J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote many volumes of stories about the early history of Middle Earth, of which only a fraction had been published at the time of his death in 1973. His son Christopher, now in his eighties, took control of his writings, and over the years has made much of Tolkien's left-over work available to the public. Most of the short stories concerning elves, men, and higher entities that created the world Tolkien used as the setting for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were compiled by Christopher Tolkien and published as The Silmarillion in 1977, but a handful of stories were long enough to stand alone as novels. One of these stories, The Children of Húrin, has been edited and organized into a presentable format, and was published for the first time in 2007.

The story is set at a time when the power of the evil entity Morgoth, of whom Sauron was a servant, was in ascendancy in Middle Earth. Húrin is a powerful warrior, called into action to lead his men into a great battle against the forces of Morgoth. To say that the battle goes poorly would be a considerable understatement. Húrin survives the battle, but is taken prisoner. He defies Morgoth's torments, but Morgoth curses him by making him see the world through his eyes, including the various misfortunes that beset Húrin's family as he is kept a powerless captive.

From this point, the story focuses on Húrin's son, Túrin. Húrin's first daughter Urwen died young, and his other daughter Niënor does not play a major role until the final few chapters. Like his father, Túrin grows into a formidable warrior of no small repute, but ill fortune follows him everywhere he tries to go. His friends include both elves and humans, but invariably his relationships are twisted into something negative. His bitterest rival and nemesis is the wingless dragon Glaurung, a powerful ally of Morgoth. Glaurung causes much death and destruction to those who would be Túrin's allies, leading to a climactic encounter and the final dramatic revelations.

While Tolkien tried to emulate the heroic Nordic and Anglo-Saxon narratives with The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Húrin owes just as much to classical and Shakespearean tragedy. Pride, envy, and anger regularly affect the actions of Túrin or those around him, with the results invariably proving fatal to somebody. Even Túrin's triumphant moments prove horribly pyrrhic. The characters in this story are all more like Boromir, the good soldier whose desire for power undoes him, than the other members of the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings whose nobility of spirit makes the defeat of Sauron possible. That Tolkien makes their endeavors less successful is a reflection of the same philosophy which underlies his famous trilogy, namely that you can't overcome great evil in a lasting and meaningful way while still allowing yourself to be influenced by its enticements.

My technical complaint with The Children of Húrin stems from the chapters being titled too explicitly. For example, the chapter called "The Death of Beleg" tells you that Túrin's dearest friend meets his end before you get to read about it. Far too much information is given away in this fashion, and given the nature of the story, any hope by the reader that an upturn in Túrin's fortunes can be sustained is squashed in advance. Otherwise, the writing is pure J. R. R. Tolkien, although you have to be the kind of fan that finds his digressions into elf-lore and the deep history of Middle Earth fascinating to appreciate this book. If you're not familiar with his writings, definitely read The Hobbit and especially The Lord of the Rings first. Tolkien fans who liked The Silmarillion will like this just as much, unless they're overly partial to the "happily ever after" kind of ending.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

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