Saturday, June 02, 2007

A Late Review: "The Children of Hurin"

My review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Children of Hurin” is, admittedly, pretty late in coming to the table. I bought the book a day after it hit the store shelves and dove in right away, but for one reason or another, I’ve been putting this review off for weeks.
That being said, despite the recent release in stand-alone form, is there really any rush to review a work that’s been available in one form or other as part of “The Silmarillion” or “The Book of Lost Tales” or any of the slew of other collections of his father’s works that Christopher Tolkien’s released in the past few decades? After reading this edition, sadly, I have to admit, not really.
I’m a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. I think he is one of the finest writers in the English language. Period. So I was very much looking forward to this edition’s release.
That being said, I made a point specifically of not getting my hopes up (and no, I wasn’t unduly influenced by some early reviews that hinted at disappointment) because everything an author produces should be assessed first and foremost on the basis of how it reads on its own, and only secondarily as part of a larger narrative. Reputation or love of previous works shouldn’t enter into it.
So I approached “The Children of Hurin” with an open mind. Or, at least, as much as it could be open given that I’ve read the story in different forms before on several occasions in the above-mentioned books.
On the positive side, the book is a wonderful example of how utterly bleak Tolkien can be with his storytelling. Certainly, Turin’s life isn’t a complete plummet off of a cliff, he does have his moments of victory and joy, but those serve as powerful underscores for the inexorable drag downward towards suffering and ruin. It shows Tolkien’s bravery as an author that he can depict the slow destruction of a world and yet still make us care for the people in it, even though they are flawed and doomed to be destroyed as well.
Tolkien gives us believable, three-dimensional characters: while Turin is given to rash decisions and arrogance, he does have his thoughtful moments and questions his choices, even if generally in hindsight. The many elvish characters present different sides of their personalities as well (rather than being stereotypically cold and all-knowing like in the myriad of knock-off fantasies featuring elves), though wise, some proceed with potentially fatal actions despite their misgivings; one of the elf maidens who falls in love with Turin does so despite knowing that a relationship between them cannot work. Even Mim, the petty-dwarf, is not simply presented as “the traitor” – he may be vindictive and spiteful, but he grows to like Turin and only turns from him when an elf (a species he hates) arrives at their hideout (his ancestral home, taken by Turin and his gang) and he feels himself displaced in Turin’s affections, and he only helps the orcs because of coercion.
And, it is great to see the story in a longer form, with more time taken to get into some of the details.
As a nice addition, the book includes some beautiful, ghostly illustrations by Alan Lee.
But despite the haunting prose, full characterization and a plot that forcibly drags you along to its tragic conclusion, the book didn’t work for me.
Yes, it’s great to see the tales that compose “The Children of Hurin” presented in a longer form, but the story feels far too abrupt without the various other threads from the tapestry of the First Age of Middle Earth to give it context. I say this as someone well-versed with the larger story too.
Maybe it’s because I’m so used to reading the tales of Hurin and Turin as part of the larger work of “The Silmarillion” that I feel left hanging when there’s nothing more at the end of this family tragedy, or that this book seems to start with a shudder.
But I don’t think so. I think the other stories enhance the flow of this set of narratives. I think the cycle of Turin – because that’s what this book is really all about, it feels as though Hurin’s part is just a bracket to the tale of his son – suffers from not having all of the previous tragedies presented before it to give it weight, depth and consequence. Taken in and of itself, it doesn’t really give you the powerful sense that this is one of the last desperate stands against total darkness that you’d get reading it as part of “The Silmarillion” or “Book of Lost Tales”. And that’s a key part of where the tales of Hurin and Turin get their power – because they are stories of people who are being overwhelmed by evil not just personally, but because their entire world is about to be drowned in a dark wave that’s been building for centuries – that underscores their desperate heroism and futility. Without the rest, the rebellion of the Noldor, the forging of the elven kingdoms, the hemming-in of the evil in the north, the break-out of Morgoth’s forces, the trials of the early tribes of Men, all of the victories and all of the losses before and after, “The Children of Hurin”, all by its lonesome, comes off more as the story of one family that’s been picked-on by the god of evil and the consequences that befall anyone else who happens to fall in with them.
And that’s coming from the perspective of someone who’s read, understands and loves all of the stories of the Elder Days. I’d hate to be a newbie coming to this who had only read “The Lord of the Rings” and/or “The Hobbit”, or, perish the thought, nothing by Tolkien at all! To a greenhorn, “The Children of Hurin” would be utterly confusing. Christopher Tolkien’s attempt to put together a quick synopsis of what’s happened so far by way of an introduction is hurried, shallow and utterly inadequate. It’s also boring. I doubt a newcomer would get through it. At least someone coming at this cycle for the first time through a set of developing stories in “The Silmarillion” or “The Book of Lost Tales” is given something interesting and dynamic with characters they can follow – in short, they’re told a story. This introduction is merely a bland statement of facts. One that would be quickly forgotten, leaving the new reader to wallow in confusion when he/she finally made it to the first chapter.
I’m not saying “The Children of Hurin” is a bad book or a poor book-buying investment. It’s merely an addition to a collector’s set. What I am saying is that it’s not something that I’ll be reading as often as “The Silmarillion”.

Strange book-related observation:

My local Costco began stocking “The Children of Hurin” several weeks after it was released. Despite my feelings stated above, I do applaud the chain for purchasing quality fantasy. What’s really odd though is that they’ve piled their copies of this book in the children’s section. Clearly the staff responsible for displaying the book stock haven’t read this one. I figure they must have taken a quick look at the cover and figured “Hmmmm… fantasy, guys with swords, goblins, it says ‘children’ on the cover, must be a kids book.” Yeah, kids fantasy novels are frequently filled with big battles and bloodshed galore, but there’s a lot of fairly adult concepts going on in this tome, not the least of which are suicide and unintentional sibling incest. By all means, they ought to be stocking the kids section with copies of “The Hobbit” (which itself becomes a fairly adult story by its conclusion), but “The Children of Hurin” really belongs at the far end of the table with the adult books. It could do some real good down there too – not only might it entice people to start reading fantasy and science fiction, it would displace of some of those junky Danielle Steele novels that take up so much room and never seem to disappear! I must have a word with the manager one of these days.

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