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 Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

November 16, 2010 at 02:13 (Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , , , )

10/10

This is an excellently crafted mythology. It seems like the readability of the various sections of the book is inversely proportional to the beauty, and the importance to Tolkien’s world. The Ainulindalë and Valaquenta are some of the lengthier sections and involve mostly singing, but they set in stone Tolkien’s worldview and cosmology, and form the basis for every stroke of his pen in the entire Middle Earth saga. Contrarily, the easier and simpler fairy tales of Beren and Luthien, or the tragedy of Turin Turambar are much more accessible and even beautiful works of literature as independent stories, but are only reflections of the solid rules, morality and cosmos that trip up so many happy-go-lucky readers of the Silmarillion. As tempting as it is to skip past the lagging descriptions of the Ilúvatarian pantheon (avec attributes) or still more tempting, to simply assume that they are a glibly-painted backdrop and ultimately irrelevant to what proceeds, is a gross error. The lofty genesis of this book is the closest any reader can get to the real Tolkien, and the beliefs, loves and desires that spurred him to write his legend in the first place.

Quite simply, without the Akallabeth, there is no reason why we should consider the character of Aragorn as a great hero, nor Sauron as a great deceiver. Without Beren and Luthien, Arwen’s story is just another romantic subplot (which goes a long way to explain why in his adaptation Peter Jackson was forced to create an alternative character for her, rather than tangling with ancient family history!), and utterly unremarkable in its tragedy. Without seeing the Noldor as victimised and traumatised rebels against God, the Elves as we see them in Lord of the Rings are Tolkien’s rather shabby übermensch, with some phenomenal archery skills; and Galadriel is a very poor deus ex machina rather than a dispossessed, stubborn and repentant queen of a lost and tragic race. Together, the stories in The Silmarillion provide depth to all that is shallow in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and complement all that is deep.

The weakest element of the book is surely its lofty style and its millennial viewpoint. It is difficult to force investment in a character who will only live for some forty years out of thirty thousand. A great deal of this weakness is combated in the compendium of Unfinished Tales, in which the depth and tragedy of so many of the stories in the Quenta Silmarillion are explained and exposited marvellously, thoroughly enriching the thousands of years of history with the charming characterisations and hopeless quests that make the Lord of the Rings such a favourite. But the existence of a salvific companion cannot make up for the failings in this story; nor can the adventurous and thrilling prose in the other Middle Earth stories fully repay the Silmarillion’s reader for the occasional dry patch of genealogy and summary. It is in spite of these difficult areas that this book shines as an unassailable classic of literature, and the sheer brilliance of the story that is enough to drown out admittedly slow moments ought to speak in a clarion voice to its doubters.

Related reviews:
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers

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