perspective: one that belonged to young Confederate cavalryman.  All five of my children have been anxiously awaiting The Dragon and the Raven to arrive since last summer, and they were not disappointed.

Keeping continuity with the series, Brian Blessed returns as narrator G. A. Henty.  No one was surprised to hear our buddies Ned and Gerald once again listening to Mr. George recount another story.  Once again, an all-star cast has been assembled: John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones), Helen George (Call the Midwife), and Sylvester McCoy (Dr. Who VII, The Hobbit) are among the voice actors who take their places at the microphone of history.

Once again, there is a biblical character moral to the tale.  Henty is well known for his Christian viewpoint on the world, and it shines through here.  However, what I love about Henty's works is that God and Scripture are delicately woven through the story.  Though these play an integral part in the worldview of the characters and propel the story foward, the listener isn't made to be felt as if being bludgeoned with a bible.  In the era of this story, like the others we've listened to, religion and theology are as intertwined into the character's lives as sunrise and supper. When all seems hopeless, it is easy for many to turn their backs on God; after all, it would seem as though He has forsaken them.  In this retelling of the victory, it is through Alfred's faith that they are saved from the enemy; he stuns one of the most feared Viking leaders by showing mercy to captured Danes.

The story takes place in the late 9th century, and the Vikings are steadily taking over Brittania. It begins with the events surrounding the Battle of Mercia, which ends with Wessex becoming the last kingdom standing in Britannia. The Saxon soldiers are organized into a shield wall formation, which at first holds the invaders at bay.  The Danes retreat, and the Saxons fall out in glee -- only to find themselves trapped in a valley as more Danes attack from the rear.  I had to laugh at Celia's reaction. We listened to these CDs on our way to some doctor's appointments, and I heard her voice from the backseat admonishing the men. "Oh no.  Oh no!  GUYS! You're supposed to start out on the HIGH GROUND.  Make your enemy fight uphill!!  THIS IS CIVIL WAR 101, PEOPLE!!"   Yes, I burst out laughing -- after being dragged through six or seven Civil War battlefields and a museum play-by-play of Normandy, clearly some of the war strategy has rubbed off on her.  When I reminded her that this battle took place about 1000 years prior, her response was a droll, "Well, at least they figured it out eventually. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it."   Yes, we had to skip back a track or two once we got done laughing.

Anglo-Saxon shield wall against Normanic cavalry,
Battle of Hastings
Bayeux Tapestry, US Public Domain
Luke and Matthew listened to the story, but they also listened intently to the descriptions of the battle.  I caught them at lunch discussing "If you move this guy here, and set up there..." and drawing plays on a napkin.  I asked them what were they doing, and the response was "Well, the shield wall thing makes so much more sense now.  Maybe we'll be able to beat that Assassin's Creed level we've been stuck on!"  Perhaps not what I would have hoped for them to take away from it, but...since they were working together and not planning on launching flaming arrows at each other, I'll call it a win.

Jude and Damien enjoyed the story as well.   Heirloom Audio prides itself in its productions being enjoyed by ages 4 and up.  They enjoyed listening, even if they didn't catch all the details. Damien liked the music - he said he knew when it was going to be exciting because "the music got loud."

The original score for the music was written by John Campbell. With an extensive repertoire of audiodramas on his résumé, Campbell is more than capable of bringing the story to life through music.  There is an adage on Broadway - "We sing because we can't speak anymore," - and here, there is music because it does a better job at conveying the story than even the brilliant John Fornoff could put into the script adaptation.  For example, the track "The Battle of Kevsten" begins with the sound of voices on the wind, the screech of metal, and builds into the high-energy of the fight.  Even without the story narration, you know something ominous and life changing is going on.  We've listened to the soundtrack while doing other work, and enjoyed it over and over.

The nearly 50 page study guide provides simple questions for younger children - what happened when, what did it mean, who did what, etc.  They are relatively simple comprehension questions, easily answered if paying attention. Jude, who does poorly with audio-only information, did surprisingly well at recalling details of the story when we used the study guide.  I really liked how the guide was divided by scene, with track locations notated as well.  This definitely makes it easier to go back and re-listen to sections without having to guess where in the story you needed to stop scanning.

Vocabulary and definitions are also with each track.  The "Thinking Further" section gives more in-depth questions and tasks, perfect for a critical thinking exercise or for using this as the base of a complete unit study on Alfred the Great.  While Alfred's main accomplishment was fighting off the Danes, the story also highlight Alfred's love of literature and poetry, his demand that all who had positions of power in his army be educated, and the enduring tale that his title Alfred the Great was bestowed because of his success in battle, not his prowess in the kitchen.

The word du jour seems to be "binge-watch" - as in gathering all the episodes of your favorite shows and watching one after the other until you've run out of video.  We think that Heirloom Audio's Tales of G.A. Henty are worth of binge-listening.  The Dragon and the Raven Once again, we're at a loose end, and eagerly waiting their next adventure!

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The Dragon and the Raven {Heirloom Audio Productions Review}

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