The Return of the King
THE CHILDREN OF HÚRIN
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin. 313 pp. $26
If anyone still labors under the delusion that J.R.R. Tolkien was a writer of twee fantasies for children, this novel should set them straight. A bleak, darkly beautiful tale played out against the background of the First Age of Tolkien's Middle Earth, The Children of Húrin possesses the mythic resonance and grim sense of inexorable fate found in Greek tragedy.
According to Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien's son and literary executor, The Children of Húrin had its genesis in a tale penned by his father in 1919. Tolkien obsessively wrote and rewrote stories over the course of his long life, and slightly variant tellings of this tale have previously appeared in several of his other works. But this is its first stand-alone publication, incorporating all the various versions and attendant fragments into a seamless whole. Does it warrant the attention of readers other than Tolkien purists?
Absolutely. Even casual readers, as well as fans of Peter Jackson's phenomenally successful film adaptation, will find their experience of Middle Earth considerably enriched by this new volume, which also features superb illustrations (both color and black-and-white) by Alan Lee.
The Children of Húrin takes place 6,000 years before the Council of Elrond (a pivotal event in The Lord of the Rings), as Christopher Tolkien points out in his useful introduction. Its setting is not your great-great-grandfather's Middle Earth, but the forests and mountains of Beleriand, a country that was drowned, like Atlantis, eons before various Bagginses and their ilk populated the Shire.
There are no hobbits in The Children of Húrin. The primary players are Men, Elves, Orcs, a few Dwarves, Morgoth (the original Dark Lord -- Sauron was his most powerful lieutenant), and Glaurung, "father of dragons," who ranks with the monstrous spider Shelob as one of Tolkien's most terrifying creations. For centuries, Men and Elves have been engaged in a mostly losing battle against Morgoth's forces, whose members -- Orcs but also Men known as Easterlings -- resemble marauding Vikings more than the crude, slightly cartoonish regiments depicted in The Lord of the Rings. More than any other Tolkien work, The Children of Húrin evokes the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon epics that Tolkien loved and studied and taught and emulated. Its central protagonist, Túrin, is one of the most complex characters in all Middle Earth, a tormented, brooding anti-hero who bears hallmarks of a sword-wielding Heathcliff.
Shortly after the book opens, Túrin's father, Lord Húrin the Steadfast, has been imprisoned by Morgoth following a doomed campaign mounted by Elves and Men. In the battle's aftermath, the 9-year-old Túrin and his pregnant mother, Morwen, barely manage to escape becoming thralls of the Easterlings. At Morwen's urging, the boy flees to a hidden Elvish kingdom where he finds sanctuary. His sister is born not long after.
Túrin grows to manhood among the Elves, whose king treats him as a foster son, giving him a dragon-crested helm that is an heirloom of Túrin's forebears. Such treatment, along with Túrin's sternly aloof, even haughty, demeanor, causes resentment among some of the Elves. One of these detractors goads Túrin, then waylays him, and Túrin inadvertently causes his attacker's death. Out of shame and remorse, but also pride, Túrin leaves the kingdom before learning he has been pardoned. He joins forces with a group of outlaws and in short order becomes their leader, mustering them against the Orcs.
The House of Húrin matches that of Atreus in curses coming home to roost upon doomed and sometimes innocent family members. Readers looking for happy endings will find none in this book. Instead, there is grand, epic storytelling and a reminder, if one was needed, of Tolkien's genius in creating an imaginary world that both reflects and deepens a sense of our own mythic past, the now-forgotten battles and legends that gave birth to the Aeneid, the Old Testament, the Oresteia, the Elder Eddas and the Mabinogion, Beowulf and Paradise Lost.
Years from now, when our present day is as remote from men and women (or cyborgs) as the events of the First Age were to the Council of Elrond, people may still tell tales out of Middle Earth. If so, The Children of Húrin will be one of them.
Elizabeth Hand's eighth novel, the psychological thriller "Generation Loss," has just been published.