Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Children of Húrin Review

##Below Contains Some Minor Spoilers##

My hypothesized reconstruction in this post was wrong. As could be inferred from the table of contents that came out later, The Children of Húrin is not all the Túrin / Húrin material from all the previous published works gathered in one place, but rather a somewhat different version of the "Narn i Hîn Húrin" published in Unfinished Tales in 1980. As Christopher Tolkien explains in the very useful and interesting appendix, the biggest additions are the account of Huor and Húrin in Gondolin and the part of the story of The Fifth Battle, Nirnaeth Arnoediad (but only the western portion of the battle) as well as some changes and expansions in the section on Túrin among the outlaws. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote versions of these episodes for inclusion in the "Narn," but Christopher Tolkien left them out of the version in Unfinished Tales because very similar material had already been used in The Silmarillion. (More on this editorial practice later).

We have here, then, a straightforwardly chronological treatment of the lives of Húrin and children from Húrin's birth through Túrin's death. However, the narrative does not include Húrin's attempt to reach Gondolin (which gave Morgoth a general idea of the location of the hidden city), nor his journey to Nargothrond, his killing of Mîm the petty-dwarf there, and his return to Doriath with the Nauglamír, the Necklace of the Dwarves (which is indirectly responsible for the death of Thingol and the destruction of Doriath).

Like the "Narn," the story is quite readable, and like the "Narn," it is somewhat of a hybrid between the historic/annalistic style of The Silmarillion and the novelistic style of The Lord of the Rings. In this particular form, as a stand-alone book, the "feel" of the style and structure is very like that of Ursula Le Guin's recent short novel Gifts, though it obviously deals more with kings and princes and matters of greater import in its sub-created world. Also like Gifts, it is basically a novella published a stand-alone volume due in great part to the author's reputation.

There are not a lot of surprises and not much previously unknown material, but I was surprised at how much pleasure I got out of the book. I've read The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales many times, but I still thoroughly enjoyed reading The Children of Húrin and felt that treating the material as a single narrative brought out the emotional power of the Túrin story. It also helps, I'm sure, that it's a beautiful book: I'm more of a Ted Nasmith than an Alan Lee fan, but give Lee his due here: his illustrations are beautiful and atmospheric. The book design as a whole is very good also: the typeface, size and layout all work (and work partially to conceal the relative brevity of the book). Editors and producers should think more about the physical pleasure that well-designed books can give, and in particular academic presses might want to think about making their books beautiful.

Analysis: Form and Sources

I am more convinced than ever that Gergely Nagy's article, "The Great Chain of Reading," in Jane Chance's Tolkien the Medievalist is the most effective explanation of how Tolkien's writings create their aesthetic effects. Nagy shows how Tolkien's incorporation of poetry, annals, key turns of phrase, stock tableaux--from his own previous writings--creates the "mythopoeic" effects of the writing: Tolkien's work feels like myth rather than invention because it contains the same bricolage of previously existing texts that long-established mythological traditions seem to contain. A reader comes across a bit of writing from a previous source and, even without knowing the existence of the previous source, recognizes that the text he or she is reading is some kind of assemblage. Tolkien is unique, however, in having all the separate and recognizable pieces coming from one mind rather than from centuries of separate writers and adapters.

I found Tolkien's engagement with the Sigfried legend more obvious in this version of the story than in others, though that may reflect my own reading rather than the text itself. Of course the seed of the Túrin story is the Kullervo cycle from the Finnish Kalevala, but I think that at least one impulse in Túrin is to tell the story of a dragon slayer who isn't some kind of Nietzchean/Wagnerian "ubermensch" (a bit piece of evidence, I think, is the inclusion of a dwarf named Mîm). Tolkien detested the kind of heroism that Wagner drew out of the Nibelungenlied and the Völsungr Saga: the hero who is superior in some existential way to everyone else and thus somehow deserves to crush everything in his path. By taking the physically most powerful hero, the original dragonslayer, but putting him under the curse of Morgoth and showing how he suffers, Tolkien approaches the Sigfried story in a very different, and more humane, way.

Analysis: Editorial Practice

I'll have more to say when everything has sunk in more, but let me close on a word about Christopher Tolkien's editing. I think nearly all critics of Christopher Tolkien have been exactly, precisely, 180-degrees wrong. The idea that Christopher Tolkien is churning out the same material over and over or is desperate to squeeze out profits from his father's work, or that the Tolkien Estate needs to drum up sales, is to me silly (and smacks of jealousy when I hear it said). It is clear from his published comments that Christopher Tolkien's consistent purpose has been to complete his father's dream of publishing his Silmarillion material. Obviously great, great pains have been taken not to put forth Christopher Tolkien's words as being those of J.R.R. Tolkien. But this extremely rigid editorial practice has, in the past, made texts somewhat less "readable" than they otherwise would be.

It seems to me that the republishing of previously published material (exactly what Christopher Tolkien was unfairly excoriated for) would in fact (as it does in this book with Huor and Húrin and the Fifth Battle) make the story easier to follow as a self-contained whole (as self-contained as it could be given the required background knowledge from the Silmarillion tradition). Thus The Children of Húrin shows that Tolkien's unpublished works can be put into forms that are less scholarly and easier to read: I think this is a good thing, both because it will introduce more people to the literature and because it will produce more pleasure in more readers. I am grateful for the scholarly editions, but I also love the pleasure of just reading the text. And now that we have the scholarly editions, I would more than welcome Christopher Tolkien "re-cycling" or "re-publishing" the other Great Tales (Fall of Gondolin, Beren and Lúthien, Nauglafring) in similar, one-volume, readable forms. And if he needs to write bridging material, I'm happy to read it (as long as there's an end-note somewhere). In fact, I would have liked to see Children of Húrin continue through to Húrin's death, although I understand why this was not done (we can assume that there is not a version of the "Narn" that does so continue). The story would have been even better, and we can at least theorize that J.R.R. Tolkien would have liked to have it complete. So, contra some traditions in Tolkien criticism, I say "More Christopher Tolkien, please."

In my next post I'll talk about themes and prose style. But I want to end on a summarizing note: Good book. Enjoyed it much more than I expected to. I think a great many readers will as well, despite the lack of hobbits.


John Cowan said...

Amen to all points, as far as I can say so without having read it myself.

Unknown said...

I have not yet had a chance to read CoH yet, but I have read both the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales many times, and what you say about CoH is very comforting. This story is not one of my favorite tales of the old days, but it sounds that it will be an excellent book, nevertheless. Thanks for all of your posts concerning Tolkien these past weeks. I especially loved your response to the critic.

Unknown said...

It'll be interesting to contrast the differences between the Narn in Unfinished Tales and Children of Hurin. I really marked the difference of extending the Fifth Battle into Children of Hurin and i enjoyed that part very much as well.
Thank you for your thoughts-- i'll be following up on your blog when time allows again.
Thank you, Professor Drout for your erudite input.

Unknown said...
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johnwilliam said...

Please allow this note to express my enjoyment of your interview regarding "Children of Hurin." It was great to here you speak Elvish, and I was thrilled by your reading of of Hurin's stand at the Fen of Serech. I found this passage in "The Simarillion" to be very moving when I first read it and continue to do so ( the concluson of his ordeal, when he finds something of peace in the gaze of Melion is also very powerful).

Surpised that you did not meantion that this passage was in "The Simarillion"
I cannot agree with Robin Young's assesment of that book, by the way.

Best of luck, and thank you!

Unknown said...

On NPR you mentioned the differences between Northern European and Greek concepts of the hero. Could you please discuss these differences in more detail. (This was my earlier comment, which I deleted by mistake.)

Noah Unsworth said...

Thanks for the in depth review. I am definitely going to purchase this book.

Dr. Andrew Higgins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr. Andrew Higgins said...

Dr. Drout
I finished COH this morning on my patio in London as the birds chirped. I thought it was fantastic and brought to life a story that I certainly read before in many versions but never got a real feeling for who Turin was (unlike Beren). I thought there were passages in the book that did what all of Tolkien does - bring to life a world of living breathing people (the Sador Labadal character especaily) who live in the world and have depth and ultimately hope. The last scene (I won't give it away) was the clincher - I knew what was coming but when it came it did really make me well up. Bravo to both J.R.R. and Christopher and like you I would welcome one volume treatments of the other major tales - especially The Fall of Gondolin. I took Book of Lost Tales II off the shelf and start reading the original Turin and the Folake story again.

Johan Vanhecke said...

Dear Michael Drout,
I wrote a review in Belgium of CoH, and gave three interviews on the book, and when I see your review here on your blog, it strikes me that we have exact the same vision on the book. This makes my feelings on the book even stronger, because being a Tolkienlover, you can fear that you have prejudices about new Tolkien books.
I also would like to see the other big tales in a standalone version, but I fear that there is no long proseversion of Beren and Luthien, and that from the Fall of Gondolin only the part in UT is written. So this would be quite impossible for Christopher.
Thanks anyway for this nive review

Gabriel said...

Hello Professor,

Here is the link to the Portuguese translation of your review at Valinor website: http://www.valinor.com.br/content/view/7322/39/

Thank you again!

David Mitchel said...

I've been reading the Children of Hurin, in its various forms, for about twenty years now, and have been rereading it this week. This paragraph really shed light on the story:

I think that at least one impulse in Túrin is to tell the story of a dragon slayer who isn't some kind of Nietzchean/Wagnerian "ubermensch" * * * the hero who is superior in some existential way to everyone else and thus somehow deserves to crush everything in his path. By taking the physically most powerful hero, the original dragonslayer, but putting him under the curse of Morgoth and showing how he suffers, Tolkien approaches the Sigfried story in a very different, and more humane, way.

Yes. Which would also explain why Tolkien so emphasized Turin's pity -- e.g. in the account of his childhood friendship with Sador, and in Finduilas's defense of Turin to Gwindor. Turin was undoubtedly a proud man, but he would have (rightly) hated the pride of the ubermenchen from the depth of his soul.