The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

May 5, 2013 at 17:51 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

ChildrenOfHurin

9/10

9/10

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 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.'”

-The Children of Hurin

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.

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The Return of Christian Humanism, by Lee Oser

February 20, 2011 at 19:39 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , , , )

7/10

An excellent book, though very academic. The authors mentioned in the subtitle (Tolkien, Chesterton and Eliot) are the initial selling point of this book, and it might have been nice to see more textual analysis on their relevant works, rather than an endless debate on the validity of certain critical schools, and the sometimes shallow and pedantic opinionated claims of some adherants (according to Oser’s combative summaries).

Oser certainly does his research, and quotes some extremely diverse publications; it seems like Eliot is his main focus (perhaps to the detriment of the other writers), but perhaps he simply acknowledges that Eliot needs the greatest advocacy (he seems to admit as much, when wondering aside if Tolkien will, in the future, face the same revised criticisms as Eliot has).

Oser’s conservatism is welcome in what is such a conserative topic, and his strong support of theological orthodoxy alongside romanticism in literature is like a breath of fresh air. Perhaps he assumes his audience needs no introduction, but his criticism of absurdism and his praise of Christian humanism as a viable alternative is, though scattered and difficult to follow throughout scattered critical references, extremely useful.

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The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien

February 1, 2011 at 15:21 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

10/10

The most difficult part of this book is its division into two concurrent but largely separate stories; that of the rise of Aragorn to his potential regal nature, and of the Ringbearer’s journey with his longsuffering servant. There are a few places where these stories lean inwards and almost seem about to touch, but unfortunately (and due entirely to their separation as narratives) it is the easiest thing in the world to miss this fact, and to allow the two quests to drift steadily apart, without the symbiosis that they both rely upon. Even a frequent reader of the series might find it difficult to connect the two stories.

The emblem of the duality, present in the book’s title, is a fantastic and titillating leitmotif: Gollum’s two guardians of justice and mercy; his own duelling personalities fighting for mastery; the two quests divided into their two books; the two towers of satanic union, Barad-dûr and Orthanc, or else two towers of opposition, Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr. For it is in this second book that Tolkien treats his readers (his hungry readers, after a masterful first volume!) to a glimpse not only of the heroic quest to right the wrongs of his world, but also to the treason and villainy that oppose it. If The Fellowship of the Ring is a story much in the similitude of The Hobbit, of a reluctant hero setting out on a fabulous adventure, then The Two Towers is about the teeth possessed by that adventure, and what they are used to attack. The enemy also has a quest and is also active, and this counter-attack is visible in each and every appearance of duality in the book.

It is relieving, then, that Tolkien’s own theology does not admit to any sort of equality in the balance between good and evil. As far as morality goes, it is pleasant to be reassured that the sunrise is inevitable, and that every night will pass; and while it does not always make for very thrilling storytelling, or for incredibly complex or conflicted heroes, it does have its own power. One of the reasons Tolkien’s world is so comfortable and so welcoming is its unbending rule that ultimate good and ultimate evil both exist, and that the former shall overcome the latter.

As a simple story, then, The Two Towers does not attempt to cover its tracks with plot twists or suddenly unexplained betrayal. Even the centrepiece of the first section, and Saruman’s horrific treason, demonstrates simple and unabashed adherence to the rule that men who delve into certain things too deeply will find themselves ensnared by their own devices. The development and building of the characters does not take place through their own shifting and changing priorities or values, but through their discovery of the road upon which they had already committed to carry out. This book might be criticised for simplicity, when it is simplicity that makes its story elegant. It might be faulted for its stiff and old-fashioned moralising, when to be anything else would be a gross abberation from the foundations upon which it is built.

This book might also be accused of outdoing its predacessor. That one is too close to call.

Related reviews
The Silmarillion
The Fellowship of the Ring

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The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkien

January 16, 2011 at 13:32 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

10/10

It is difficult to write a brief review of a book that is so clearly only a small part of a greater whole. As a component of Tolkien’s majestic creation, The Fellowship of the Ring makes for an admirable introduction, and contains some of the clearest writing in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with a strong cast of characters and a masterful blend of ancient rhyme and romance retold, all a part of a meaningful and rich progression. The narrative style before the breakup of the fellowship is also considerably easier to manage, and there are fewer moments where the pace falters.

While criticisms of the single component inevitably imply judgement on the whole corpus, as a stand-alone book The Fellowship of the Ring is sadly lacking in meaningful female characters; and despite Tolkien’s grand effort in constructing an elaborate home for his heroes to live in, and despite fifty years spent in the Shire at the outset, Middle Earth tends to go by in a blur. There are cascading and massive outcroppings of intricate description and mooning over mighty mountains and historic veldt, but little that endears us to the place, apart from a strong (almost tragically romantic) desire to linger – just a little longer! – which, of course, drives the urgency of Frodo’s quest to begin with.

The conclusion of this first installation is somewhat unsatisfying, with open storylines reaching like tendrils into the next section. This is, of course, the intention, but it does make The Fellowship of the Ring feel just a little hollow, and a vehicle for its sequels rather than a story in its own right. These failings and shortcomings, however, cannot hope to challenge the simple fact that Tolkien is an intensely focused and agonisingly diligent writer, with a warm and reverberating style and a mystical nobility that instills every slightest trail of the quest with gravity and vigour. The freshest and most accessible volume of the best adventure story in the history of literature.

Related reviews:
The Silmarillion
The Two Towers

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