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

reviewed by David Bratman

J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Christopher Tolkien, illus. by Alan Lee. The Children of Húrin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. ISBN 978-0-618-89464-2, hc, 313 pp., $26.00. Review reprinted (with modifications) from Mythprint, June/July 2007.

It may shock readers of this magazine less than any other when I say that this is not a book that a serious Tolkien reader has to have. For this is not a book that reveals unexpected new vistas to his sub-creation or reveals major new texts of which we knew nothing, as The Silmarillion and the "History of Middle-earth" books did. What it is, simply, is a text of the "Narn i Chîn Húrin" from Unfinished Tales, complete instead of abridged, and normalized in the way the texts in The Silmarillion were normalized. (In Unfinished Tales the third word was spelled "Hîn," there then being a fear of mispronunciation as in "Not by the hair on my ...") As Christopher Tolkien explains in an appendix, this was the only one of the later narrative texts of the Elder Days - later, and thus largely compatible with the Lord of the Rings iteration of the legendarium - which was both detailed enough to be read as a story and not an annalistic narrative, and full enough to be published on its own. As editor, he has used some slightly different texts where his father's papers fragment than he did in Unfinished Tales, corrected some inconsistencies and problems, and papered over gaps with material from the Quenta and the Annals. He has thus made a complete story using his father's words.

So if you know Unfinished Tales, you may not need this book. But you'll surely want it: as a scholar to read how the tale can be fully reconstructed, as a collector to keep your set complete, as an appreciator of art to see Alan Lee's excellent illustrations, and just as a reader to have the full tale without editorial intrusions.

The primary intended audience of this book, though, is readers who know little or nothing of Tolkien's work beyond The Lord of the Rings, possibly not even The Silmarillion. Indeed, I have seen reviews of The Children of Húrin that conspicuously attempt to avoid spoilers, an amusing sight given that the entire plot has been in the public hands for thirty years since a summary version - itself, ironically, largely an editorial abbreviation of the "Narn" - appeared as chapter 21 of The Silmarillion.

What will such readers make of The Children of Húrin? First, they will find a story entirely new to them. Aragorn told the hobbits the tale of Beren and Lúthien, but of Húrin and his son Túrin no hint comes in The Lord of the Rings beyond a couple references to their names alone. Túrin is one of "the mighty elf-friends of old" and a warrior of great strength; and there is an allusion (misleading, as it turns out) in the poem "The Hoard" (in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) to his encounters with a dwarf and a dragon.

Second, they will find a tale infinitely darker than The Lord of the Rings. It is a commonplace of those who would carp at Tolkien to complain that Frodo and the Fellowship get every possible break from providence. Even acts of evil - the attack of Saruman's orcs on the party, the final treachery of Gollum - turn unexpectedly to good, and if the reader doesn't notice this, Gandalf points it out for you. But to describe this as a flaw in the story misses two vital points. One is that Frodo's quest is so desperate that, without every break from providence, it could never have succeeded at all. The other is that this isn't the work of a clumsy authorial hand. Providence, fate, luck, really are looking out for Frodo. Tolkien was a Christian and believed in these things. Frodo cannot waft to the Mountain without exertion, but if he makes the supreme effort, then his fate will help him.

To see how this works and why it's fair storytelling, read The Children of Húrin, where the exact opposite situation prevails. Morgoth has placed a mighty curse on Húrin and all his kin. It is the essence of this curse that Morgoth need not reach out and zap them on individual occasions. Their luck has gone all wrong. Where for Frodo and the Fellowship, even evil deeds done to them rebound for good, for the children of Húrin even the kindest and most generous deeds done to or by them rebound for evil; and Túrin's own rash and impulsive character dooms him in the same way that Frodo's character saves him. Circumstances all go against Túrin despite all his dedication and tremendous efforts, and this story is far more explicit about the role of fate than anything Gandalf says, for Morgoth explains it all to the captive Húrin, and - in a frame of bone-chilling cruelty - binds him and makes him watch it unfold: all the sorrow that will accrue to his wife and children.

So this is a long tale, covering the entire life of Túrin, about 36 years, whereas the bulk of The Lord of the Rings is over in a few months, but the text is quite short. It has detailed novelistic descriptions and conversations, but it also skims over a great deal in summary. Of writings familiar to readers of The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Húrin may in style most remind them of "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen" in Appendix A, which is told at a similar level of detail and in a similar formal tone. That tale is a favorite of many readers, so perhaps this too may become a favorite, despite its formality, its references to people and events never fully explained within the narrative, and its opening genealogical exposition, of a kind familiar to any reader of the Icelandic sagas or even Charles Dickens. Once you get into the tale, especially once Túrin sets out for Doriath in chapter 4, it flows smoothly and compellingly towards its horrifying end.

I cannot ask that Christopher Tolkien have retold the story in his own words, as some authors' sons (such as Brian Herbert) have done with their fathers' notes. Such is not his method nor his purpose. I can wish, a little wistfully, that J.R.R. Tolkien had told this tale a little more fully still, for there is much in the earlier versions of this story in The Book of Lost Tales and The Lays of Beleriand that is even more detailed, vivid, and compelling than what is to be found here. I can also regret that the story here tends to trail off, and that it was not possible to include the searingly compelling end of the story in "The Wanderings of Húrin" from The War of the Jewels. But you can read all of those, and read this, and get an overall image of the story, blossoming in its variants, far richer than any single version, however exemplary, could give. By publishing them all as separate texts, Christopher Tolkien has offered us a mighty gift.

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Last Updated: June 26, 2007
Copyright 2007, David Bratman