The Children of Hurin, the ‘new’ book by J.R.R. Tolkien (who died 34 years ago), was begun 99 years ago in this world and takes place in another, some six millennia before Mr Baggins of Bag End finds a ring in a cave under the Misty Mountains. This is the First Age of Middle-Earth, when the Dark Lord is not the vague, shadowy Sauron, but his master, the dashing, incredibly powerful Morgoth, second in the all-time Eng-lit badass list only to Milton’s Lucifer.
The story is set in lands where many of the events of the Silmarillion occur, places such as Nargothrond, Doriath and Thangorodrim, mentioned fleetingly in The Lord of the Rings. The heroes of the First Age also hover in the shadows in LOTR: Turgon, Thingol and Melian, Beren and Luthien, the elf-friend brothers Hurin and Huor, and their sons Turin and Tuor; fierce, fey, amoral heroes who make Aragorn and Frodo look like children.
But The Children of Hurin is no tale for children; incest, betrayal, rape, torture, madness and murder cut deep grooves through the narrative, and it’s probably not a book for those uninitiated in the ways of Middle-Earth, or expecting anything even remotely heart-warming. It is primarily the tale of Turin, son of Hurin, of how he was cursed by Morgoth, his father’s enemy and captor, from his childhood in a hidden elven kingdom to his coming of age, the vengeance he sought for the sufferings of his family, his battle with Glaurung, a terrible dragon and servant of Morgoth, and his tragic, unknowing affair with his sister, Niniel, and its consequences.
Turin is a classic mediaeval tragic hero—impetuous, arrogant, cold, strangely loveable, singled out by cruel fate, cursed by an evil god and made to suffer in every way possible. He’s a dark-minded man who performs heroic acts which inevitably turn disastrous, hurting him and anyone near him.
He’s a walking collection of fantasy tropes—the anti-hero, the accursed wanderer, the good man with the evil weapon that possesses him (a chillingly cool black sword that eventually consumes its master’s life), the vengeful son, the doomed lover—that other writers have cheerfully plundered from Tolkien since the dawn of the fantasy genre. His major sources and influences, the Kalevala, other Scandinavian epics, mediaeval European sagas and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, show their influence here as well.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, like video games, come at various difficulty levels. The Hobbit, a sweet children’s story with light songs and dark edges, and lesser-known child-friendly fables like Roverandom and Farmer Giles of Ham, are at level Easy/Uruk-Hai. The LOTR, Tolkien’s greatest and most popular work, is a soul-stirring saga of good/nature/heroes/fair against evil/industry/dark, and weighs in at level Medium/Cave-Troll.
If the Silmarillion, the sprawling original mythological work that outlines the complete early history of Tolkien’s worlds, is the watermark of Tolkien-nerd quality, and various other posthumously published works such as the 12-part History of Middle-Earth and The Unfinished Tales are at level Hardcore/Balrog, then The Children of Hurin is somewhere in the middle on the readability scales, at Difficult/Nazgul.
While true Tolkien fanatics, who know their Akallabeths from their Ambarkantas, will find not very much that’s new in the story, since it’s appeared in fragments in various other posthumously published Tolkien works, The Children of Hurin will appeal on three levels. One, it’s a relatively simply told, coherent version of the tale of Turin from start to finish. Two, Oscar-winning Tolkien illustrator Alan Lee’s spectacular drawings. Three, it exists and can be collected. On the other hand, readers who have entered Tolkien’s universe through the recent movies or games will find it slow and heavy, though it’s nowhere near as impenetrable, confusing and daunting as most of the History of Middle-Earth books.
The first few chapters are full of names that will scare newcomers away and separate the Peter Jacksons from the Orlando Blooms. Once further into the book, however, it flows smoother, and even if the story is familiar, Tolkien’s dexterity with words and incredibly epic sense of scale will win you over and carry you inexorably towards the story’s bitter end.
Christopher, son of J.R.R., now 81, has put 30 years of work into this book, but in the end, no one can tell a Tolkien story like the Grandmaster of Fantasy himself; in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, we see not just Tolkien the world-creator, Tolkien the linguist and polymath, but also Tolkien the writer and translator of his own fevered, dense visions into mortal languages that readers around the world have read and loved for ages. All Tolkien’s posthumously published works, on the other hand, challenge readers drawn into their world, and they offer glimpses into their creator’s very strange mind, and dare you to unravel its mysteries.
The success of Children of Hurin depends on how many people are stout-hearted enough to try.
Samit Basu is the author ofThe Simoqin PropheciesandThe Manticore’s Secret.
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