Tolkien's New Tale of Turin
Tristan Fry of Exodus Books, 10/17/2008
I first encountered the works of J.R.R. Tolkien about five years ago, when I bought and read The Hobbit; a gift edition of the book illustrated in warm, dusky colors by Michael Hague. I enjoyed it, but do not remember being particularly impressed. Admittedly, some of the material was stupendous, stirring excitement in the blood: the testy, pipe-smoking Gandalf; Bilbo’s riddle game with the ravenous creature Gollum; the majestic hugeness of Beorn; the battle with the spiders of Mirkwood; the elusive golden treasure of the dwarves; and above all, Smaug, that crafty, nearly impenetrable worm-dragon. However, despite its high adventure, the tone of the story was childish, occasionally bordering on the silly; trolls who squash their victims into jelly, for example. It wasn’t until around a year later, when I began reading The Fellowship of the Ring, that I truly became caught up in the folds of Middle-Earth. There was, I realized, an extremely special quality to Tolkien’s work that set it apart from nearly all comparable literature. By the time I completed The Lord of the Rings, I had become a settled Tolkien aficionado.
Since then I have read The Lord of the Rings twice, and am about to embark on my third trip to the Grey Havens. I have seen Peter Jackson’s film adaptations more times than I care to count. In hindsight, I have even begun to see The Hobbit for the important link in the cycle that it is. What is it that I, and so many other devoted readers, have found so fascinating about Tolkien? Aside from the sheer adventure of his epic, I would contend that it is the illusion he provides of historicity; that Middle-Earth has a past, only alluded to in The Lord of the Rings, that underlies all the action of the war against Sauron. It wasn’t long before I began to delve into this history through the legendary Silmarillion, and other books left uncompleted at the time of Tolkien’s death, including The Lays of Beleriand and Unfinished Tales.
The most recent addition to the traditional Tolkien canon, of course, is The Children of Hurin, edited by Christopher Tolkien from manuscripts left by his father. It is the first complete Tolkien book to be released in nearly thirty years. Naturally, I was excited when I heard, about a month prior, that this book was finally to see the light of day; but my excitement was mixed with a fair degree of proprietary trepidation. Would this book live up to the standard set in the previous books?
Children of Hurin is a greatly expanded version of one of three interrelated “great tales” of Middle-Earth, familiar to readers of The Silmarillion; the others are the romance “Of Beren and Luthien” and “The Fall of Gondolin”. It begins in the First Age, nearly six and a half thousand years before Frodo ever laid eyes on the Ring. Hurin, lord of the free people of Dor-lomin, rides to war with Elves and men against Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, a fallen angelic being of immense power and evil purpose. Tragically, the armies of goodness are defeated by Morgoth’s Orcs in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, before the gates of his stronghold in the North. Hurin, one of the few survivors, is taken captive and brought before Morgoth, whom he defies. Morgoth, who desires to bring all of Middle-Earth into subjection to himself, curses Hurin and all his offspring, setting him in an iron chair high on the summit of the mountain Thangorodrim; Hurin is forbidden to move or even to die until Morgoth’s enormous will brings the doom he has declared to come to pass. The rest of the story follows Hurin’s son Turin, and his sister Nienor, as they are dogged by a pattern of evil incidents that lead inexorably to the end decreed.
The story of Turin Turambar is arguably the darkest of the tales of Middle-Earth (as several Amazon.com reviewers noted). Turin is a tragic figure, ensnared in a fate that is not of his devising. He is “a curse unto [his] kin and unto all that harbor [him]”, as one character declares, a warrior fighting with his back pressed against the wall. In that sense, he shares the heroic creed of the warriors of Beowulf: “Each of us must await the end of life in this world; let him who may, gain glory before death; that shall afterwards be best for the warrior.” Of course such an implied philosophical statement is not Tolkien’s last (or first) word on the subject of mortality and immortality, but it does provide a contrast between Turin and the quiet nobility of Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee. Despite all Turin’s heroism, Children of Hurin ends on a note of abiding sorrow, without the hope that Tolkien provides the reader of Lord of the Rings at the departure from the Grey Havens.
What of the editorial element in this book? Christopher has confined his commentary to a brief introduction that provides the context for the story, and an epilogue that explains how he formulated the text for publication.
Though he has pieced together several drafts composed over a number of years, to avoid gaps, he steered clear of the introduction of any unauthentic elements, a relief to the serious Tolkien fan. Tolkien’s text is generally good, occasionally soaring to a crescendo comparable to the best passages of The Silmarillion; nevertheless, it is splotchy in places, containing bridging passages that were obviously intended to be reworked. Christopher has put forth a good effort, but Children of Hurin remains an inexact reflection of what Tolkien would have achieved if he had been allowed to complete it.
Still, I found much to enjoy, even to love, about this book. The image of dark-haired Turin and his black sword, pitted against the dragon Glaurung, a malevolent beast that makes Smaug look like a pet lizard, was priceless and made the book well worth reading. Children of Hurin, though it contains a great deal of text that was previously published in Unfinished Tales, expands on details that are only summarized in the much briefer account in The Silmarillion; all in all, I can understand Christopher’s justification for publishing this work of his father’s. I only wish that such an extended story could be achieved for the other two “Great Tales”, particularly “Of Beren and Luthien”, my favorite passage from Silmarillion. Even if that never happens, however, I can content myself with the books that have been lucky enough to be published. And that includes The Children of Hurin.