Children of Húrin (book, JRR Tolkien, 2007)
This review was published in the second issue of Death Ray, back in 2007. There’s a fact box at the end describing Tolkien’s chronology for the neophyte.
JRR Tolkien, Edited by Christopher Tolkien
Harper Collins/ ISBN 978 0 00 724622/313pp
The Children of Húrin is the first continuous narrative set in Middle-earth to be released since The Lord of The Rings. Although a great deal of JRR Tolkien’s work has been explored in the past by his son Christopher, this has previously taken the form of collections of stories and snippets of legend. A great deal of this material was never completed by the old professor, and though the younger Tolkien has striven manfully over the years to do his father’s vast catalogue of notes justice, it has been a monumental task yielding variable results. Even the best of the works, the Silmarillion, is hard going compared to the epic narrative of The Lord of the Rings, though it does give great insight into JRR Tolkien’s constructed mythology. The rest of the works – The Books of Lost and Unfinished Tales, the History of Middle-earth, are for true Tolkien fanatics only. Reading these is akin to academic research rather than entertainment, as the conflicting, multiple tellings of the stories, written as they are in a deliberately archaic style, is like reading several primary sources detailing an event aeons gone. Tolkien might have been pleased with that analogy, as he was attempting to create a mythological history, but it is hard going for the reader. Paradoxically, it is often Christopher Tolkien’s commentaries on the stories that are the more entertaining and elucidatory, simply because they are all of a piece. It is this that consequently makes the Silmarillion, with much editorial intervention on his part, the better read, if less ‘pure’.
It has been interesting watching the canon of Tolkien work evolve over the years as Christopher Tolkien’s relationship with his father’s material has developed. With the Silmarillion he behaved as if he were a historian of Middle-earth, weaving something approaching a narrative from the disparate jottings of his late father. But all history is a fiction, being at least two removes from fact – those of the fallible memory and bias captured in the primary sources, and then in the interpretation of those sources by another mind – from the original event. In the Silmarillion’s case we have not a fictionalised history, but an interpretation of another’s historicised fiction, opening up many avenues of criticism to those who think they know better. Retreating from this earlier style, the younger Tolkien swapped the role of historian for that of antiquarian, presenting the works of his father with notes. With The Children of Húrin this relationship has changed again, by producing this complete story it appears that Christopher Tolkien has tentatively assumed the mantle of storyteller.
The Children of Húrin is one of Tolkien’s “Great Tales” from the elder days of Middle-earth. There were three of these, but this is the most complete, and the one, Christopher intimates, his father regarded as being the most important. It is a tragedy set in a part of Middle-earth that has long been submerged under the ocean by the time of The Lord of The Rings. In these distant days Morgoth was the dark lord. Sauron’s master, Morgoth was even more powerful than the lord of the rings – whereas Sauron was a Maia, a demigod, Morgoth was a fallen Vala, a god.
Morgoth’s power in the book is very much in the ascendant. The beginning sees an alliance of Men and Elves smashed by Morgoth’s forces, and their northerly realms fall under his sway. Húrin is a famed and powerful captain of men at the battle, and is taken prisoner by the Orcs of Morgoth. Borne to the fortress of Angband, he is imprisoned by the Dark Lord, and a curse placed upon him so that he might see the wicked fate that Morgoth has designed for his children, Túrin and Niënor.
This is a tragic saga. Túrin is subtly influenced by the will of Morgoth to always follow the darker path, his actions rippling out to harm the lives of those he loves until, having unknowingly wed his own sister and murdered more than one of his friends, he comes to a tragic end.
Tolkien’s borrowings from ancient legends are more obvious here than in The Lord of the Rings. Túrin’s tale has many similarities with that of the anti-hero Kullervo from Finnish Kalevala, while his confrontation of the dragon Glaurung owes more than a little to the conclusion of Beowulf. But he has taken these ancient ideas and crafted an affecting tale of Middle-earth that is entirely his own. Mainstream press reviews of the book have consistently fastened upon the lack of characterisation and the whimsy of it all, but that is rather missing the point. Tolkien sought, mostly for his own entertainment, to use his vast knowledge to create a believable myth cycle. And he did, so in those terms one might as well criticise the Edda for a lack of character development in Thor. In sense of place, of mood, of establishing a long-vanished world stalked by greater beings than those that dwell in the world now, Tolkien cannot be faulted.
But it is more than just a good JRR Tolkien novel, this is undoubtedly also Christopher Tolkien’s masterpiece. Those who have criticised Christopher’s co-editorship of the Silmarillion have no ammunition here, as the man states in his notes on the book that there is no invention of his own in The Children of Húrin beyond a few linking sentences and minor tidying (so minor, in fact, that it takes all of two pages for him to describe it). Modest as ever, Christopher Tolkien underplays his 30-year effort to bring this tale to publication. This is a wonderfully sensitive reconstruction of a story that shows great compassion and respect on the part of the editor for the works of his father, far more than some literary sons have shown for the efforts of their forebears. The book includes extensive notes on the story, how the book was created from the fragments left behind by Tolkien, and how it fits into the greater story of Middle-earth. These notes are, if anything, more moving than the story itself.
Lavishly illustrated by Alan Lee, this is a beautiful book. It is evocative not only of the world that it depicts, but also of the great affection Christopher Tolkien has for the memory of his father. Although fantasy does have its detractors and the old cliché “great if you like this sort of thing” could be said of The Children of Húrin, it would be necessary to strengthen it, for those that like this sort of thing will genuinely love it.
The First Age
The Tale of the Children of Húrin, or Narn I Chîn Húrin, is set in the First Age of the world. The Lord of The Rings is set at the end of the Third Age, many thousands of years later.
At this time, those Men that had crossed the Blue Mountains and those Elves who did not dwell in Valinor lived together in a part of Middle-earth called Beleriand. This vast sub-continent extended westwards out into the ocean. It was bounded at the east by the Blue Mountains, which appear at the far west of the map of Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings. The lands east of these mountains, where Men, Dwarves and Elves came to wakefulness after the creation of the world, were dark places at the time.
Morgoth, who was once known as Melkor, was the most powerful of the Ainur – the spirits and gods of the world. He created the Orcs, Balrogs, Dragons, Trolls and many other evil creatures. Striking from his fortress of Angband, he conquered much of Beleriand, while the Elves fought with him and each other for possession of the Silmarils. These gems contained the light of the two trees that lit the land of Valinor before Morgoth poisoned them. Eventually, the few remaining Elves and Men appealed to Ilúvatar, the creator of the world, and he banished Morgoth from the universe forever. Beleriand sank beneath the waves, many Elves went to Valinor, Men were given the land of Númenor, and the Second Age of the world began.