J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin.
Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Reviewed by John Bedell
The more I learn about J.R.R. Tolkien, the more amazed I am by
The Lord of the Rings. The latest work that Christopher Tolkien has
managed to salvage from his father's voluminous notebooks, The Children
of Húrin, is much like all of the other material we have seen
since The Silmarillion: it has a few intriguing inventions
and the occasional memorable phrase, but it is really only a curiosity, not
a book worth reading in its own right. Nobody but a true fan of Middle Earth
would get past page five. The writing has long patches of dreariness, the
story is not especially interesting, and the flashes of Tolkien magic don't
redeem the overall drabness. One reviewer said that the plot of The
Children of Húrin "unfolds with the inevitability of Greek tragedy,"
which is one way of putting it. You could also say that nobody ever does
anything remotely surprising, and that the future bad consequences of various
acts are so obvious when they are performed that you have to wonder how the
elves ever got their reputation for "lore and craft."
The Children of Húrin is a longer version of a story
already told in The Silmarillion. I am going to ruin the plot for
you now, without regret, since part of my purpose is to give you an idea
of what the book is like without your having to read it. It begins in confusion.
In a few pages we cover the genealogy of the protagonists, the geography
of Middle Earth in the Elder Days (not the same as it would be later), and
the cosmo-political situation. This is nothing like the marvelous way in
which the struggle against Sauron slowly unfolds as we follow the gripping
story of The Fellowship of the Ring. There is no artistry here,
just a textbook rolling out of facts and names. Unpronounceable high elvish
names that all look rather alike, I might add, so if you don't remember The
Silmarillion you won't have any idea who is who anyway.
What is going on is a war between the elves of Middle Earth and Morgoth,
the original Dark Enemy of Tolkien's universe. The most important elves
are the Noldor. Long ago the Noldor left Middle Earth to live with the Valar,
the lesser gods, in the enchanted realm of Valinor. After an age or so
they got bored with happiness under the gods' protective wings and, corrupted
by Morgoth's whispers, staged a sort of rebellion. They left Valinor, after
killing some other elves to steal their ships ("this was the first kinslaying
of the Eldar") and landed back in Middle Earth. There they found that while
most of the elves had remained loyal to the Valar and opposed Morgoth, most
of the men had gone over to the dark side. Only three "kindreds" remained
loyal, including the family of Húrin.
At first the war with Morgoth goes well for the elves. The Noldor have
been filled with divine knowledge and something also of the gods' powers
during their time in Valinor and, "mighty in lore and craft," they defeat
Morgoth's armies of orcs and balrogs. Unable to destroy his great fortress,
Utumno, they besiege him within it. Across the northern half of Middle
Earth they build mighty kingdoms and gleaming cities, full of magic weapons
and other wonders. These are the places that float in the background of
The Lord of the Rings: Gondolin, Nargothrond, Menegroth of
the Thousand Caves .
But Morgoth is himself a god, and final victory is beyond the power of
the elves. The Valar will not help them, because of rash and terrible oaths
sworn when the Noldor were leaving Valinor, and Morgoth's cunning and power
slowly wear down their defenses. His favorite trick is to get his enemies
to fight each other, and this turns out to be rather easy with the Noldor.
They are so proud and quick to anger, and so given to swearing Great Oaths
that cause those around them to "quail at the fell words" and always lead
to something bad, that they have trouble uniting even in the face of ultimate
evil. Morgoth breaks the siege of Utumno and defeats the elves in a series
of battles, culminating in The Battle of Unnumbered Tears.
Among the elvish army at that great defeat was Húrin, leader of
one of the free human kindreds. He and his wife Morwen, who is said to
be nearly as beautiful and proud as an elvish princess, have a son named
Túrin and a newborn daughter named Niënor. Morgoth tries to
extract from Húrin the location of the hidden city of Gondolin. He
Morgoth then binds Húrin into his high seat on the
mountain of Thangorodrim, saying "with my eyes you shall see, and with my
eyes you shall hear, and nothing shall be hidden from you."
Then Morgoth stretching out his long arm towards Dor-lómin
cursed Húrin and Morwen and their offspring, saying, "Behold! The
shadow of my thought shall lie upon them wherever they go, and my hate
shall pursue them to the ends of the world. . . . The shadow of my purpose
lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will.
But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and
it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil
shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever
they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both
life and death."
The rest of the book follows the gradual fulfillment of this curse.
Actually, I have to say I was rather underwhelmed by the horror of Morgoth's
revenge. Fostered by an elvish king, Túrin grows into a great warrior
and a leader in the wars against Morgoth. He is proud and quick to anger,
which gets him into trouble and leads to the deaths of several of his friends,
but these faults seem almost to have been a requirement for leadership
in the Elder Days. The kings of the Noldor do far worse. Eventually Túrin
becomes war leader of the elven kingdom of Nargothrond . He aggressively
assails Morgoth's minions wherever they can be found. His success breeds
overconfidence, and he has a great bridge built over the river that protects
Nargothrond, so that his armies can more easily cross it to fight on the
other side. Morgoth, of course, has been waiting for this – and, I mean,
who wouldn't be? But isn't there a Greek word for the blindness the Gods
send on men so they will do the stupid things that bring on their inevitable
destinies? – and he then unleashes the mighty host he has been preparing
for this day. With it goes Glaurung, Father of Dragons, whose fire turns
the tide of battle, and the elves are defeated. Of course, the remaining
defenders of Nargothrond are unable to destroy Túrin's great stone
bridge in time, so Morgoth's army crosses it and sacks the city.
Glaurung is one of the story's more interesting characters. Besides his
fire and his vast strength, he uses his gaze and his voice to great effect.
Meeting Túrin amidst the ruins of Nargothrond, he reminds him of the
family he left behind when he went to be raised by elves:
"Evil have been all your ways, son of Húrin. Thankless
fosterling, outlaw, slayer of your friend, thief of love, usurper of Nargothrond,
captain foolhardy, and deserter of your kin. As thralls your mother and
sister live in Dor-lómin, in misery and want. You are arrayed as
a prince, but they go in rags. For you they yearn, but you care not for
that. Glad may your father be to learn that he has such a son, as learn he
shall." And Túrin being under the spell of Glaurung hearkened to his
words, and he saw himself as in a mirror misshapen by malice, and he loathed
what he saw.
Glaurung knows full well that Morwen and Niënor left Dorlómin
long ago, but Túrin is tricked by the dragon's power and goes in
search of them. Meanwhile, Niënor comes to the ruins of Nargothrond
to find Túrin, and instead finds Glaurung. She asks him about Húrin,
and he answers:
"I know not. He was left here to defend
the women and weaklings; but when I came he deserted them and fled. A
boaster but a craven, it seems. Why seek you such a one?"
"You lie," said Niënor. "The children of Húrin
at least are not craven. We fear you not."
Then Glaurung laughed, for so was Húrin's
daughter revealed to his malice. "Then you are fools, both you and your
brother," said he. "And your boast shall be made vain. For I am Glaurung!"
Then he drew her eyes into his, and her will swooned.
And it seemed to her that the sun sickened and all became dim about her;
and slowly a great darkness drew down on her and in that darkness there
was emptiness; she knew nothing, and heard nothing, and remembered nothing.
Her memory erased, Niënor wanders aimlessly in the woods until
she stumbles upon a village of woodmen, who take her in. Of course, Túrin
and his sister eventually end up living side by side, fall in love, marry,
and conceive a child. At this point Glaurung emerges from Nargothrond and
attacks the land where Túrin and Niënor are living. Túrin
slays the dragon, but in his death throes Glaurung reveals all, saying
to Niënor, "and the worst of his [Túrin's] works grows inside
you." She throws herself off a cliff, and Túrin throws himself on
Which is all rather unfortunate. But not especially tragic or horrible,
at least not to me. The whole message of Tolkien’s legends is that to die
battling against evil is about the best end any human can hope for, and
even some of the immortal elves choose struggle and death over eternal bliss
in Valinor. I imagine Húrin must have been rather proud of his son,
who went down fighting and even slew the Father of Dragons before Morgoth
undid him. The incest is a little icky, but Túrin and Niënor
had not seen each other in 25 or 30 years when they met and fell in love,
and anyway they were caught in the spell of Glaurung and the revenge of
Morgoth, so who can blame them? At least they found some happiness together
in a time of unending war.
Thus The Children of Húrin. It is a small piece of the
legends Tolkien created for his Elder Days, and it has the characteristics
of all his writing about that time. I know that some people like this stuff,
but like is the one word I would never use about it. I am sometimes amazed
by the breadth of Tolkien’s vision, and sometimes the murky oyster bed
of his writing gives forth pearls, but on the whole I find it numbing.
It is too alien, too cold, too stylized, and the characters are too drained
of the flesh and blood of real human life to hold my interest.
The Elder Ages were a time of High and Noble Purposes. These are stories
of angels, not men and women. The elves are not perfect, which is a good
thing, but on the other hand they all have the same faults: pride, greed
(especially for magical treasures like the Silmarils), jealousy, and a weakness
for swearing those Great Oaths when they are angry. There is much "love,"
but all of it the bloodless love of those romances in which the hero and
heroine fall in love after hearing descriptions of each other's virtues,
without ever meeting. This is love without either friendship or sex. Or humor,
something peculiarly missing from these tales. In the Elder Ages, nobody
ever laughed because something was funny. They laughed in joy over their
victories, or in defiance of their fates, or in the Face of Morgoth, but
not once in either the Silmarillion or The Children of Húrin
does anyone laugh at a joke. The narrow emotional range of the characters
fits the odd, black and white flatness of the universe. The landscape has
mountain ranges and plains, but few places described fully enough for us
to recognize them if we saw them. So little is said of Gondolin or Nargothrond
that we have no sense of what made them wonderful. This world has no economy
-- no fields, no flocks, no forges, no spinning wheels -- no ecology, and
little history. These stories are little more than parables dressed up in
Of course, the most distinctive thing about the Elder Ages is not the
stories themselves but the language Tolkien used to write about them. This
strange mix of Old English words, Shakespearean grammar, and Edwardian archaizing
is so easy to mock there is hardly any point to the exercise. Word order
is often inverted to create heroic effects: "Helms too they chose;" "By
his sword we should have known him." The key words are those that suggest
nothing in the modern world: ancient, lore, craft, sorcery, sword, dragon,
meddle, mighty, fell, and of course Tolkien's own vocabulary: elves, dwarves,
orcs, and the litany of flowing words in invented languages. "Armor" might
suggest panzers, so Tolkien preferred "mail", or sometimes hauberks and
byrnies. Helms are always tall; armies are called "hosts" and are like unto
forests of spears; people hearken to words of wisdom, take counsel, deal
great blows, and quail at nameless terrors. Heroes are always slain, never
killed, and not until after their dooms draw nigh. I confess that I rather
enjoy some of the sentences that come out of it, like this description of
Sauron when he was Morgoth's chief lieutenant:
Sauron was become now a sorcerer of dreadful power, masters
of shadows and of phantoms, foul in wisdom, cruel in strength, misshaping
what he touched, twisting what he ruled, lord of werewolves; his dominion
But you can only take so much of this. One of the models for this
prose must have been the high-minded speeches Shakespeare gave to his most
annoyingly noble characters, like Henry V and Brutus. Shakespeare, though,
had the sense to break up this sterile nobility with other kinds of speech,
something Tolkien, writing about the Elder Days, refused to do. He gives
us Henry V without Falstaff. This is a frigid desert of language, and if
sometimes it has the beauty of arctic sunsets, it is too cold and inhuman
to be endured for long.
Reading Christopher Tolkien's introduction to The Children of Húrin,
I was once again amazed by the vast amount of material Tolkien produced.
In his papers are dozens of unfinished stories, thousands of lines of alliterative
verse, notes and scraps on everything from languages to genealogies. And
yet all of this would mean nothing if he had not somehow managed to write
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Without those
two books, so different from The Children of Húrin, Tolkien
would only be one of those mad world-makers you sometimes read about in
literary magazines, intriguing to the kind of people who collect paintings
by mental patients.
In writing about hobbits, Tolkien found a way to communicate his vision
of another world in a way that millions have loved. The hobbits, I think,
are the key. Because they are not proud and high-minded, Tolkien could write
about them in prose that was not frigid with honor. They are little and
plain, and when they find themselves amidst great events they feel what
most people would feel: fear, uncertainty, and fatigue. They use contractions
when they speak. Surrounded by hobbits, other characters seem more human.
Gandalf the Grey is worried, confused, and sometimes humorous; Strider has
a rough-hewn quality much rougher than Húrin ever acquires during
his days as a woodsman. Even the orcs take on some of the long-suffering
courage of ordinary human soldiers. People say things that one can imagine
people actually saying. For the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings
the high style of the elf lords and their deeds is mostly in the dim background,
and the occasional touches of noble archaizing lend exotic color to the story
without killing it.
Another difference between The Lord of the Rings and the
stories of the Elder Days is in the level of detail. The Lord of the Rings
is a tapestry of astonishing richness. Much of the depth comes from the
hints of ancient history and the interweaving of present and distant past,
as the characters walk down ancient roads through landscapes of ruins. One
of my favorites bits is the woodwoses, primitive people who look exactly
like crumbling stone statues of their ancestors made by who knows what bygone
civilization. But there is more. LOTR is full of exactly-described
places, from The Prancing Pony and the Barrow Downs to Helm's Deep and the
plains of Mordor. The weather changes from day to day and season to season.
Most important, though, are the characters. One king of the Noldor is much
like every other, but Aragorn, Boromir and Faramir are heroes in quite
distinct ways. Tom Bombadil is maddening, but at least he is a unique creation,
unlike any other being I have ever met in myth or literature. In Galadriel
and especially Eowyn Tolkien even made attempts at giving character to women.
Sam, the least aristocratic of the characters, is a joy, the more so as
the story moves toward its climax and Tolkien fell more and more into that
cursed high style. Frodo is a truly great creation.
The Hobbit was a radical break from all that Tolkien had
written before. This change could not have been easy for Tolkien. His preferred
style was an expression of his deepest aesthetic impulse, his revulsion for
the modern world. He put this aside because he wanted to be a writer, and
writing means communication. He later said that he regretted "writing down
to children", but at least he was making a real effort to speak to someone.
He tried to be funny. He wrote silly songs, had his heroes ride in barrels,
made Gandalf defeat the trolls through sly trickery and Bilbo win the ring
by cheating at riddles. The black and white moral world is grayed a little
by the acts of Thorin, who is wicked in ways that go far beyond the petty
sins allowed to Túrin. Even Bilbo is hardly saintly. The landscape
is enriched by irrelevent wonders and terrors, like Beorn, the spiders, Laketown,
and the magic swords taken from the troll horde. The Lord of the Rings
toned down the silliness of The Hobbit and mixed its earthiness with
some of the honorable elvish frost leaking through from earlier ages. It
moved the focus back to the cosmic struggle between good and evil. But it
kept enough of the lowered tone and the richness of character and world to
make it the greateast of all modern fantasies.
Fantasy fiction concerns the making of worlds, at which Tolkien
was the greatest master, but also the telling of stories. Unless they are
put into an accessible form, imagined worlds are simply elaborate daydreams.
In Tolkien's writing I see two conflicting impulses. He sought refuge from
the horrors of the twentieth century in his imagination. In Middle Earth,
heroes of the greatest nobility acted out simple dramas in which the good
and beautiful warred with all that was ugly and wicked. This is what gave
Tolkien peace amidst the cares of his time. But Tolkien also wanted to be
an author, that is, to write books that people would buy and read. To do
this he had to modify his vision. He had find other ways of writing, and
to tell stories in which all was not as pure and neat as in the visions that
drove him. He had to create heroes and villains with enough humanity to invite
sympathy or disgust. That he did this amazes me. He made himself a great
storyteller as well as great imaginer, and the result is one of the most
wonderful of all stories. The Lord of the Rings is the place
to encounter Tolkien, not in The Children of Húrin.
May 31, 2007
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