The Children of Hurin
By J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien, illustrated by Alan Lee)
Houghton Mifflin / 313 pages / $26
Almost everyone has some familiarity with J.R.R. Tolkien these days, thanks to the successful film version of The Lord of the Rings - his great three-volume epic of the Third Age of Middle Earth. Prior to the movies, those books were too thick (and too opaque) to attract a broader popular following.
More were familiar with Tolkien through his children's book The Hobbit. It was more accessible, not so full of the history and genealogies that were a drag on Lord of the Rings.
Now, the widely popular movie version of the Ring trilogy appears to have cast a wider spell. Children of Hurin, a reshaping of an earlier tale set in the First Age of Tolkien's imagined Middle Earth, has been on the best-seller lists for nine weeks.
It is a surprising modern success for a very old and very sad story.
Tolkien was an Oxford University professor, whose love of the English language and its historical roots led him very early in life to read the oldest stories in the language, and to emulate their sometimes difficult-to-follow style. He composed the first drafts of The Children of Hurin in 1919, long before his better-known works.
Since Tolkien's death in 1973, pieces of the Children of Hurin tale have been published in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales and The Lays of Beleriand as edited by Christopher Tolkien, his son. Together with other writings, this material shows the powerful influence of Tolkien's earlier works on The Lord of the Rings.
Nevertheless, here it is again. This time, Tolkien's words are more comprehensively knitted together by Christopher Tolkien, and presented in a ready-for-Hollywood format, beautifully illustrated by Alan Lee, the British artist who helped frame many of the scenes in Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning Ring movies.
Unlike earlier versions of the story, this book offers easy access to the First Age of Tolkien's imaginary Middle Earth, much as The Hobbit provided an easy introduction to the stories of the Third Age of Middle Earth, to earlier generations of readers. This is possible because the book has been stripped bare of Tolkien's mythological framework and of links to tales of later events that lead to the period covered by The Lord of the Rings.
Here, this old tale stands alone, as if once again being told by people around a medieval hearth who can still trace which of their ancestors had played a role in the events being embellished.
The Hobbit was written not too much later than The Children of Hurin, so perhaps it is not surprising that both involve dragons. The dragon Smaug in The Hobbit reminds us of the Old English Beowulf, while Glaurung, the dragon in The Children of Hurin, takes us back even further in time, to Old Norse sagas preserved in Iceland by Snorri Sturluson in theVolsungas Saga. This is the same great Gothic/Norse tale that inspired the dragon Fafner of the Wagnerian opera Siegfried.
Tolkien uses this very old story to explore the nature of the struggle between Good and Evil. Evil is represented in this tale by Morgoth (long-deceased mentor of Sauron, the evil lidless eye of the Ring movies). He helped shape Middle Earth, and seeks to rule it above all others. Racking up victory after victory against men and elves, who were conceived by the power of Good to oppose him, he places a curse upon the family of Hurin, one of his most irksome foes among men.
Morgoth, who commands tremendous resources - orcs, dragons and balrogs - enjoys a tremendous lead in the battle for domination of Middle Earth. Yet Turin, the hero of this tale, is no more a pushover than his father Hurin. Fulfillment of the curse exacts a heavy toll on Morgoth, as well as on its victims. To turn fate against Turin, he expends fantastic effort, even deploying the dragon, Glaurung, which Turin ultimately destroys.
In the process of evading his doom Turin is forged into a power that brings respite to all the war-weary people of Middle Earth. But he also brings ruin to those who aid him. His sister, also cursed, has the misfortune of confronting Glaurung herself. The dragon kills neither Turin nor his sister, but they die nonetheless. This is not a story with a happy ending.
Despite his sad fate, Turin's efforts help set the stage in Tolkien's vision for later victories of man and other Middle Earth races over Morgoth and, later, Sauron.
The reader of this book will experience none of these victories. This story begins and ends in darkness. Turin strives against fate, fails, strives again and fails again. When he cannot summon another ounce of strength to re-create himself in response to tragedy, doom finally catches him.
John Scott, a student of Tolkien's work, has a doctorate in astrophysics and works in Baltimore in support of NASA space-based astronomy missions.