Saturday, June 13, 2015

Book Reviews: The Children of Hurin

The Children of Hurin
by J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien)
The famous fantasy/sci-fi author Michael Moorcock once called Tolkien's Lord of The Rings "Epic Pooh", a characterization which I thought wasn't entirely accurate or fair. It is true that Moorcock wrote work that was (occasionally self-consciously so) much grittier with more moral ambiguity of the sort that would become popularized by later writers such as Donaldson, Martin and Abercrombie , to name a few. But on the other hand Tolkien knew all about the uglier side of life. He was after all a WWI veteran who fought in and survived the war's bloodiest battle, The Somme. Two of his best friends were killed during that battle. So if some sections of the Lord of The Rings are not as dark or as explicit as some later fantastical novels, it's not because Tolkien hadn't seen evil and hardship in his life. One of his earlier works, although it was only published after his death, was The Silmarillion, which had all sorts of doomed heroes, grim people doing grim things for worse reasons and even a few families which didn't fork. The Silmarillion as published is a collection of Tolkien's older stories about Middle-Earth ,ultimately going back to its creation and corruption. Perhaps the most tragic tale in The Silmarillion involves the story of Turin Turambar and his sister Nienor. As the title indicates they were the children of the northern lord, Hurin, considered to be the greatest warrior to ever live. The events detailed in this story took place roughly 6000 years before the occurrences in the Lord of the Rings. So with the exceptions of immortals like Gandalf, a few surviving elves like Galadriel or humans like Aragorn who are descended from some of the protagonists, most people by the time of the Lord of the Rings consider these tales mere legends if they remember them at all. If you think Martin's Starks had a rough time of it well they got off light compared to Hurin and his children. This story is also a great example of how creative people build on what's been done before to construct their own works. The Children of Hurin bears a very clear (Tolkien readily acknowledged this) debt to such classic stories as Wagner's Ring Cycle and the Volsung saga, Oedipus, and especially the Finnish national saga, the Kullervo. There's a saying that your arms are too short to box with God. Well if that's true it's also probably the case that your arms are also too short to box with the Devil. Tolkien's primary evil force was Melkor, or as he became known, Morgoth. Morgoth vacillated between wanting to destroy all of creation, because he didn't make it, and wanting to rule it. 

To this end he attempted to physically subdue all incarnate beings in the world and make them accept him as God. He was resisted in this by most of the elves and many of the humans who came later. Tolkien was a very religious man though as he hated allegory and heavy-handedness this wasn't always easily seen in his works. One theme that crops up over and over again is that humans won't win the battle against evil without some sort of godly intervention. Evil is too strong. And yet we must constantly try.
Hurin was a man who took up that struggle against evil. As lord of his group of men, he and his brother Huor led his army to join the elves, dwarves and other men against Morgoth's legions in what became known as The Battle of Unnumbered Tears. As you might guess from the title of that battle things didn't turn out so well for the good guys.  Via betrayal and bad intelligence of their enemy's true numbers they got curb-stomped. Despite a truly legendary last stand in which Huor was killed and Hurin stood alone against Morgoth's entire army, Hurin was finally captured and taken before Morgoth. Morgoth wanted intelligence about the elves who had escaped and of course worship from Hurin. Hurin gave some very rude suggestions about just what Morgoth could do with his questions. Hurin could not be daunted by fear, torture or threat. But Morgoth is nothing if not malicious. He cursed Hurin and his children, promising that he would personally guarantee that nothing but horrible things would happen to his son Turin and his daughter Nienor. In fact, Morgoth via magic would give the imprisoned Hurin a front row seat to everything that would go down.  So The Children of Hurin is a tragic story of the impact of Morgoth's curse on one man's family. It's also just as much a story of what happens AFTER a defeat and how people try to pick up the pieces when their father and husband is gone. It's expanded greatly from the version found in The Silmarillion. It has slightly more dialogue, some of which has even been written in a less stilted, less heroic manner. You probably won't like Turin very much. He's not really a sympathetic character. He makes tons of mistakes. He occasionally falls into evil. Sometimes even when he's trying to do the right thing, he ends up doing evil. But again, if the Devil took a personal dislike to you, I'm betting your life wouldn't be that much fun either.  This was just under 300 pages and is a quick read for a Tolkien fan. Others might find there to be a tad too much description. I can't say. What I can say is that this is a story for adults. People are motivated by some of our highest and most ignoble emotions. If you are looking for grittiness or realism in your fantasy (aside from talking dragons and evil swords) you'll find it here.
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