This review was just published here, in the Providence Journal, if you want to read it with a nice cover image from the book and a more attractive layout.
J.R.R. Tolkien. The Children of Húrin.
Edited by Christopher Tolkien.
Houghton Mifflin. 313 pages. $26.
By Michael D.C. Drout
Special to The Journal
More books by J.R.R. Tolkien have been published since his death in 1973 than appeared during his lifetime, but The Children of Húrin, painstakingly edited by Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher, is the first since The Lord of the Rings that is both a self-contained story and set in the same Middle-earth as Tolkien’s great work. Because Christopher Tolkien has now incorporated contextualizing passages that he had omitted from the version of the story given in Unfinished Tales (1980), this book is the most reader-friendly of Tolkien’s posthumous works.
It is also physically beautiful, from the cover, color plates and line drawings by artist Alan Lee, to the fold-out map by Christopher Tolkien, to the design itself. But readers should be forewarned: there are no hobbits in The Children of Húrin, but there is murder, inadvertent brother-sister incest, and suicide. It is a dark story, a meditation on fate, pride, and that virtue Tolkien called “Northern courage,” the refusal to stop fighting even when a cause is hopeless and defeat certain.
The Children of Húrin is set 6,000 years before the action of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when the immortal Elves are locked in a hopeless war with Morgoth, the diabolic first Dark Lord. In this struggle, some mortal men have chosen to fight on the side of the Elves. The mightiest of these is Húrin, who is valiant in battle but is eventually captured and brought to Morgoth. When Húrin refuses to submit to the Dark Lord, Morgoth curses him and his family. This curse drives the intricate plot: although Húrin’s children may temporarily evade their doom, in the end it finds them.
But not before Húrin’s son Túrin, the book’s real protagonist, has accomplished many deeds of heroism. In his greatest triumph, Túrin slays Glaurung, the first of all dragons, which, until this point, had seemed to be the Dark Lord’s invincible weapon. But, countering his heroism, Túrin’s pride and arrogance lead to multiple disasters. The seed of the Túrin story was the tale of Kullervo in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. But Tolkien is also engaged in a revision of the Germanic legend of Siegfried the dragon-slayer. Túrin may be as brave and valorous as Siegfried, but Tolkien’s damaged hero is no Nietzchean uber-mensch dominating through will and power. Instead he is a psychologically scarred and tragic hero.
Stylistically, The Children of Húrin is between The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, whose elevated style reads more like the King James Bible than a 20th-century novel. The Children of Húrin has more dialogue than The Silmarillion, and significant portions of the story happen at a novelistic rather than historical pace, but aspects of the style will nevertheless be a challenge for readers who assume all writing should conform to traditions of modernist realism. Much dialogue is filled with archaisms. Characters, and the narrator, use grammatical inversions. Words from Tolkien’s mellifluous invented languages appear frequently, usually only translated the first time (there is a helpful glossary). “To Brethil three men only found their way back at last through Taur-nu-Fuin, an evil road” is characteristic.
For those who already love Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin will be a chance to return there. For others, it may be an opportunity to question some deeply rooted assumptions and to learn that literature that rejects the canons of modernism and realism can nevertheless have great emotional power.