Throughout much of his life, J.R.R. Tolkien worked on a series of stories set in his well known middle earth. A few he considered his “Great Tales” and he would return to them often, writing them multiple times and in multiple forms. One story that he worked on often over many years was the tale of Hurin and his children Turin and Nienor. Following his death, Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher has worked to collect, edit and publish much of what his father wrote but never published. The tale of Hurin’s children has been told in part already in some of those works. But it is in this book that for the first time the complete tale is told from start to finish of “The Children of Hurin.”
Some insight into what I think of this book is revealed in the fact that I preordered a copy before it was published last year. I was very excited when it arrived, made it about a third of the way through and then set it aside for quite a while. It was just recently that I saw my copy sitting on a book shelf and decided that I would finish it. It really didn’t take too much time. The story is not very long. The reason I had trouble was because I had been hoping for something along the lines of “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings”, Tolkien’s most widely read efforts. They read like most modern novels, whereas much of the material published since Tolkien’s death is written in a more classical and frankly, difficult to read style. Christopher acknowledges that those works are perceived in this manner in his preface by stating, “It is undeniable that there are a very great many readers of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ for whom the legends of the Elder Days (as previously published in varying forms in ‘The Silmarillion’, ‘Unfinished Tales’, and ‘The History of Middle-earth’) are altogether unknown, unless by their repute as strange and inaccessible in mode and manner.” I have read the first two from that list of three and would say that yes, they are in many ways work to read.
Unfortunately I didn’t find “The Children of Hurin” to be much more approachable or easy to enjoy. I think that Christopher’s motivation is to bring these tales to a wider audience, but I doubt very much he succeeded. There are a few problems that plague the book. The first is that there is a constant use of proper names, for places and people, that for most readers will be unfamiliar. Not only that, they will be difficult to pronounce. The book does have a small pronunciation guide in the beginning, but the bottom line is that often I felt like I was reading a book written in another language. To some extent it is, Tolkien’s own elvish tongue. But without some familiarity or explanation much of it just slides past and makes reading the story difficult. Main characters change names throughout the story and keeping track of it all can be difficult. Here is a short paragraph about Hurin’s wife Morwen.
“Hurin wedded Morwen, the daught of Baradund son of Gregolas of the House of Beor, and she was thus of close kin to Beren One-hand. Morwen was dark-haired and tall, and for the light of her glance and the beauty of her face men called her Eledhwen, the elfen-fair; but she was somewhat stern of mood and proud. The sorrows of the house of Beor saddened her heart; for she came ans an exile to Dorlomin from Dorthonion after the ruin of the Bragollach.”
That isn’t an unusual passage. That is the style and much like most of the entire book. Antiquated english with an immense amount of proper names and relationships constantly spread throughout.
The setting is Beleriand, some 6500 years before the events of “The Lord of the Rings”. This land would eventually be mostly destroyed in a war that would end the First Age. So the places do not correspond to the landscape of middle-earth in “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings.” The main evil in the land is Morgoth. He has come to middle-earth and set up shop in Angband. Hurin, a man, dares to defy Morgoth. Morgoth captures him and binds him to watch what befalls his wife and children that Morgoth has cursed.
This curse and how it works itself out is the redeeming quality of the story. The vast majority of the book focuses on Turin. He is an amazing warrior and leader of men. At the same time he is incredibly proud and rarely listens to anyone else. This failure of character on his part is pushed along by the malevolence of Morgoth and so a flawed man is also trapped in the machinations of an evil power. The working of the story brought to mind the great Greek tragedies. The reader confronts issues of fate and free will. It is a beautiful story, it is just not written in a manner that is going to connect well with a modern audience. And I doubt J.R.R. Tolkien would have ever released it in the present state. This may sound presumptuous on my part. In fact I know it is, but in the first appendix Christopher gives a history of how this tale developed as well as snippets from the other versions that existed.
J.R.R. had begun to tell the story in verse. The small sections of that poetry that are given in the appendix to this work, and that go beyond what was published in “The Lost Tales” is much more descriptive and beautiful than what is given in “The Children of Hurin”. Often Children reads more like a history book than a novel. The facts are all there, and at times the life is too. But too often it just feels like a listing of facts about events, people and places.
So how can I rate the book as a 7 out of 10 with all these issues? Well for some people, nothing that gives them more information about middle-earth and its history can be bad. They are probably cursing my name in the tongue of Mordor at this very moment. They loved “The Silmarillion” and they probably adored this work too. I share some of their passion, and despite its weakness, I did enjoy this story, especially once I had moved fully through the telling and could look at the arc of the entire story. It is a work of great skill and though I don’t think it is Tolkien’s best, it is still much better than many others.
For someone who is a casual fan or answers “I’ve seen the movies” when you ask them about “The Lord of the Rings”, this is not something they would probably enjoy. Getting them “The Hobbit” to read would probably be a more pleasant experience for everyone involved. Or just wait and see if New Line can ever get done with the legal barriers and make a film of that was well.
The edition that I bought and matches the ISBN I’ve given is a hard-cover with beautiful art by Alan Lee. The cover dust jacket is gorgeous and there are full color illustrations throughout. The appendixes include the history of the tales as I’ve mentioned, genealogies, a list of names and a map of Beleriand. There is also a preface, slightly longer introduction and pronunciation guide. The preface, introduction and appendixes were all written by Christopher Tolkien.
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin