May 24, 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer
More about Middle-Earth before Frodo
The Children of Húrin
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin. 320 pp.
Reviewed by Edward Pettit
When J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, he had published 11 books, almost all tales of his fantasy realm, Middle-Earth. However, the universe he created, with its own cosmology, languages, cultures and spiritual beings was far, far more vast (and complicated) than could be published. Begun as an exercise to satisfy his linguistic hobbies (creating a world out of invented languages rather than a language for an invented world), Tolkien's Middle-Earth became the grandest, most nuanced alternative realm ever created by a single author.
Since Tolkien's death, his son, Christopher, has prepared for the press some of his father's stories that flesh out the world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and the encyclopedic 12-volume series, The History of Middle-Earth, are all culled from incomplete manuscripts that Tolkien had labored over for almost 50 years.
The Children of Húrin is the latest of these, but it was decades in the writing in various literary forms. It began as an alliterative poem in the 1920s and was later continued in prose during the following decades. Christopher Tolkien has taken the prose parts and edited into a seamless whole the story of the hero Túrin and his battles against the forces of the malevolent Morgoth, satanic predecessor of the Sauron who besets the heroes in The Lord of the Rings. Some of this story has previously been published in both The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, but both of those accounts fall well short of this greatly expanded, complete narrative.
Túrin is the son of Húrin, a great leader and friend of elves who has been captured by Morgoth in a great battle (as were all battles in the heroic age). This tale is set in the First Age of Middle-Earth (Bilbo and Frodo Baggins live during the Third Age), and the world is still ruled mainly by the Elves, with humans only just coming into their own. Barbaric hordes of wild men, orcs and a slithering dragon have overrun the Elven Kingdoms. Túrin's mother secretly sends her child to a hidden Elven kingdom and the tale recounts his tragic wandering, during which he attempts to turn back the tide of evil unleashed by Morgoth to subvert all of creation.
The Children of Húrin follows the pattern of heroic sagas and romances in which characters behave archetypically. They have a defining trait that plays out over the course of the narrative. Characters don't evolve. They are static beings, bound to their fates, but vigorous in pursuit of their goals. This is not to suggest that they are at all boring. Who could call King Arthur, Beowulf, or Odysseus boring? Such characters resonate with the echoes of human endeavor. Reading their adventures helps define the purpose (or a purpose) of human existence.
Túrin is given multiple names in the tale, each a well-bestowed metaphor of his current standing in the story (e.g., Black Sword), but at heart he is a man of constant sorrows, ever hopeful of victory, but each fight won, each enemy overcome, only serves to add another unlooked-for burden to the weight of his journey.
Although constant of energy and steadfast of purpose, the morality of his actions is sometimes ambiguous. He is no paper-thin angel, ever on the side of truth and justice. Sometimes he is right only because his opponents are so wrong.
And for a narrative rooted in such a predictable genre, the heroic saga, Tolkien still manages to create a good amount of suspense in how events will play out. I felt the urge to rush through the short chapters because I so wanted to learn, not what would happen, but how the characters would meet their fate. Still, there were a few deaths and liaisons that surprised me.
Tolkien coined a word to describe what he felt was the highest purpose of a fairy story: eucatastrophe, "the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn.' " There is a great, joyous coming together of the world at the end of his great work, The Lord of the Rings, but as an early part of the grand history of Middle-Earth, The Children of Húrin cannot end with joy.
Túrin's is a tale of grim suffering taking place in one of the many times of darkness before a light briefly shone its beams upon a weary world. But the grimness of its lost battles and the lamentations of its broken harps make a worthy addition to the epic of Middle-Earth.