It is a rare thing when a work of a master writer shows up in print many many decades after all his significant work has long since been put into print. Having been less than overwhelmed by the previous efforts of J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher to give us more from the Master of Middle Earth (the "Silmarillion" has some interesting segments, but is basically too many fragments and too little continuous narrative about previous stories, characters and realms, and the same can be said for 'Unfinished Tales"), I have been pleasantly surprised with "The Children of Hurin" which appeared in bookstores earlier this year.
Understand that I am a big Tolkien fan, being the child who told his parents he was going into his room to read the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, and please just slip the food and clean clothes under the door! The first volume of the Lord of the Rings was published the year I was born, and I grew up reading the Inklings (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other contemporaries like Dorthy Sayers). I was the one who made the pilgrimage to the 'Eagle and Child' pub in Oxford before it was cool, just to see where the Inklings quaffed their beer while trying out chapters of their work on each other. Oh, to be a barfly on the wall of that pub then! For someone like myself, after the heights of the Lord of the Rings, it is difficult to accept mediocre Tolkien at best.
I am thus happy to report that while 'the Children of Hurin' is not up to Hobbit standards, it is nonetheless finally a pretty good continuous narrative about characters that were predecessors to the one's we love so much in the Hobbit and its three sequels. In fact there are no hobbits in the 'Children of Hurin', and this in part accounts for the more serious character of this new volume, which is one full of pathos, with very little relief. Instead this is a tale of men and elves and orcs and an already well known dragon, not to mention the 'He who should not be named' Valar turned bad guy who makes most movie villians look petty and powerless.
'The Children of Hurin' is actually a tale that focuses on the 'doom' or 'fate' of one child of Hurin, namely Turin, and it follows his life from start to finish. Christopher Tolkien deserves full marks for piecing this small epic together from shards and fragments, and revisions of multiple versions. He has done a fine job of editing this material. The Appendixes reveal just what an untidy writer Tolkien was often writing and rewriting the same material again and again with variations and changes. He could have used his son's editing skills in the 1930s. This story shows, as do almost all Tolkien's work, just how indebted Tolkien was to Norse legends and characterization. But Tolkien's use of the motif of the creeping darkness of evil which falls upon the realm owes more to the Biblical notion of the effects of the Fall than to Norse lore. It is one of Tolkien's great skills as a writer that he can make one feel 'the darkness and wickedness' and its insidious nature as it silently seeps into human hearts and minds altering their behavior and leading to human demise.
'The Children of Hurin' is written in a sort of 'olde worlde' English, closer to medieval English than King James English at times (we have words like 'worsted' and fell' used in older ways), and in various ways this is appropriate as this is a tale from long ago, before the chronicles of Middle Earth we all know and love. If there is a theme to this moderately extended tale (226 pages of the actual tale-- short by Rings standards) it is that human pride goes before the fall, because it makes us all too vulnerable to the powers of darkness, and subject to manipulation by them. I will not spoil the story for you, as it is well worth the read, but bring your box of kleenex and enjoy the very fine illustrations by Alan Lee, whose grey and sepia tones certainly convey the mood of the novella itself quite well. Houghton Mifflin should be commended for their care in the production of this book, as it is a keeper, both in form and content.
In some ways it is a relief to know that Tolkien did not simply spin his tales out of his head and heart without stops or false starts, but labored mightily to get the stories right. It is also impressive as well how much insight he had into human nature already in 1917 when he was already writing. But then as one who lived through WWI and WWII it is hardly a surprise that he had a profound grasp of the 'heart of darkness' and its grip on the human race, and how only a true savior could come and change such a situation. Mere fallen mortals would not be enough, however brave and bold. This of course comports well with Tolkien's deep and abiding Catholic faith, something which sometimes made his conversations with Lewis awkward, the convert from atheism to Protestantism.
For those of you who like these sort of dark tales, I can also commend the truly amazing dark tales of that lesser known Inkling, Charles Williams. Try his 'All Hallow's Eve' or his 'Descent into Hell' and for a lighter touch his 'the Greater Trumps'. It is much to be wished that we had writing circles today in Christianity like that of the Inklings where cross-fertilization and encouragement and inspiration could be shared. Until then, enjoy 'the Children of Hurin', and watch out for olde dragon breath Glaurang!