The Children of Húrin

Review: The Children of Húrin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Editor: Christopher Tolkien
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Copyright: 2007
ISBN: 0-618-89464-0
Pages: 314

Everyone is familiar with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but they were only a small portion of Tolkien's work within Middle Earth. They were, unusually for him, stories he finished and successfully published. His other material went unpublished in his lifetime but is vast, in widely varying states, and frequently has been rewritten multiple times. Tolkien spent most of his life writing, rewriting, reorganizing, and tinkering with a vast mythology to underly Middle Earth, and many of the stories in that mythology exist in multiple unfinished or incomplete drafts written in various styles often decades apart.

The earliest look the world got of this material was The Silmarillion, a collection of epic history primarily dealing with the fate of the Noldor (one of the branches of Elves) but including a usually high-level overview of Tolkien's entire mythology. Among the stories presented there is the life of Húrin, a great hero of Man, and the tragedy of his son Túrin. This is one of the three great stories (along with Beren and Lúthien and the fall of Gondolin) that Tolkien had planned to fully flesh out as narratives in their own right and experimented with writing in several forms, but never fully completed to his satisfaction before his death. The story in The Children of Húrin is told in more summarized form in The Silmarillion, so those who have read it will recognize this book, but this is a much-expanded version assembled by Christopher Tolkien from various manuscripts written at different times in his father's life.

As you might expect from this background, this is not as polished, completed, or transparent as one would expect from a normal novel. It's also written in Tolkien's mythological mode, which readers of The Silmarillion will recognize for good or for ill. It is nowhere near as approachable or readable as The Lord of the Rings, nor will it ever reach the same sort of acclaim. But as an episode in the background of Middle Earth and as an example of an epic tragedy, it is still rather interesting.

This is not an uplifting story with a positive ending, as those who are familiar with the mythology and timeframe of the story might have guessed. It follows the life of Túrin from his birth to his death, starting near the time period of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears when the full forces of Elves and Men set forth to put an end to the evil of Morgoth and were horribly defeated. It covers a time of evil and growing domination by Morgoth and the coming of Glaurung the dragon, one of the darker periods of Middle Earth. Both Elves and Men are hopelessly overmatched by Morgoth and have little hope against him; his dominion will only be broken when the Valar finally come to do battle with him directly, far after the timeframe of this book.

This is more than just a dark setting. Tolkien's conception of Morgoth and his power over Middle Earth includes the ability to turn events towards evil and to lay effective curses on a family. The background of this story is the captivity of Húrin in Thangorodrim, held by Morgoth and forced to watch through the lens of Morgoth's malice while his family is systematically destroyed. The playing out of fate in this story is in some ways the exact opposite of The Lord of the Rings: rather than luck falling with the heroes, despite a great deal of pain and loss, here luck always turns against the heroes despite temporary respites of happiness and success. Morgoth does little directly to Túrin, but the flaws (and sometimes even the strengths) of his personality lead him in just the wrong direction. This is a story full of mistaken killings, of transgressions due to unknown identities, of wounded pride, hardened hearts, and inability or refusal to hear the correct counsel.

This is not going to be to everyone's taste. Indeed, I'll go a step further and say that The Children of Húrin is not particularly compelling in isolation. The strength of its tragedy is considerably muted by a distant tone full of the stylings of epic: geneologies, extensive place names (the map is helpful but not quite sufficient), many references to other parts of Tolkien's mythology, and a somewhat archaic tone in all the dialogue. It reminded me quite a bit of the Iliad, without as many of the wonderful turns of phrase as other Tolkien works such as The Silmarillion. If you liked reading the Iliad for pleasure, you may like this as well. Most, though, I expect to find it interesting only within the larger context of Tolkien's work and as an expansion of an interregnum between several of the great battles of Middle Earth. Few of the characters (certainly including Túrin) are easy to identify with or particularly likeable, making it difficult to care much about their tragic destruction. I think the most effective character portrayal in the whole story is the wise and corrosive malice of Glaurung, who makes a spectacular villain (in many ways more compelling than Morgoth himself).

This is far less a scholarly work than many of Tolkien's posthumous publications, but as befits this sort of assembly of unpublished material there is an extensive preface that places it in context and two well-written appendices explaining the evolution and assembly of the manuscript. Christopher Tolkien writes well about his father's work and about the scholarly process of understanding and organizing it, and at times his analysis more interesting to read than the text. There is also a glossary of place names, geneological trees, and the aforementioned and quite important fold-out map.

The book itself is a beautiful object, helped considerably by the gorgeous illustrations of Alan Lee. There are eight full-color plates, each of which a work of art good enough that I'd happily hang it on my wall, and numerous black and white drawings full of intricate detail throughout the book. The artwork is exceptional and arguably worth the cost of the book all by itself.

I wouldn't recommend this for general reading, and if you're looking to explore Tolkien's mythology beyond his popular novels, The Silmarillion is a much better starting point. If, however, you already have a copy of that (particularly the nice hardcover with similarly exceptional art) and have the stomach for more of the same, this isn't a bad choice. At the very least, you are periodically rewarded with some exceptional, detailed renderings of grand vistas inbetween struggling through the surfeit of proper names and doomed characters.

Rating: 6 out of 10

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Posted: 2007-06-13 23:39 — Why no comments?

I just read CoH and I could not agree more with your review. I would like to take this chance to tank you for your excellent book reviews. I found them extremely useful in several occasion.

Carlo Fusco

Posted by Carlo Fusco at 2007-06-14 02:01

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