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4.0 out of 5 stars The Children of Húrin, April 30, 2007
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This review is from: The Children of Hurin (Hardcover)
When J.R.R. Tolkien passed away in 1973, it might reasonably have been assumed that his literary career was over. But Tolkien left behind voluminous papers and manuscripts: a snippet of a poem here, a half-completed story there; and many nearly-completed pieces which nevertheless were not formed to their master's satisfaction.

Tolkien's son and literary executor Christopher has made it his life's work to organize and publish as much of his father's work as possible. Most of the material concerns Tolkien's work on "the First Age" of Middle Earth, the other-world he invented and devoted his life's imagination to. It may be said that the First Age, or Elder Days, stories consumed the first and last part of Tolkien's literary life, with the far better known "Lord of the Rings" period in the middle. He first conceived and worked on these stories from the end of the Great War until the mid-to-late 1930's, when he published The Hobbit, a book so successful a sequel was commissioned.

"The Lord of the Rings", the massive three-part story of Frodo the hobbit and his friends' quest to save the world by destroying the evil ring of power, has given Tolkien his lasting fame. There are numerous references, however, to Tolkien's earlier work in "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings": a mention of a famous sword, a great kingdom, a love poem, and the glory of lost civilizations upon whose ruins the late Third Age civilizations of "Lord of the Rings" are built. When his masterpiece was completed, Tolkien turned again to the long-abandoned manuscripts of the Elder Days, always hoping to perfect the stories he loved most and find a publisher for them. But for whatever reason, Tolkien's work never caught up with his vision. He never brought the stories to what he considered a satisfactory completion. He died thinking his artistic vision a failure.

Christopher Tolkien has done his best to remedy that by publishing volume upon volume of the stories his father left behind. First came "The Silmarillion", meant to be as comprehensive a history of the Elder Days as possible, from the creation of Middle Earth to the fall of the great enemy Morgoth. The twelve volumes of "The History of Middle Earth" series followed, documenting the evolution of the Elder Days tales as well as early versions of what became "The Lord of the Rings". And now, for the first time since "The Silmarillion" was published in 1977, Christopher Tolkien has put out a book in novel form: "The Children of Húrin".

Húrin was a hero of men in the Elder Days. The mightiest warrior of his time, taken captive in battle against Morgoth's forces, Húrin was brought for his torment before Morgoth himself. Incensed when Húrin resists him and mocks his power, Morgoth lays a curse on Húrin and his children, so that all they do will be turned to Morgoth's evil purposes. The novel is mainly concerned with the exploits and fate of Húrin's son, Túrin Turambar. Túrin is a cursed man indeed: he is driven from his childhood foster-home by a jealous rival; he becomes leader of a band of outlaws which is destroyed by treachery; he accidentally kills his greatest friend; he comes to Nargothrond, one of the last free kingdoms resisting Morgoth, and causes its downfall; he strives against the dragon Glaurung, Morgoth's servant, and though he vanquishes the dragon in the end, his victory is robbed of joy by the revelation of his sister's fate. That sister, Nienor, is also cursed and trapped by Glaurung, finally becoming entangled in her brother's fortunes before learning the awful truth of the dragon's deceptions at last.

The novel is an expanded version of a chapter from "The Silmarillion", fleshing out the details of Túrin's life into a book-length narrative. Its style is something between "The Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings": the former is a broad overview, not too focused on the individual lives of its characters, while the latter has a well-defined quest and clear depictions of good and evil. "The Children of Húrin" is more like a biography of Túrin, and you're never quite sure if he's even meant to be a sympathetic character. For while he is cursed with evil times and always has evil choices, you sense that he might escape his fate if only he would choose wiser. He is always led astray by his own pride, his anger, or his yearning for glory. Had he been less selfish and more prudent he may well have avoided his fate, as the story hints once or twice that he might.

It is in this sense one might say this is the most fully realized of Tolkien's novels. Although Tolkien despised allegory, and was critical of his friend C.S. Lewis's work on that account, he sought to create "new myths" in keeping with the Christian worldview. The constant presence of evil, the temptation of the quick and easy path, the perils of pride and the misery a man can create for himself show the misery of the fall. This is not an uplifting tale but a saga of damnation.

Leaving aside those heavy themes, any Tolkien geek will want to read this book. How could you resist a new epic in the canon of Middle Earth? I also wonder if Christopher Tolkien might not have more books planned...perhaps a treatment of Beren and Lúthien, the love story of which the tale of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings is an echo? I hope so.
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