|The Children of Húrin by J R R Tolkien|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Húrin dared to defy Morgoth and was captured and cursed to watch the doom of his children through the eyes of Morgoth. Of those children we follow his son Túrin trying to right the evils of the world... J R R Tolkien's son has edited various versions of this tale into a single narrative that does not provide an easy read, but one that is accessible enough, yet will repay revisits. That it is also beautifully illustrated is splendid bonus. Buy the book - one reading will not be enough.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: April 2007|
|Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd|
As the film cycle finished, we all went back to the original books, re-read the child-like joy of There & Back Again (otherwise known as The Hobbit) and wandered on to the more adult, much darker, much more complex, involved, lyrical and expansive trilogy of The Lord of The Rings, grateful that at last (whatever liberties may have been taken) Tolkien's great work had finally been brought to the cinema in a way that "worked".
That it couldn't have done any sooner - that the 21st cinematographic and CGI technology would be necessary to enable Middle Earth to be realistically portrayed in anywhere other than in the mind's eye says everything you need to know about the author's scope and depth of vision.
Of course, the author himself would not have considered the Ring trilogy his 'greatest work'. Indeed, in submitting the proposal to his publisher he called it simply "a new story about Hobbits". It was a diversion from his real endeavour. Of course, at that point he almost certainly didn't realise how much of his life bringing this story to its glorious fruition was going to take. Or the extent to which his true great work - the fully envisioned mythology through several ages - would have to be back-burnered for the duration.
I've never heard tell that he ever regretted his choices - and the literary heritage of the planet has cause to be grateful - but oh, if he'd had the life-span of the elves he envisioned, what other joys might he have given us?
Many, I feel. And many which fans of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings might not necessarily have enjoyed. I speak as someone who has tried and tried again to "get into" The Silmarillion and failed.
After reading the The Tale of the Children of Húrin - I'm ready to try again.
The Tale: Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-loved by the Eldar. That is: he was a lord of men, and loved by the Elves. In itself, for anyone who has ever strayed into Middle Earth, an indicator that we are back in the first Age - the time long before Elves and Men went their separate ways - but even in this age, it is clear that there are boundaries. To place a foot of his in each camp - in the very first line - suggests that it is, per se, unusual.
Down through the lineage from Hador the first lines take us, until we reach Húrin and Huor - and thence to the Children of the saga.
The genealogy shows that Húrin had three children Túrin (Turambar), Urwen (Lanlaith) and Niënor (Niniel). Urwen departs the story early - and Niënor comes to it late. For the most part the tale follows the misfortunes of Túrin.
The lay (for it was originally conceived as a saga, a poem in the vein of Beowulf) takes us from a happy childhood, through the father's battle and capture by the fallen god, the evil Morgoth, who enslaved him and cursed all of his kin and all who shall shelter them... to the playing out of that doom as Túrin seeks always to fight evil, and is doomed always to fail.
It is a given that in reviewing a book you do not tell the plot nor the outcome. But this isn't a story. It is myth, a legend, a tale of the ancient days whose outcome we are expected to know. To speak of it with no foreknowledge of its ending, would be akin to trying to review the New Testament while maintaining some mystery as to what would happen to Jesus of Nazareth.
It could be done... but to no real (or perhaps only false) purpose.
The text itself suggests that foreknowledge of the outcome is a given, with chapters headed: Túrin in Doriath... Túrin among the Outlaws... .The Fall of Nagorthrond... The Death of Glaurung...
This notion of the story being not a "telling" but a "re-telling" of the tale will sit well with the Tolkien aficionados who ARE familiar with not only The Silmarillion, but also the Unfinished Tales... for versions of this story or parts of it appear in both of those posthumous publications.
What the editor has done with this version is to go back again to the original manuscripts and reconsider his earlier judgements. He is allowed to do that. As the third son of the man himself, Christopher Tolkien was entrusted with the literary estate - to which he has devoted his life since his father's death. For my part, I think his father made a good choice in his executor. In Christopher's own words, he has revised earlier judgements, and been less 'interfering' in this rendition... for which we should be grateful. Grateful also for his continued trawling through the various versions of the tale - in poetic and prose form - that his father left behind.
The degree to which he clearly feels the need to explain his choices and decisions points to a man taking the trust seriously. Not usually one to appreciate Introductions and Appendices and generally believing a tale should be able to stand on its own, allowing us to take it as we will - I'm prepared to make an exception in this case. Christopher's explanations are valuable. They neither add nor detract from the tale itself - but they do point to how much it is his father's work. Of course we'll never know if it is the distillation J.R.R. would have come to, but fitting as it does somewhat neatly between the action and character driven Lord of the Rings and the literary (dare I say inaccessible) Silmarillion - I think he'd approve.
The HarperCollins hardback edition (2007) can rightly be broken down into three sections: the intro (Preface, Introduction, Notes on Pronunciation), the Tale itself, and the Appendices.
Starting in the middle - the important bit - the Narn I Chîn Húrin is an epic. As such it is told on epic scale. Years pass, people grow old or weary. Many battles are fought and many die. Friendships are forged and ruined. Many are the heroes and few the villains - but we scarcely come close to any of them. Is that not the nature of epic heroes? That we know so little of their true thoughts and must interpret them through their deeds and project onto them (as a result) our own fantasies of who they really were? Coming to the Children of Húrin fresh from the more familiar stories where our sympathies are engaged on a very personal level with quite a number of the main characters, to be thrust into a world where - for the most part - we follow only one, and the most we know of him is the curse, of which he is ignorant - does not make for easy reading.
The notion of foreknowledge and distance is an integral part of the oral tradition, with which we have lost touch. We now expect the unexpected. We demand suspense. To appreciate the telling of a tale precisely for its "telling" rather than for the tale itself, is an art we are in danger of losing.
I confess it took a while for this to penetrate. I was irritated to begin with, with how much is given away in advance. I didn't find the language difficult, but its metre and structure was uncomfortable. A bit like reading or hearing Shakespeare - or other poets of an earlier age - it took a while to settle into the rhythm and lyricism of it. Once settled however, I was - not - entranced. I did feel that I'd found a place for myself in this strange world, but part of me wanted to go back and start over and see what I had missed, the rest of me needed to go on and see it through.
If you're looking for a pure fantasy read, this should be enough to put you off... for this is not the book for you. If you love myth and legend, and above all if you love language... you will come to appreciate the tale for its telling. I think that has to be the point, ultimately. We must remember that the first attempts J.R.R. made at rendering this tale were in various poetic forms. That its full narrative eventually makes its way into prose makes it accessible, but it is mete it should retain that other-worldly stance, some of the lyrical rendition, some of the age and distance.
A sweep of some thirty years or so in under 250 pages, with a plot to take in a war every bit as brutal and wide-ranging as that in the Ring, evil every bit as malicious and cunning, creatures every bit as fantastical and cruel... leaves little space for delicate description of character and place. The characters indeed are largely cyphers, and of the others we know traits but have freedom for our own projections. How then are we made so sure of 'place'. The descriptions are equally as limited. Do we draw on what we know of Middle Earth from the later ages? That can't be so, for we're far outside the boundaries of those adventures. Is it Alan Lee's mystical illustrations? The map (helpfully provided)? Or is that J.R.R. knew enough to draw on the kind of landscapes we all know... the Dark Peak, the Cader Idris, the blasted moors of our wilder places maybe? I'm not sure. But every cave, woodland camp, and high hill felt like somewhere I'd recognise.
Few are the direct connections between this war and that to come in the Third Age... but a single mention of the name Sauron foretells later evil.
This is a saga and as such ends in despair and death...
... but throughout we are reminded that other events are going on elsewhere. In telling of one battle, we are explicitly reminded that only such events as bear on this tale are recounted - much else then goes unreported here. What will come of the world, is not the point of this tale, merely what became of the Children of Húrin: Túrin, Urwen and Niënor.
Sandwiching the tale itself are the introductory remarks and the appendices provided by the editor. In both Christopher Tolkien explains some of the background to the work of his father and how it fits in to the wider J.R.R legacy. He explains the choices he made when presented with options and the reasons behind them.
The Note on pronunciation gives the reader a feel for the Celtic-sounding nature of the language J.R.R. chose for his myths - or is that just to the ear of a half-Celt? Perhaps others will find echoes of the Norse and Icelandic languages in it. Either way... knowing how it should sound is vital to appreciating this as a saga... for sagas were never meant to be read; they were meant to be heard.
Some books are designed to allow you to forget that you are reading and make you believe that you are there. I venture that others are destined to make you forget you are reading and imagine that you are listening to an ancient bard recount an even more ancient tale. This is the latter.
The genealogy proved not to be necessary, for the relationships outside of the central structure are easily skipped over. On the other hand, what a delight to be able to tie back three of the families involved in this escapade to a future name we all recognise... only three generations and three thousand years hence they all unite in Elrond (of Rivendell).
Further connections are made in the list of names... not just who the characters are... but the meanings ascribed to those names, and references to them in other works...
And the map. Whenever I read of other worlds... I love to have a map. The one provided here is a simplification, Christopher tells us, of that which J.R.R. used for many years which encompassed the whole of the world he had created. It helped, not so much with the orientation of the action - but in places with the relativities: where once place was in relation to another and in particular the nature of the subjective distance. The fold-out back-placed version is a useful idea... though in practice I fear that if used as intended it would soon become detached.
And finally a word on the illustration: Alan Lee may have come to world-wide notice with his illustrations for the 1991 edition of Lord of the Rings and the supporting edition of the Hobbit - but his published work goes back to the early 1970s, much of it in the realm of mysticism and fantasy that he captures so well for the Tolkien works.
In this book, we're treated to monochrome headers and footers for each chapter... together with some 8 full-colour plates. All are uncaptioned and truly atmospheric... make of them what you will. They fit the feel of the book perfectly and enhance the overall presentation without ever seeking to dictate to it.
If Lee is not a poetic or a mystic as well as an illustrator - then his skill is all the greater. He has such a 'greyness', a misty obliqueness of touch in his fantasy images that is visually poetic. He will always be associated with the Tolkien works and I can but hope that he feels at home in Middle Earth - his drawing suggest he belongs there.
I came to this book as a major fan of the major works, and one who had struggled with the more esoteric and academic offerings. As the first I'm delighted by the Children of Húrin... and as the latter, I'm encouraged to try again.
I did not find this an easy book to begin with, but by the end I was enjoying it immensely. Even though I know I will need to read it again before I even begin to fully appreciate it, I also know that I will grow to love it every bit as much as the Hobbit stories. And re-read it just as often.
It isn't going to be to everyone's taste - but that cannot be a reason for downgrading what is destined to become a classic. The full 5-star from me.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Children of Hurin by J R R Tolkien at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Children of Hurin by J R R Tolkien at Amazon.com.
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