Monday, September 3, 2007

Review of Children of Húrin -- J. R. R. Tolkien

The impact J. R. R. Tolkien has had on the fantasy imagination is hard to overstate. The cycle of stories began with The Hobbit, culminated with The Lord of the Rings, and is supported by the Silmarillion and a series of Unfinished Tales. Early in 2007, another legend has been added to the cycle, the darkly brooding Children of Húrin.

According to Christopher Tolkien, who edited this tale to completion out of original manuscripts nearly completed by the Elder Tolkien, there are three fundamental stories that form the backbone of the history of Middle-Earth: Beren and Lúthien, The Fall of Gondolin, and The Children of Húrin. In Tolkien's view, each of these tales is "sufficiently complete in themselves as not to demand knowledge of the great body of legend known as The Silmarillion."

The Children of Húrin is set far back in history from the events recorded in The Lord of the Rings and form part of the imagination of the characters therein. In one exchange between Elrond and Frodo during the council at Rivendell, Túrin son of Húrin is named by Elrond as an Elf-friend. Elsewhere, the hide of Shelob is described as so invincible that it "could not be pierced by any strength of men, not though Elf or Dwarf should forge the steel or the hand of Beren or of Túrin wield it." A legendary figure indeed.

Húrin (Lord of Dor-lómin, husband of Morwen and father of Túrin and Niënor; called Thalion 'the Steadfast') is a great hero at an ill-fated battle described early in the book. Part of a great host of Elves and Men who face the dark lord Morgoth, Húrin falls with all his men, taken captive to Morgoth's subterranean prison-fortress Angband as a prisoner who may know the whereabouts of Morgoth's most hated adversary, the Elf-King Turgon:
Therefore Húrin was brought before Morgoth, for Morgoth knew by his arts and his spies that Húrin had the friendship of the King; and he sought to daunt him with his eyes. But Húrin could not yet be daunted, and he defied Morgoth. Therefore Morgoth had him chained and set in slow torment; but after a while he came to him, and offered him his choice to go gree whither he would...if he would but reveal where Turgon had his stronghold....But Húrin mocked him, saying: 'Blind you are, Morgoth Bauglir, and blind shall ever be, seeing only the dark. You know not what rules the hearts of Men, and if you knew you could not give it...'

Then Morgoth laughed, and he said: 'Death you may yet crave of me as a boon.' Then he took Húrin to the Haudh-en-Nirnaeth, and it was then new-built and the reek of death was upon it; and Morgoth set Húrin upon its top and bade him look west towards Hithlum, and think of his wife and his son and other kin. 'For they dwell now in my realm,' said Morgoth, 'and they are at my mercy.'

'You have none,' answered Húrin. 'But you will not come at Turgon through them; for they do not know his secrets.'

Then wrath mastered Morgoth, and he said: 'Yet I may come at you, and all your accursed house; and you shall be broken on my will, though you all were made of steel'...Then Morgoth stretching out his long arm towards Dor-lómin cursed Húrin and Morwen and their offspring, saying 'Behold! The shadow of my thought shall lie upon them wherever they go, and my hate shall pursue them to the ends of the world....I am the Elder King: Melkor, first and mightiest of all the Valar, who was before the world and made it. The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.'

Thus begins the tale of woe which Tolkien relates in The Children of Húrin. We hear of the childhood of Túrin his son and of Húrin's wife Morwen. As Morgoth's power grows, his hand reaches closer to the land of Hithlum where Húrin's kin dwell, and Morwen sends Túrin away to be fostered by a powerful Elf-King called Thingol in Doriath. Túrin grows in stature and skill, trained by the Elves in all their arts, but ever does his shadow of Doom follow him. Túrin desires to make war upon the servants of Morgoth, though Thingol and the other Elf-Kings are content to wait until the time is right, hidden away in their kingdoms. Túrin becomes a legend beyond Doriath, joining hardy men who hunt Orcs in the wilds. Ill fate conspires against Túrin, his pride breaking the friendship of good Men and Elves; and he finds himself a captain of a brood of outlaws, and then even this band fails him and he is captured by Orcs to be taken to Angband and Morgoth.

But his Doom shadows him still, saving his life but dealing him woe at every turn. He is freed from captivity, escaping to the great Elven fortress of Nargothrond under the lordship of Orodreth. Here, his counsels overturn the wise words of other counselors, and Orodreth's strength is spent fruitlessly against Morgoth, who eventually brings the great Dragon Glaurung to the gates of Nargothrond and overthrows it. Túrin flees the battle in madness cast upon him by the power of Glaurung, and further ill befalls those Túrin loves.

At last he comes to the woodlands of Brethil where he will spend his last days. He has changed his name and forsaken his past in the hopes of leaving behind his Doom. But it is not to be; ever are his ill counsels heard over the wiser words of Men and Elves, and all that Túrin attempts fails. At the last, Glaurung comes to destroy him in the hidden woodlands of Brethil, and Túrin goes to face him. And though he slays the mighty Dragon of Morgoth, he finds that his Doom is come, all who Túrin once loved are despoiled and lost, and death comes to Túrin, cold release from his ill fate.

Not of the Red Book of Westmark, but rather of the Silmarillion

This tale told of Túrin's Doom belongs alongside the tales of The Silmarillion rather than those written by Bilbo in the Red Book of Westmark which became the Lord of the Rings. Here we have no consoling tales of victory against overwhelming odds, but rather the slow descent into darkness in the long years until Morgoth falls at the end of the Third Age. For those who have read the Silmarillion, the book will bring to mind the character and shape of all Tolkien's legends, crafted after the style of Viking sagas. True to tradtion, the book begins with a long string of names that will bewilder all but the greatest fans. It takes the tale several chapters to descend into the personal narrative we are familiar with in the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. When it does, we are glad to return again to Middle-Earth.

Great Vistas of Middle-Earth, and Great Deeds of Men and Elves

Though absent are the glimmers of hope and beauty that shine from the pages of the Lord of the Rings, here still is the mist-shrouded wonder of all the lands of Middle-Earth. We travel the lands once trod by Treebeard in his youth, we see the haunting beauty of Elf-Maids in their prime, we hear the steadfast march of good Men against the inexorable approach of darkness.

We see the handiwork of Eöl the Dark Elf who forged the sword Anglachel from meteoric iron. Dwarf-wrought mail clinks upon the breast of Túrin and his friends. Lembas meets the need of hopeless Men for the first time in this tale.

And of course all the horrors lurking at the command of Morgoth multiply. Orcs crawl over the lands, bringing darkness with their foul cries and black shafts. Giant trolls fight in mighty battles in the hosts of Morgoth. And the first of all the Dragons made by Morgoth, Glaurung, bursts upon the page with fiery blasts, sundering all in his path and spellbinding his foes with his fell glare.

The Names of Túrin

Names and titles are powerful in legend; Tolkien knew this fact well and wove this tradition firmly into his other tales: he who is called Strider names himself Aragorn son of Arathorn and King of Gondor at the right time, signalling a turning point in the tale. Gandalf the Grey, who is also called Mithrandir, becomes Gandalf the White.

In the Children of Húrin, Tolkien exploits this theme even further, using Túrin's attempts at changing his name to turn aside fate as a central theme. Túrin comes so often into the company of different people that each time it seems he attempts to start anew. He calls himself Neithan ("the wronged") when he falls in with outlaws after fleeing Doriath in anger. He falls to the orcs but escapes, afterward coming to Nargothrond. There he names himself Agarwaen, Son of Umarth ("Bloodstained, Son of Ill-Fate"). And finally in Brethil, he names himself Turambar ("Master of Doom"), thinking he has at last run free of his fate. At last when his Doom finally overtakes him, his true name returns and is forever carved in ironic Elven runes over his tomb: Túrin Turambar Dagnir Glaurunga (Túrin, Master of Doom, Bane of Glaurung).

Inexorable Fate, Unstoppable Maleficent Will

Here is a tale steeped in the ancient traditions of the premodern world. In his exploration of fate, Tolkien has crafted a heart-rending tale more akin to Antigone or Oedipus Rex. Here, through no fault of his own, Túrin is held captive to a Doom pronounced upon his family by a malevolent figure, never managing to rise above a single word of the evil curse. Túrin is a heroic figure, not blemished by any feature more wicked than any of our beloved modern heroes, and he surely does not deserve this fate. What's more, he strives heroically at every turn to rise above it, bending all his strength and faculty to the task. And yet he fails. Here is no modern exaltation of the free-willed individual. Here we glimpse into the fabric of things, and we shudder at the thought of powers (good and ill) which spin out our fate for us.


Tolkien fans will of course love this book (or perhaps hate it for the presence of pseudo-historical errors I did not notice). It is now part of the Tolkien Canon. It is eminently more readable than the difficult Silmarillion, though less so than the Hobbit or even The Lord of the Rings. Yet even for all its dry-at-times saga-like character and attention to details unimportant and cluttering to the eyes of many a reader, there is much to recommend the The Children of Húrin even to those who know nothing of any of the other of Tolkien's works. Perhaps for the reader which finds those other beloved tales too fantastic or too fairy-tale-like, The Children of Húrin would be a welcome dark tragedy.

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