Monday, 29 September 2014

The Children of Húrin

The Children of Húrin – written by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien – is one of those books that looks deceptively small and easy to consume, but which I nevertheless keep re-reading year after year. Now I had been itching to read it once more and then write the review that it very much deserved, and the Tolkien Blog Party hosted by Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice provided the final inspiration.

The Children of Húrin is one of the many drafts concerning the history of Middle-Earth that Tolkien never finished during his lifetime. However, it was among those that he came nearest to completing, and it appeared posthumously in The Silmarillion as well as Unfinished Tales, both of which were collections of Tolkien's Middle-Earth drafts edited by Christopher Tolkien. Even as I read this story in both of these books, it immediately became a favourite of mine. Christopher Tolkien then did a little more work on the text, making it into a more complete narrative that was published as an independent book in 2007. I remember very well that I was one of the first people in Tampere to snatch it off the shelves of the local bookstore and it was a great day for me, even though there was no queuing and mass hysteria involved such as with the Harry Potter books.

I know quite a few people who are avid fans of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's world in general, but who feel a bit nervous about going aboard The Silmarillion to see the earlier days of Middle-Earth. "Should I read it? What's it really like?" they carefully ask. All this is completely understandable! Tolkien goes on quite a bit about his beloved Eldar and their history in The Lord of the Rings as well, and these digressions don't always seem entirely necessary to advance the plot (on a side note though, yours truly is a complete nerd for history of any kind and all the smallest details, so I was never bothered...) So how would it feel to read an entire book devoted to Tolkien's incredibly vast and detailed history of Middle-Earth?

Well, like I said on that little side note, I read all sorts of "background material" with more enthusiasm than the average reader, so I can honestly say that I love The Silmarillion and everything related to it, and I can't really see how anyone could be bored by stuff like that. But I can also say, just as honestly, that for anyone that feels daunted by Tolkien's style in handling Middle-Earth's history, The Children of Húrin is an excellent place to start. So in case you were already beginning to wonder if I'm ever going to get round to the actual review – yes, I am going to tell you why exactly I love this story so much. I'll also do it completely free of spoilers.

Túrin Turambar, an illustration by Alan Lee. Normally I'm not a big fan of grey, but I absolutely love these colours.

As much as Tolkien dedicated his time to devising the history and languages of the Eldar, in The Children of Húrin, the focus is placed on a family of mortals. The setting is in Beleriand (a Western part of Middle-Earth that has perished completely by the time The Lord of the Rings takes place) in the First Age, and Morgoth brings darkness to both Elves and Men – his servant, Sauron, would later become a Dark Lord himself. Húrin is a great leader among the Men, but he goes to war against Morgoth and is taken prisoner, so his son Túrin grows up mostly fatherless. As the war goes very badly against the allied forces of Elves and Men, Túrin's homeland becomes unsafe and his mother Morwen sends him to Doriath – and as I like to point out connections to The Lord of the Rings for the benefit of those that have read that but not this, I should mention that the legendary love story of Beren and Lúthien begins in Doriath. Meanwhile, as Morgoth continues to hold Húrin prisoner he puts a curse on him and all his descendants. It seems that the curse is in fact coming to action as one misfortune after another falls on Túrin. The mistakes that he makes send him on travels all across Beleriand while he strives to escape the shadow upon him. Each time he manages to find a safe haven for a while and thinks he has found peace, the ongoing war with Morgoth forces him out. Eventually, his path crosses with a mysterious young woman who has lost her memory.

Despite the fact that Tolkien himself didn't get this story past the drafting stage, the final, published version of The Children of Húrin is an entirely coherent work with a beautiful narrative structure. Tolkien's devotion to his mythology and his son's respect for the same and willingness to bring this material to Tolkien's admirers come brilliantly together. I don't know in any great detail in what ways Christopher Tolkien edited his father's draft and what additions he made, but I certainly couldn't tell by the book itself which parts were edited in.

For a Tolkien-written book, The Children of Húrin is very forward-paced and compact. Something essential takes place in each chapter, and the scenery changes in almost every other. All this movement keeps the reader very much engaged, especially as Túrin, the main protagonist, develops with almost every turn of the page. There are plenty of thought-provoking secondary characters as well; my favourite ones would absolutely be Túrin's mother Morwen – the most determined woman Tolkien ever wrote, even Éowyn would envy the strength of her heart – and his best friend, Beleg the elf, who is the best companion anyone could ever have and a total master at shooting with a bow. The friendship between Túrin and Beleg provides a much-appreciated ray of light to a tale that is mostly filled with darkness and doom – though, to be completely honest, this same friendship is the centre of one of the greatest tragedies that take place here. Oh my, now that I wrote that out I'm even sadder than while reading the book itself...

Which conveniently brings me to the tone and thematics of the story. If I was to come up with a really psychedelic, one-sentence description of The Children of Húrin, I would say: "It's kind of like The Hobbit, except that there are no hobbits in it and everything always goes wrong." In terms of pacing, this is an adventure story, but in terms of tone it's a tragedy. What makes it a thought-provoking tragedy (instead of just a severely depressing one) is that it constantly brings up the question of whether Túrin's misfortunes really are all caused by Morgoth's curse, or does he bring it on himself by being too proud and stubborn. Túrin's character flaws are highlighted by the fact that he is a mortal man who lives most of his life among the elves – while the elves are ready to stay put under Morgoth's shadow and wait for an unspecified moment in the far future when they feel it is the right moment for action, Túrin feels his own mortality very strongly and says and does unwise things in his frustration. Exploring the mentalities of Túrin's family and the elves makes for a rather interesting contemplation on the possible reason why Tolkien wanted these two different races to co-exist in his mythology in the first place.

Even though The Children of Húrin is very, very sad, it is not depressing. The sceneries and the characters that we come across on this eventful journey are exquisitely vibrant, and even when the story deals with pain, loss and inevitable fate, it does so in a most beautiful way. If I might make a guess, a reader who picks up The Children of Húrin is very likely to be interested in The Silmarillion and other similar works next. Then again, for those who aren't that eager to learn absolutely everything about Tolkien's mythology, this one is very much worth a read anyway because it doesn't require such a conviction in order to be appreciated. I for one am extremely glad that The Children of Húrin was expanded and made into a book of its own, because it has more than enough story and theme to deserve that.


  1. We have The Silmarillion, so maybe I'll try reading just "The Children of Hurin" before I tackle the whole book. Thanks for giving me a clear idea of what it's like!

  2. Having seen your appreciation of Tolkien's works through the effort you put into the Tolkien blog parties, I'm almost certain you'd enjoy The Silmarillion! I haven't read the Children of Húrin section in that book for some time (because now I obviously prefer to read that story in the book I just reviewed) but if I remember right, the editor's presence is much more obvious there than in the independent book version. Some of the twists and turns of Túrin's journey probably didn't exist yet in that draft. But still, I'll be very pleased if I've managed to inspire you to take up The Silmarillion! :)

  3. As much as I love 'The Hobbit' and LOTR I have to admit that I really struggled with 'The Silmarillion'. I think it's a staggering work of fiction - really it's quite incredible - but I had such a hard time with the names and trying to remember who everyone was that I often found myself getting annoyed and frustrated with it ("Wait, WHO is this person again?!") My favourite parts of the book were the creation story, the descriptions of the Valar and Valinor, and the Beren-Luthien story (I would love to see that adapted!) But from what you've said about 'Children of Hurin' it sounds more accessible than 'The Silmarillion' and it's made me think that I'll have to read it :)

  4. I haven't read Tolkien other than The Hobbit & LOTR. I have the difficulty to find his other books in my country, I'll gladly read this one once I have the chance. Great review!

    1. Welcome to my blog! I'm glad that you enjoyed my review and that I got you interested in reading this, I would say it is certainly worth your time. :)