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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Children of Hurin

The Children of Húrin

by J.R.R. Tolkien (Author), Christopher Tolkien (Editor), Alan Lee (Illustrator)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (April 17, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0618894640

It has been said that all good things must come to an end. In this case, the end of Children of Hurin also marks the end of my quest to read a book by each of my five favorite authors. It seems like a fitting way to end this journey, in that Tolkien is the oldest of my favorites, and if there was ever a modern author suited to end-of-quest tales, it was Tolkien. He was also the author on my list that gave me the greatest concern—not only has he passed away, but his body of published work is relatively small. I didn’t want to re-read the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, not because I don’t love them, but because I wanted to be able to read something new, just as I had with the other authors. Having read the Silmarillion several months earlier, I was hard pressed to think of what else to read. Sure, I could have gone for Letters From Father Christmas, or Farmer Giles of Ham, but neither of those somehow felt right. Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth were what cemented him as one of my favorite writers, and I wanted to go back to Middle-Earth as part of this project.

Fortunately, the publishing gods smiled upon me, and gave me Children of Hurin. This is another in a line of books composed by Tolkien’s estate, taken from various notes, fragments, and other unfinished writings and molded into a coherent whole. In that respect, for the record, it’s very well done. The text flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter, and I never once had the sense that I was reading something out of place or inauthentic. This feels like Tolkien’s writing, and if it isn’t exactly what he intended, I have to believe it’s pretty damn close.

But what of the story itself?

The story of Hurin and his offspring is told as part of the Silmarillion, but not in the detail that Tolkien intended. Tolkien believed that this story was one that could be told apart from the Silmarillion as a whole—that it was strong enough and vibrant enough to stand on it’s own. And he is absolutely correct.

Children of Hurin is an epic. It’s also a tragedy. If you come into this book expecting glorious battles and happy endings, you will be sorely disappointed (though if you come to Tolkien expecting nothing but happiness and light, I submit you haven’t read Tolkien very often or carefully). This is not a tale of good triumphing over evil, but a tale of a family brought down by an epic curse. More Macbeth than Star Wars, in other words.

The writing itself is epic—Children of Hurin reads a lot like Beowulf or the Iliad. Tolkien apparently originally tried to write the tale as an actual epic poem, but was never quite able to make it work. Still, his prose captures that same spirit, rhythm, and cadence. As a huge fan of epic and epic poem, I love it.

Despite the epic prose and tragic scope, the characters of Children of Hurin are very well crafted, and ultimately, very human. Their actions, while not always rational, are often understandable, and while the tragedy has its origins in the supernatural (it is Morgoth who curses the line of Hurin), there is not a strong sense that the plot is forced simply by supernatural means. Instead, we get the sense that these are perhaps well meaning, but ultimately deeply flawed people, who suffer for their choices, and the choices of others. The final scene of the book, when Hurin is finally reunited with his dying wife, is absolutely heartbreaking.

There’s also a wonderful scene, much earlier, which really stuck with me, and I need to mention it here just because it’s so wonderfully crafted. It occurs shortly after Hurin’s capture by Morgoth, when Morwen, his wife, is trying to figure out what to do with herself and her children. Turin, the son, says something to the effect of “I know my father is dead. He must be, because I know that his love for us is so strong that if he were alive, no chains could hold him, and no amount of enemies could keep him from returning to us.”

And Morwen’s answer is “I do not think either of those things is true, my son.”

It’s a wonderful, if completely heartbreaking moment, where a child-like view of heroism clashes completely with the harsh realities of the world. It strikes me as a very Tolkien-esque moment; in many ways much of Tolkien’s work deals with the interplay between heroics, and the personal cost or realities of those heroics. At least, that’s my initial thought. In any case, it’s an immensely powerful scene.

The text of the book is aided by the wonderful illustrations done by Alan Lee, who has done a lot of Tolkien-related art in the past. His illustrations are interspersed in no particular order throughout the book, but each one of them is gorgeous, and really adds to the flavor of the text. It would have been neat to see some more of them.

This is yet another Tolkien book I’ll be re-reading in the future. It’s a fine addition to the Middle Earth canon.