The Children of Húrin
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1696
Long before Bilbo Baggins and his cousin, Frodo, set out on their heroic journeys to break Sauron’s hold on Middle-earth, others fought to end evil’s reign personified by Morgoth, the Dark Lord. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin, a prequel to The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1955), focuses on a portion of Tolkien’s massive legendarium, which tells the story of the epic battle between good and evil that gripped Middle-earth for thousands of years. The saga of Túrin Turambar, Húrin’s son, appeared in abridged form in the Silmarillion (1977) and Unfinished Tales (1980), both compiled by Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son and literary executor, and published after the elder Tolkien’s death. Tolkien first began Túrin’s story in 1918 and worked on it off and on over the succeeding years but never organized it into publishable form. Christopher has restructured the tale from Tolkien’s notes, creating a coherent narrative about the trials and tribulations of Túrin and his sister Niënor, the doomed offspring of a cursed warrior.
Set during the First Age of Middle-earth, sixty-five hundred years before the events in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings occurred, the story of The Children of Húrin takes place in the lost world of Beleriand. Morgoth, the fallen Vala, along with Sauron, his second lieutenant, wage war against Men and Elves for control of the country. Húrin, a descendant of the House of Hador, rules the human kingdom of Dor-lómin. Fearful of Morgoth’s growing power, he joins forces with the Eldar, or Elves, in order to curb Morgoth’s rampages into human and elven territory. Eventually Morgoth captures Húrin and demands that he reveal the location of the hidden elven stronghold Gondolin. When Húrin mockingly refuses, Morgoth curses him and his descendants.
While Húrin suffers in Morgoth’s dungeons, his wife, Morwen, pregnant with their second child, fears for the life of Túrin, their firstborn. She sends him to be fostered by Thingol, king of the Grey-elves in Doriath in the forests of Neldoreth. The Eldar tutor Túrin in the ways of war, and he becomes a skilled commander and formidable warrior. After he proves himself in battle, Thingol awards him Húrin’s golden Dragon-Helm. Saeros, one of Thingol’s most trusted counselors, becomes jealous of Túrin and attempts to undermine Túrin’s influence with Thingol. Túrin and Saeros fight one another in the forest, and Saeros is accidentally killed when he tries to run from Túrin. Because he fears punishment at the hands of Thingol, Túrin flees Doriath and joins a band of outlaws. His association with the bandits launches him on an eventful journey that includes hiding in the caves occupied by a deceitful Petty-dwarf named Mîm and traveling to the elvish realm of Nargothrond, where he becomes the commander of King Orodreth’s army. Finally Túrin makes his way to the forests of Brethil, where he takes the name Turambar, or “Master of Doom.” There he saves the land from Morgoth’s wily servant, Glaurung, a fire- breathing beast and father of all the dragons in Middle-earth. He also meets and marries Níniel, a beautiful woman suffering from amnesia, who is cared for by the people of Brethil after she is found naked in the woods. Neither Túrin or Níniel suspect that their passion for one another will lead to their deaths and the fulfillment of Morgoth’s curse.
Tolkien, an Oxford don and medievalist, was a master mythmaker who often drew on various Scandinavian legends and folktales to weave his spellbinding stories. The events depicted in The Children of Húrin are modeled on the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, and also echo Greek tragedy. Túrin and Kullervo, the protagonist of the poem, are taciturn, doleful antiheroes who are courageous, rash, and blinded by pride. Like Oedipus, they unknowingly commit incest, in this case with their sisters, who then commit suicide by drowning themselves in a river. The men kill themselves by falling on their swords after discovering the truth about the identity of their wives. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will also recognize similarities between Túrin and another Tolkien creation, Boromir, a member of the original Fellowship of the Ring. Both are skilled warriors who are deeply committed to defending their people against the dark powers that threaten to overtake their beloved homelands. Their passionate commitment, however, is flawed by hubris, which proves to be their undoing.
Similar to the elegiac language of the Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin is told in an archaic style that transports readers to a fairy-tale world of magic and adventure. Tolkien’s love of philology is as legendary as the mythic stories he created, and he actually wrote his tales around the languages he invented. The Sindarin of the Elves, Black Speech of the Orcs, and Khuzdul of the Dwarves had their origins in the ancient oral tales of Finland and Old England. Tongue-twisters such as Barad Eithel (a fortress of the Elves), Eldalië (a variant of “Eldar” for Elven-folk), Lúthien (daughter of Thingol and Melian), and Tumladen (a valley west of Beleriand) enhance the romance and otherworldliness of the tales but can also be a stumbling block for those who are new to Tolkien’s work. Fortunately Christopher has included a comprehensive glossary that helps the uninitiated keep track of the foreign-sounding characters and locations, as well as a pronunciation guide that gives readers an idea of the beautiful rhythmic cadences of the speech of Tolkien’s characters.
Tolkien’s rich text is enhanced by Alan Lee’s evocative color and black-and-white illustrations. Lee has illustrated other Tolkien projects, including The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook (2005) and various editions of The Lord of the Rings. He is perhaps best known, however, as the Oscar-winning conceptual designer for director Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. In contrast to the meticulous detail that is required for cinematic design, Lee’s illustrations for The Children of Húrin are more suggestive than literal and are meant to spark the reader’s imagination. Color plates of Húrin sitting in a stone chair, staring at an unidentified horror in Morgoth’s fortress; elven smiths shaping Túrin’s sword, Gurthang, in a white-hot forge in the underground, stalactite-roofed smithy of Nargothrond; and the bleak image of Túrin falling on his sword atop rocky cliffs by the roaring waters of Cabed-en-Aras convey the mystery, magic, and tragedy of the narrative. Other illustrations, however, seem to be more of a gloss than a direct commentary on the text. The image of a river of flame blighting a dark landscape placed opposite a passage about Glaurung’s fiery destruction of the forest by Nargothrond is more impressionistic than graphic, leaving it to the reader to make the connection between the picture and the narrative. A listing of what each plate is depicting would have been helpful.
New readers of Tolkien’s work, as well as those who have read only The Lord of the Rings, will especially appreciate Christopher’s preface and introduction. He gives a brief history of how his father came to write the saga of Túrin and Niënor, places the story within the larger context of Middle-earth history, and shows the impact the events of the First Age had on the later era of Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and Aragorn. A fold-out map of Beleriand at the back of the book offers an opportunity to plot Túrin’s odyssey as one reads the story. In addition to the above-mentioned glossary of names and the map, helpful appendixes include easy-to-follow genealogical charts of the human descendants of the House of Beor and the elvish princes of the Noldor. A section entitled “The Evolution of the Great Tales” is a brief but detailed study written by Christopher on the relationship between the finished novel and the various writings from which it was derived. His comments provide a fascinating glimpse into his father’s fecund imagination and creative process. Finally, “The Composition of the Text” is Christopher’s account of how he structured the narrative from his father’s scattered notes, as well as his rationale for making certain editorial decisions.
The publication of one more posthumous Tolkien work raises some intriguing questions concerning the author’s original intent. For example, why did Tolkien put the novel aside? Was he so dissatisfied with it that he deemed it unworthy of publication? Sensitive to criticism that his restorations of previously unpublished works reflected more of his vision than his father’s, the younger Tolkien admits in “The Composition of the Text” that he may have allowed himself “more editorial freedom than was necessary” when he compiled previous editions. As he pulled together the materials for The Children of Húrin, however, he claims that he “attempted in this book, after long study of the manuscripts, to form a text that provides a continuous narrative from start to finish without the introduction of any elements that are not authentic in conception.” Casual readers will take him at his word, but no doubt scholars will want to test his assertion.
The Children of Húrin demands more from readers than either The Hobbit, frequently classified as a children’s book, or The Lord of the Rings, popular among teenagers and young adults. Tragedy trumps heroism, evil overtakes good, and fate plays bitter tricks on the unfortunate Túrin and Niënor. In contrast to Tolkien’s better-known works that exude an air of innocence, The Children of Húrin portrays harsh realities, including incest and murder, which make it a more appropriate read for adults than children. Yet in spite of the gloomy plot and unhappy ending, Tolkien aficionados will appreciate this look back to the era that laid the foundation for Frodo and Sam’s heroic mission to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Dooma mission that eventually brings peace to Middle-earth.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20
Entertainment Weekly, nos. 931/932 (April 27, 2007): 142.
Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 13 (July 1, 2007): 8.
The New York Times 156 (April 14, 2007): B8.
The Washington Post, April 22, 2007, p. BW07.