In examining The Children of Hurin, the first question will be, “Is it any good?” while the second question will be, “Is there anything new or unique here?”
The answer to both of these questions is not all that simple. The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion from which this story is assembled are both notorious for being difficult and labyrinthine tomes reserved exclusively for people who don’t get invited to parties. They are both very, very good, which answers the first question somewhat. Any reader who has gone through either one of those books will not find anything particularly surprising in The Children of Hurin, which answers the second question.
But there is something very valuable and very new in these pages. Christopher Tolkien (who edited together these fragments) has long been a target of scornful dismissal by many fans of his father’s work, but it is remarkable how seamlessly he has managed to collate the pieces of Hurin’s tragedy from the disparate sources available to him, and come out with something very much approximating literature.
The grandiose style that has been mistaken for unwieldiness by many readers of Tolkien’s miscellaney has been sanded and polished, and in the process of cutting Hurin’s family out from their tangled web of thousands of years of history there is much that has been either abbreviated or removed entirely. In fact, the peculiar thing about this book is that the very act of making it ‘more readable’ and ‘more accessible’ has in fact denuded it of helpful context for many readers unaware of the arcane details of Tolkien’s legends. Those deeply intimate with the history of the Noldor and Thangorodrim will find a clear and thrilling edition of a familiar story; those who have only read The Lord of the Rings will still be faced with the constant stumbling blocks of how this story fits in with the world they know. It is therefore interesting that the simplification of the books has consequently made the story more inviting for those who are already comfortable with the original versions.
The most noticeable artefact from The Silmarillion stylistically speaking, is the rather grim absence of levity or mirth. This is a much harder story than Tolkien’s more famous works, and while that does not make it worse at all, it does make it different, and it will doubtless unsettle many readers. This setting also allowed Tolkien to explore more adult themes, and his characters here are much more driven by fear and by jealousy, by pride and by vengeance and by honour. Turin and Morwen, Beleg and Glaurung, are much more human and much less fantastical than the array of hobbits and men seen elsewhere; which is again a comment, and neither criticism nor praise. There is some difficulty in finding the focus of the story–for the grand millennial struggle against Morgoth is a background theme, and incidental to the plot. But in that, the smaller details and choices assume a wider significance than in the original editions, and a warmth which is difficult to set upon initially is brought out.
It is incredibly difficult to consider this book apart from the other forms in which it has already been published. Most readers who come across it will come across it because of their admiration for these other works. But those others who will have to painstakingly arrange the context (or do away with it entirely) will find a bitter but enticing fantasy story, expertly written and without any of the baggy and painful luggage that so much modern fantasy is encumbered with. Surprisingly satisfying to read, and one that even committed Tolkien-devotees might find themselves reaching for more often than they think.