The Children of Hurin

Most of you probably know that I’m a massive fan of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve read it more than perhaps any other adult novel, and I think I love it more every time I read it. My love of Lord of the Rings hasn’t exactly translated into a love of all things Middle-earth, however. I’ve read The Silmarillion and The Books of Lost Tales and liked them pretty well, but I didn’t fall in love with them. Without a single narrative, these books, which delve into the history of Middle Earth, do not have the same power and resonance as the story of Frodo and the One Ring.

With all that said, when I heard that J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher had compiled some of his father’s writings about the Elder Days of Middle-earth to create a full-length novel about a family from those days, I was definitely interested. But I wasn’t so excited that I went out and read it right away—truth be told, I was a little nervous that it would be terrible. It wasn’t.

Parts of the tale told in The Children of Húrin will be familiar to those who have read The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales,and Unfinished Tales. The story is set around 6,500 years before the War of the Ring, and the evil Morgoth, one of the God-like Valar, is making war on the Men and Elves of Middle-earth. Húrin, one of the greatest warriors from among the Men, goes off to war, leaving his family to fend for themselves.

A large portion of the novel focus on Húrin’s son, Túrin, and his efforts to find his place in the war-torn world. Túrin can be rash and emotional, but his intelligence and nobility win him influence almost everywhere he goes. He becomes a leader of outlaws, as well as an adviser to the Elves. He battles a dragon and wins the desultory allegiance of an angry dwarf. He’s difficult to like, but he demands respect. And no matter how unlikable Túrin can be, a reader would have to be pretty hard-hearted not to find his shocking and tragic fate to be devastating.

The novel itself is seamless. My understanding is that all of the text is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s own pen. If his son had to make insertions to smooth out any transitions, I didn’t notice them. It doesn’t feel cobbled together. The narrative is episodic, with much of it taking the form of a hero’s journey, and I got a little impatient with the pattern of Túrin going somewhere, getting into (or making) trouble, then moving on, usually changing his name and refusing to say who he really is. Once the events leading up to his final fate began to take shape, however, I couldn’t look away. It was a tragic train wreck, but in a good way.

As for how this compares to Lord of the Rings, I wasn’t nearly as wrapped up in Túrin’s world as I was in the world of Frodo and Samwise, of Faramir and Eowyn. It’s a shorter book, so there’s less time to get wrapped up in it (although I’m not arguing that the book should be longer). There’s also less of the intimacy that we get from Lord of the Rings. The only deeds we learn about are great deeds—some great in glory and some great in horror. There’s no sitting and smoking pipe weed, no songs and stories by the campfire, no good-natured ribbing between friends. The characters here feel like the characters of myth; they’re too grand to be real. But the reason I go back to Lord of the Rings again and again is that the characters seem like people I could know. They’re my guides, my ambassadors to the grand adventure that they experience.

Don’t get me wrong, The Children of Hurin is a good book, and I think it would interest even readers who aren’t ardent fans of Lord of the Rings. It’s a good story. I can’t blame it for not being Lord of the Rings. That’s a high standard for any fantasy story to live up to, even a fantasy story by Tolkien himself.

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19 Responses to The Children of Hurin

  1. Like you, I adore The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and can read them time and time again, but I couldn’t get along with The Silmarillion or The Book of Lost Tales – I found them virtually unreadable, perhaps because they are a writer’s notes, rather than fully fledged books Consequently I’ve been very wary of The Children of Hurin and have avoided it so far. But having read your review, perhaps I’ll give it a go.

  2. Jeanne says:

    We call Tolkien the king of the backstory at my house, because my husband has read it all. When he read this one, I didn’t even consider it, but now I might. It has always struck me as a little like reading about movie stars on the internets–there are these characters you love, and you can’t get enough of them…

    • Teresa says:

      King of backstory is right. It’s interesting to me how much of the backstory he worked on before writing the actual story that made his reputation.

  3. Our exact reaction to the book in this very Tolkien friendly house. We just were not pulled into this world as we were in his other work. Not pulled in like we are with the whole Hobbit movie thing right now where we obsessively check for new trailers and whatnot. Or argue about the appropriateness of incorporating LOTR material into the Hobbit story or…. But I am so off topic.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s a good book, but not the same.

      I haven’t quite gotten to the obsessive level about The Hobbit, but I do have opinions about it! I’ve come to the conclusion that it’ll be Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, rather than Tolkien’s, which means it’ll be entertaining and worth seeing, but it won’t have the charming tone of the book.

  4. vanbraman says:

    I have read a few of the other Tolkien books, but I agree they just don’t have the same interest to me as the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have read the four books at least a half dozen times and will probably be reading the Hobbit again soon.

    I may have to give this one a chance.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s worth giving a chance, especially if you’re interested in the back story. It felt like reading an expanded version of the stories the LOTR characters told each other.

  5. Jenny says:

    I agree that the particular joy of the Hobbit and the LOTR books are the intimacy of them. Epic literature and great deeds are all very well, but I love Tolkien for seed-cakes and songs and wretched shivering nights and stolen mushrooms and fly, you fools.

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly. It’s a good story, but not the same without all those mundane elements that make the story real. To use my analogy from the other day, this is a “window” story, and the other books are “doorways.”

  6. Amy says:

    I never finished this one. My husband enjoyed it but I think he was able to separate himself from LOTR and I wasn’t. I wanted to be sucked in, I wanted an adventure, and I didn’t feel it with this book. It’s been years since I put this book back on the shelf so maybe I need to go back and give it another chance and try not to think about Frodo while I’m reading.

    Also, now I want to re-read The Hobbit. :)

  7. Interesting. Though I own a copy of “The Silmarillion,” I’ve never dipped inside it, putting it off until I felt like reading something rather like Anglo-Saxon and Norse chronicles of characters who are, as you say, larger than life and who have few relatable small faults, virtues, or moments of humor to make them more approachable. But maybe it’s now time for me to open some of the other J. R. R. Tolkien texts for the back history.

    • Teresa says:

      I found the Middle-earth histories interesting for what they reveal about Tolkien’s genius in constructing these worlds. It’s impressive work.

  8. gaskella says:

    My experience with the Silmarillion, I didn’t finish it, put me off reading any of the other related Tolkein books. I love LOTR and the Hobbit, having read each several times, and will leave it here, unless I come across a cheap copy of this book which would tempt me …

    • Teresa says:

      I liked the histories in bits and pieces, but the fact that I’ve only read the Silmarillion and Lost Tales once and The Hobbit and LOTR six times tells you something. But if you’re at all interested in the history, this is an approachable way into one small bit of it.

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  11. Matt says:

    I loves this book. My favorite part of all of tolkiens stuff was dark an sinister stuff. This book is great if you love evil ass dragons and the biggest baddest evil dude of all time (Morgoth). A must read if you like tragedies.

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