J. R. R. Tolkien - The Children of Hurin

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Tolkien's "Great Tale" is more Ragnarokian Sophocles than Terry Brooks/Robert Jordan fantasy.

Jun 11, 2007
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:It's a new Tolkien novel. What more need be said?

Cons:It doesn't follow the final fulfillment of Morgoth's curse in Hurin.

The Bottom Line: A classical tragedy with northern sensibilities. A glimpse of what the fantasy genre could have been.

"I give you joy that you have found your brother at last. And now you shall know him: a stabber in the dark, treacherous to foes, faithless to friends, and a curse unto his kin, Turin son of Hurin! But worst of all his deeds you shall feel in yourself."

- The dread dragon Glaurung's final words to Nienor, daughter of Hurin.

Narn I Chîn Húrin: The Children of Hurin
J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien), 2007

In Eldar days, 6,500 years before the unmaking of Sauron's ring, men fought with the Elves against Morgoth Bauglir. They were tall and fair and stern like the Elven lords, and also like the Elves they were proud. Hurin the Steadfast was great among them, but was captured by the Enemy in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Even in chains he scorned Morgoth, who cursed him in fury: "Upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death."

Then Hurin's wife, Morwen, sent her son Turin to the Elven forests of Doriath for safety. Like his father, Turin was compassionate and somber, but quick to wrath and slow to forgive. He came of age on the marches of Doriath, fighting orcs alongside Beleg Strongbow. But soon Morogth's curse found him. His rashness led to banishment and woeful sojourns among bandits, the Elves of Nargothrond, and the men of Brethil. At each turn evil pursued him, turning all his purposes to ill. Those who loved him best suffered most, and all his victories of strength and courage turned to ash with peace and happiness forever fleeing from him and doom following behind.

The Text and the Book

Tolkien's oeuvre boasts the kind of textual issues that Shakespearian scholars and scripturians revel in. He worked on different versions of The Children of Hurin from 1919 until at least the 1950s. There are summary prose versions collected in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and volume one of The Book of Lost Tales, and two others in verse can be found in The Lays of Beleriand, including one that reached over two thousand lines before he abandoned it midway. These he wrote in the rigorous Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, a forgotten form he mastered as few have.

His son and literary executor, Christopher, details these considerations in two appendices, preceded by several genealogies and followed by a glossary of names. There is also an oversized map, which folds out. This avoids the common problem of the book's binding obscuring the middle of the map, but replaces it with the inevitable tearing along the crease that will come with use. Worse, the map has been simplified, with not only names left off, but features that are not important to the narrative are not represented. This makes it more accessible to the novice, but disorienting to the veteran.

Alan Lee, longtime Tolkien illustrator, provides a foreboding cover, eight full-color plates, and a number of smaller illustrations done in pencil. These are all enriching but unobtrusive, never commandeering the mind's eye as less restrained artwork might.

The Fantasy Disconnect

Tolkien is often credited for inspiring the modern genre of fantasy literature, and in many ways his influence is inarguable. But The Children of Hurin reemphasizes the fact that what Tolkien was about was something very different from what fantasy has become.

While the express purpose behind publishing this book was to give the story an opportunity to stand alone, something it accomplishes only with a significant introductory note, it is always clear that the mode has more in common with history or legend than it does with the adventures found in today's bookstore aisles. This can be felt in the amount of context and trivia surrounding the story, the use of elevated language, and the narrative tone, which insists the book be read as the summary of events ancient and wonderful, as opposed to a full and neat telling of a story with the immediacy and involvement we've come to expect from fantasy.

Do not come looking for a child of prophecy, called to free his people, slay the dragon, save the princess, and defeat the dark lord. In The Children of Hurin those tropes are all twisted to evil parodies, and the hero's theme is failure and defeat. It is a far cry from the eucatastrophies of popular fantasy, or even of The Lord of the Rings.

Provident Evil

The victory of evil over the fading flower of a more glorious age is central to Tolkien's elegiac ethos, his inheritance from the Northern literature he studied as a preeminent philologist. A central mystery in The Children of Hurin is whether Morgoth truly has the power he claims: "The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will."

It is a dark breed of fatalism that drives Hurin's children ever to their end, a grim posing of the question between destiny and free will. Does Turin bring ruin in his wake because of his rash pride and lack of wisdom, or is Morgoth rightly named Bauglir, the Constrainer? Each time Turin is driven away by disaster he assumes a new identity. He is known by at least ten different names, and still he cannot escape Morgoth's curse. When Gwindor, one of a parade of unfortunate companions, reveals Turin's true name Turin says "You have done ill to me, friend, to betray my right name, and call down my doom upon me, from which I would lie hid." Gwindor responds, "The doom lies in yourself, not in your name."

From the devout Catholic author of The Lord of the Rings it is a surprising inversion of Providence. It is more akin to the Greek tragedies, where a hero is caught between fate and his own foibles and increasing ill comes of all his struggles, or to the Northern eschatology, with Turin as a tool of Doom, destined despite himself to help Morgoth vanquish the Lords of the West.

Beating a Dead Horse

The question arises: has Christopher Tolkien gone too far? Is he milking his father's legacy by repackaging old material that's already available? Those who have read The Silmarillion will certainly know the story of Turin Turambar, and many passages will be familiar. Even more so those acquainted with the version in Unfinished Tales. Though there are differences. For example, The Children of Hurin and The Silmarillion conflict in how Mim is denied revenge on Beleg. And some decisions may be questionable—I would have included the dialogue between Glaurung and Turin regarding Turin's helm as found in the appendix of Unfinished Tales, and I would have included Hurin's ultimate fate as well.

In any case the point was not to create something new. It was to create, or at least approximate, the completion of Tolkien's long project, and do so with minimal invention. Without fully putting textual controversy to bed, The Children of Hurin succeeds as a definitive version of the tale. (Yet it must be remembered that a truly definitive version would necessarily be in alliterative verse, something sadly impossible.)

The Children of Hurin also succeeds in what Christopher identifies as his primary objective: to create a bridge for lovers of Tolkien's more popular writings, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to his less accessible works. A stopgap between the narrative of The Lord of the Rings and the history of The Silmarillion. While more readable than The Silmarillion's sketches, The Children of Hurin remains the summarization of a lost lay. In its style and mood it will be a stretch for readers of The Lord of the Rings. It is not a sequel, nor even a prequel, but it does represent a stretch of more manageable increment, and I share Christopher's hope that it will widen the audience for Tolkien's full corpus.

It is also worth pointing out that Christopher is now eighty-two years old (one year older than his father when he died). At this age he should hardly feel tempted, for fame or lucre, to pillage his father's legacy. This was a work of love, as it always was for Tolkien himself. Reading it is also a work of love, and it brings me joy notwithstanding the darkness.

– Panguitch

My reviews of other Tolkieniana:
The Two Towers (movie): http://www.epinions.com/content_84595936900
The Return of the King (movie): http://www.epinions.com/content_122274745988
The Tolkien Reader: http://www.epinions.com/content_83305205380
Meditations on Middle-Earth: http://www.epinions.com/content_100388015748
J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century: http://www.epinions.com/content_72574733956
Tolkien: A Biography: http://www.epinions.com/content_220187037316
The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays: http://www.epinions.com/content_221694496388
Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism: http://www.epinions.com/content_226921975428

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