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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 refuses.

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."

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."

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 his sword.

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 chivalric prose.

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 was torment.

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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