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.