In an editorial appendix to The Children of Húrin, Christopher Tolkien traces his father’s many restarts and rewrites of the story which would eventually become the present book. Ironically, this review has traced a similar path since I read the story, although thankfully taking only weeks, rather than the decades taken by the older Tolkien followed by the same amount of time allowed by his literary executor to bring the fragments to publication.
The challenge facing the reviewer of The Children of Húrin, assembled and published by his son Christopher from multiple texts by J.R.R.Tolkien, is in deciding what direction to come from. Does he simply treat it as another book off the shelf, a stand-alone entry in the fantasy genre? Does he expect that people will buy this because they’ve read The Lord of the Rings (or have seen the film) and want more of the same? Or does the likely public for this book consist solely of deeply-committed Tolkien fans, familiar with every nook and cranny of the author’s imagined world, and ready to see this as the result of decades of work, the outcome of painstaking scholarship by the author’s son and literary executor?
This reviewer has decided that the simplest thing is to approach the review from the personal angle: I am a fan of Tolkien, the man and his work; I have read The Lord of the Rings countless times; I can happily dip into The Letters of Tolkien; I can tell you something of the history of the First and Second Ages. But I don’t have a Gandalf dressing-gown, I don’t sign my name in Feanorian runes, and I’ve never read The Silmarillion cover-to-cover. I consider myself a middle-of-the-road Tolkien reader, with perhaps more of an eye to the man’s own beliefs and feelings than the average reader. This is at least partly because in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien has managed to do what so few authors achieve: to write a book, in fact to create a fictional world and worldview, which is entirely consonant with his Christian outlook (which I share) but without this intruding on the story.
When I last checked, The Children of Húrin had sold some 65,000 copies here in the UK sitting third in the hardback book charts still after some weeks. Now 65,000 is small change compared to Harry Potter or indeed The Lord of the Rings, but it is a respectable figure nonetheless: people are buying this book. But are they reading it? A year or so ago, a wide-reaching national survey had The Lord of the Rings as Britain’s best-loved book, beating Pride and Prejudice and His Dark Materials among others. Assuming that even a small percentage of people who voted for it there will have bought The Children of Húrin, did they find what they expected? And what effect will it have had?
Well, I’m bound to say that a lot of people will have been disappointed. Disappointed not because The Children of Húrin is a lesser work (although arguably it is), nor just because it deals with an earlier time, remote from the Third Age which closes with The Lord of the Rings. But really because it lacks what I think people admire in The Lord of the Rings: people who are models, archetypes, of nobility and heroism. Of course, those very archetypes are among the features which deter some people from the later and larger work, in which case they may be more attracted to The Children of Húrin! It is the actors themselves far more than the fantastic setting in which they act which brings people back again and again to Tolkien’s magnum opus.
We’ll return to the differences later, because I believe that contrast will colour many people’s appreciation of this book. But first, a brief outline of the background to the story and its principal characters. J.R.R. Tolkien started writing stories around a mythical subcreation he later called Middle Earth during or even before the Great War. Although he later embellished, rewrote, cast into verse or substantially altered these stories, three principal tales emerged to form the backbone of what was later to become The Silmarillion. These three tales are now known as The Tale of Beren and Luthien, The Fall of Gondolin, and The Children of Húrin. These stories were reworked again in the light of their literary progeny, The Lord of the Rings, but none was in a state to be published entire at the end of Tolkien’s life.
Over the years Christopher Tolkien took the texts available and published them in different forms, the most complete (and free from editorial asides) being those in The Silmarillion. Other works included Unfinished Tales and The Book of Lost Tales. Each of these had a form of the story of Túrin Turambar, son of Húrin. But the sources for this tale were many and varied and it was difficult to piece together a consistent version. At some point, Christopher Tolkien decided that a complete text was possible and that this story might provide a suitable introduction to the Elder Ages.
The story is that of Túrin and Niënor, son and daughter of Húrin, captain of one of the houses of Men allied to the Elves in the First Age, when Morgoth the fallen Valar was still The Enemy. Húrin is taken in battle and his fate is to watch the curse of Morgoth fall on family far away. It is a time of great loss for the Elves and Men who are badly outmatched by Morgoth’s forces. The boy Túrin is sent away by his mother to the Elven fortress of Doriath but this is only the start of series of difficult alliances which Túrin makes and which fail in turn. His sister and mother, following years later, are sent astray by the malice of the dragon Glaurung who bewitches Túrin and his sister, ultimately to their death. Do not look for a happy ending here.
This story reads far more like one of the pagan epics, and indeed Tolkien himself, in a letter to Milton Waldman of Collins, admits that a reader might see in it echoes of “elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Oedipus, and the Finnish Kullervo”. And the style is consistenly olde-worlde which will irritate or delight readers in the measure in which they like that kind of thing. The largest question is the extent of Morgoth’s power, his curse upon Húrin’s family and his power on Middle Earth. In Tolkien’s created world, Morgoth is a demi-god, a superior angel who had a part in the the creation of the world. His power should therefore be virtually limitless. But Húrin in his defiance tells Morgoth that his power is limited while he remains bound to the world. Indeed we read later that Morgoth himself was afraid that Túrin might achieve such a stature that the curse would no longer have hold over him. His power has its limits; but what are those limits? And to what extent are Túrin’s troubles brought upon himself?
Túrin is the central character of the story and mixes a concern for others and an honourable outlook with a hot temper and a disinclination to let things go. Self-exiled from Doriath after a cruel payback which went too far, he refuses to return even when pardoned, seeing himself as beyond the king’s mercy. This pride betrays him again and again, leading him further away from those who might help him and further into his own dark thoughts. Morwen, his mother, is likewise proud, refusing for a long time the offer of shelter from Melian of Doriath and then disregarding her concerned warnings when she discovers Túrin has left. Niënor, a paler character, is effectively blameless unless you count her headstrong decision to follow her mother in her journey to search for Túrin, a journey which is ultimately disastrous for both of them.
The most obvious instrument of Morgoth’s malice is the dragon Glaurung, powerful and evil. Unlike Shelob of The Lord of the Rings who is simply an animal united to Sauron by convenience, the dragon is intelligent and has a considerable power of his own. However he is described as visiting Morgoth’s malice upon the family of Húrin, and certainly he is instrumental in leading Túrin, Morwen and Niënor to disaster. Glaurung is powerfully strong and can torch swathes of countryside with his breath, but his real power comes from his mesmerising eyes and his will which lead Túrin and Niënor to forget themselves and to make disastrous choices. Could they have resisted? This is a question which Tolkien, at least, hardly addresses. Niënor tries but fails; Túrin is so bound up with himself that he is too ready to believe the dragon’s lies.
In the course of the story itself, Túrin has moments of generosity, of bitterness, of pride, of affection, of honour, of justice, of rage, of sorrow. He is remembered finally for the heroic and nearly single-handed fight against Glaurung. But long before that, he is a legend wherever he has been for the audacity and fighting strength he brings to the people with whom he’s allied. It seems clear that Tolkien was prepared for him to overcome his own defects and thus to outdo the malice of Morgoth. And yet in the end, by his own free will, he did not. Still – and this is where we come back to The Lord of the Rings – he is a different character from those we meet at the end of the Third Age.
It was this aspect of the book which interested me the most. The first time I read The Children of Húrin I was left with the impression that Túrin was entirely without virtue or dignity, a whining and angry child. The second time, I realised that there are in fact many acts of some nobility, such as his refusal to allow the outlaws to chase women, his respect for Mîm the Dwarf, his attempt to make the best of Brandir’s disability. But they are mostly overshadowed by his pride and by the circumstances in which he finds himself living.
In contrast, the heroic characters in The Lord of the Rings are almost all noble and dignified. Elrond (who hasn’t even been born when the events in The Children of Húrin take place) is wise and courteous if reserved. Gandalf makes the best of even Denethor’s attitude. Aragorn is modest, hardworking, patient and friendly. Faramir is cautious and forgiving when he might be neither. Even Boromir redeems himself at the last. The only characters who remain unrepentantly haughty and bitter are those who put themselves beyond the pale: Denethor with his suicide and attempted filicide; and Saruman who despises everyone around him. The difference, obviously, is that we’re not told what difficulties Aragorn, Faramir or even Elrond or Gandalf have undergone and what changes of heart they’ve endured to reach the point at which we meet them.
For me, The Children of Húrin has served the purpose which Christopher Tolkien explains in the preface: that a reader only casually acquainted with the earlier Ages of Middle Earth might become more interested in the people and drama which filled that world. I still can’t remember which of the families of Elves is which (and I’m not helped here by the family trees at the back of The Children of Húrin which revealed what I’ve always suspected: that all their names begin with “F”). But I’m drawn in by a story which touches even peripherally on each of the major players in the First Age of Middle Earth. And I’m ready to go back again to the stories of the earlier Ages of Tolkien’s world to discover some of the grandeur, to witness some of the “many defeats and many fruitless victories” which Elrond speaks of. If I have one regret it is that the Elves who seem almost supernaturally gifted with wisdom in The Lord of the Rings when confronted with the lesser villain, here seem nearly indistinguishable from Men. Still, perhaps that’s what you gain with a few thousand years of life.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He also is the editor of the Good-to-Read website.