The Children of Húrin: A beautiful, somber book

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong> The Children of Hurin The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien

Long before Bilbo Baggins left his hobbit hole, the Men and Elves of Middle Earth struggled valiantly against the Great Enemy, Morgoth (the fallen Valar and master of Sauron, the eventual “Lord of the Rings”). One man in particular, Húrin, brazenly defied Morgoth, who imprisoned him and laid a dire curse upon his children.  First told — in a lesser form — in The Silmarillion, this tale chronicles their efforts, especially those of Húrin’s son, Túrin, to defy the curse — driven largely by the malicious dragon Glaurung — and, perhaps, to escape it.

In this instance, it is worth reviewing both the story and the form in which it is published. With regard to the former, the tragedy of Túrin is a beautiful and powerful tale, told as by a master-bard in a classical, omniscient voice well-suited to descriptions of nature and events that span decades. Although the language is often archaic, and the myriad names of characters and places almost overwhelming, the tale steadily moves forward and is relatively short. (Túrin’s many aliases are also fine artistic touches.) Ultimately, it earns its shadowed place on the vast, rich, and poignant tapestry that is the history of Middle Earth.

And, as a rare achievement, the physical presentation — the book itself — is equal to the story. Beginning with a gorgeous cover painting of Túrin, standing alone beneath a leaden sky and armed with his black sword and dragon-helm, that captures the grandeur and solemnity of the tale, illustrations — both color and black-and-white — abound. A particularly useful feature is a map that can be unfolded from within the back cover so as to be visible during reading.  Finally, introductions and appendices provide information which should satisfy all but Middle Earth’s most ravenous fans. (In short, this is a book one should not buy as a mass market paperback, if ever released as such.)

Together, the tale and book constitute a beautiful work that should be a fine gift to fans of epic, medieval fantasy. Recommended for all fantasy readers (of sixth grade age or older), except those frustrated by archaic language or numerous, fictitious names.  Four stars, ancient but bright.

~Rob Rhodes


The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. TolkienI am a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s work, but certainly not an expert. This means that though I’ve read his three seminal works: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Silmarillion, I had very little idea of what The Children of Húrin was about when I picked up a copy at the second-hand bookshop.

My memory was jogged as soon as I started reading, and I realized that the story of Turin was one I had previously come across in The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s massive tome that lays out the mythology and early history of Middle Earth. However, to quote from its pages: “Here that tale is told in brief… and it is called the Tale of Grief, for it is sorrowful, and in it are revealed most evil works of Morgoth Bauglir.”

In other words The Children of Húrin is an expanded version of the single chapter within The Silmarillion that relates the life and death of Túrin, one of the great heroes of Middle Earth’s history. Set six and a half thousand years before the events of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Túrin is born to Húrin and Morwen of the House of Hador, and is still a young boy when his father joins a host of Elves and Men to battle against the threat of Morgoth.

Húrin inspires the Dark Lord’s wrath by withholding information after his capture, and so a terrible curse is laid upon his children: “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.”

The curse also includes Túrin’s as-yet unborn sister Nienor (who has a small but important role towards the end of the story), and touches all those who cross the path of the siblings, whether friend or foe. As Túrin grows to manhood he wanders from place to place — from Elven kingdoms to Dwarven chambers, keeping company with anyone from outlaws to great kings, ever running from the doom he feels creeping toward him.

Finally he chooses to battle Glaurung, the first and greatest of all the dragons, little knowing that his enemy has been slowly but methodically arranging all aspects of his life to ensure he fulfils the tragedy that’s been designed for him.

The story, at least in broad strokes, will be familiar to anyone who has read The Silmarillion. This is not brand new material by any means; what Christopher Tolkien has done is sift through his father’s notes and put together a more fleshed-out version of a familiar tale. For those unfamiliar with The Silmarillion, the purpose of the book is simply to present The Children of Húrin as an independent work, with Christopher Tolkien’s introduction providing the necessary context to various places, events and characters that make up the story’s backdrop. (As such, you cannot help but feel that though the story is complete in itself, it is part of a much grander body of work).

But for those who know Tolkien’s invented history well, the book provides greater depth to his work: new minor characters, further insights and descriptions, more details and dialogue than The Silmarillion was capable of. For the sake of comparison, Turin’s story is told in 37 pages in The Silmarillion, and 259 pages in The Children of Húrin. Of course, the font in the former book is significantly smaller, but that’s still a sizable difference.

To further illustrate this difference; here are two paragraphs, each describing the same event, as they exist in each manuscript. First, from The Silmarillion:

A daughter they also had who was called Lalaith, which is Laughter; but when she was three years old there came a pestilence to Hithlum, borne on an evil wind out of Angband, and she died.

And now from The Children of Húrin:

But before the year was out the truth of his father’s words was shown; for the Evil Breath came to Dor-lomin, and Túrin took sick, and lay long in a fever and dark dream. And when he was healed, for such was his fate and the strength of life that was in him, he asked for Lalaith. But his nurse answered: “Speak no more of Lalaith, son of Húrin, but of your sister Urwen you must ask tidings of your mother.”

And when Morwen came to him, Túrin said to her: “I am no longer sick, and I wish to see Urwen, but why must I not say Lalaith any more?”

“Because Urwen is dead, and laughter is stilled in this house,” she answered. “But you live, son of Morwen; and so does the Enemy who has done this to us.”

The Children of Húrin captures some of the grandiosity of Old/Middle English epics such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though the fact that this is the work of a single imagination and not an amalgamation of many retellings told across several centuries gives it a slightly different flavour. It reads like a cross between a legend and recorded history; its consistency drawn from Tolkien’s vision, but with the definite sense that it exists on a much larger scale than he was able to fully control. Some characters appear and disappear at random; certain plot developments are left open-ended — which all adds to the sense that this is a real history and not a simplistic “story from Middle Earth”.

It’s a lot darker than people might be expecting from the man who wrote The Hobbit, as the story includes grisly deaths, brother/sister incest, and psychological torture that goes on for years and years, but Tolkien was writing a tragedy, and it’s these components that put The Children of Húrin alongside selected Shakespeare and Greek myths when it comes to the battering that life bestows upon its protagonists.

With that in mind, it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into when you start The Children of Húrin. As memorable as the characters in THE LORD OF THE RINGS are, they’re not what you would call deep character studies. With perhaps the exception of the hobbits, they are more archetypes than three-dimensional characters, and painted in very black or white distinctions.

The characters here feel even more remote, with virtually no insight on what makes them tick. Of course, this does not necessarily translate into a bad book (insight into the characters is simply not what the story is about) but a reader does need to exert their own imagination when it comes to filling in the blanks of what a character might be thinking or feeling. The gamut of love, fear, hope and despair is presented, but not delved into.

Once you get used to the archaic prose and the relatively simple characterization, The Children of Húrin is a strangely intoxicating read. There’s a dreamy quality to the writing, not suited for those who like meaty characters, but with a depth and scope in its world-building of which Tolkien was the undisputed master.

The book also includes a pronunciation guide, maps, genealogies, a character index, and two appendixes discussing Christopher Tolkien’s editing choices, providing a fairly comprehensive guide to Tolkien’s original vision.

And of course, nothing tops Alan Lee’s beautiful watercolours and pencil sketches. By now he’s considered the quintessential illustrator of Tolkien’s work, and so it’s only natural that his work be included here.

~Rebecca Fisher

The Children of Húrin — (2007) Publisher: Tolkien fans are sure to treasure this tale of Middle-earth’s First Age, which  appeared in incomplete forms in the posthumously published The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. Those earlier books, also edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, only hinted at the depth and power of the tragic story of Túrin and Niënor, the children of Húrin, the lord of Dor-lómin, who achieved renown for having confronted Morgoth, who was the master of Sauron, the manifestation of evil in the Lord of the Rings. The lengthy and fatiguing battle against Morgoth forms the backdrop for the moving account of the life of Húrin’s eldest son, Túrin, a valiant but proud warrior whose all too human frailties augur an unhappy end. Perhaps Tolkien’s most three-dimensional figure, Túrin flees from the elven kingdom where he has grown into manhood, sheltered from the forces of evil, after he’s unjustly judged responsible for another’s death. He hides his true identity as he begins a new life as leader of a band of outlaws, a choice that has dire consequences when he crosses paths with a family member after many years of separation. Deftly balancing thrilling battles with moments of introspection, Tolkien’s vivid and gripping narrative reaffirms his primacy in fantasy literature.

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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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2 comments

  1. wonderful review–I loved this one too, for all the reasons you listed. Great description of its tone and characters and style–truly old style!

  2. I loved this re-telling, and I’m so glad that you did, too!

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