This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
You could forgive people for thinking that Christopher Tolkien has been scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to publishing posthumous work by his father. The Silmarillion, as ridiculously dense as it is, was a project which J.R.R. himself was intending to publish at some point, and provides so much vital context to all the strange allusions made in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to matters occurring in the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth that it’d have been a disservice both to Tolkien’s intentions and to reader’s hopes of understanding half of what Tolkien wrote to leave it unpublished. But Unfinished Tales and the twelve-volume The History of Middle-Earth series were never planned by Tolkien to be published in the form that they were, and contain so much that contradicts the core Middle-Earth texts that it’s difficult to say that they were quite so worthwhile.
The History of Middle-Earth, in particular, is likely to be of more interest to people who want to be able to study absolutely everything Tolkien wrote about Middle-Earth for academic purposes than people who actually just want to read the stories as Tolkien intended them to be read. In fact, Christopher Tolkien reveals in his introduction to The Children of Húrin that whilst the elder Tolkien populated the timeline of his secondary creation with a vast number of incidents, he didn’t believe all of those incidents were worthy of being worked up into fully-developed stories for publication. Of all the sagas of the First Age, which The Silmarillion covers in summary, Tolkien believed that there were three Great Tales which merited expansion into full narratives; these were the story of Beren and Lúthien, the Fall of Gondolin – and The Children of Húrin, which Christopher Tolkien has attempted to reconstruct from his father’s manuscripts with only a minimum of editorial intervention in the form of brief connecting passages to link together the portions of the text into a whole.
The upshot of this is that whilst you could argue whether The Children of Húrin is presented in exactly the form that Tolkien would have chosen to present it if he’d completed it in his own lifetime, and whilst it was always possible that the story he’d have ended up with would have had a bunch of facts changed around (he originally wrote the stories of the First Age back in the 1910s, after all, and kept revising them over the course of six decades), it is at least a newly published Middle-Earth novel of which pretty much all the text was written by Tolkien, and which tells a story which Tolkien was intending to tell to a wider audience than the Inklings crew. We haven’t had one of those since The Silmarillion came out… except The Silmarillion was dense, confusing, and whilst informative was not especially entertaining.
Fortunately, The Children of Húrin is much more readable than the denser parts of The Silmarillion. A brief introduction by Christopher Tolkien gives you the lowdown on what exactly is going on with this Morgoth guy and why the elves were pissed off at him enough to leave the realm of the Valar in the West to come to Middle-Earth and fight him, and what’s been going on in those wars in the immediate past, so you’re not left drowning in an ocean of invented names as you are at points in The Silmarillion. Incidents in the story are actually fully developed to the point where there’s actual dialogue, which is such a rarity in The Silmarillion that I was intensely relieved when I got to the first conversation in the book because I knew then that there’d be others.
The story itself is about how Húrin, a great leader of men, is captured in one of the various battles against Morgoth that broke out during the First Age. Morgoth is especially glad to have Húrin as a prisoner, because Húrin is rumoured (correctly) to be one of the very few humans to have ever visited Gondolin, the hidden city of the North ruled by Turgon, one of several elf-kings of the era. Morgoth is ever-fearful of Turgon, for he commands a powerful army well within the borders of the lands controlled by Morgoth, and he hopes that Húrin will betray the location of Gondolin to him. Húrin, however, never knew the true location of Gondolin, having been flown there by the Eagles in a stupor, and in his pride mocks Morgoth to his face instead. Enraged by Húrin’s trolling, Morgoth curses Húrin, and tells him that everything that his children Túrin and Niënor will do shall turn to ruin. As a participant in the song of Ainur, Morgoth’s hate is written into the very fabric of Middle-Earth, and so it merely takes Morgoth to will doom upon Túrin and Niënor for this to be so.
Morwen, wife of Húrin, was left behind when Húrin went off to war, but the homestead is now threatened by the Easterlings who have forced their way into Húrin’s lands. Having little hope that Húrin will return, Morwen sends Túrin, Húrin’s son, off to the elven realm of Doriath to be fostered by King Thingol, lord of that realm and ally of Húrin’s, whilst she stays with the newborn daughter Niënor to await a chance to travel to Doriath with her, once she is old enough to make the journey. Waiting on his mother and sister to arrive in Doriath, Túrin becomes a well-trained warrior in the service of King Thingol; but the jealousy of one of the elves (most likely inflamed and encouraged by the workings of Morgoth’s will) prompts Túrin to flee Doriath under unfortunate circumstances; he falls in with a band of outlaws who he hopes to reforge into a company of orc-hunters and warriors against darkness, and several other misadventures ensue. Eventually, Niënor and Morwen come to Doriath, but finding Túrin missing eventually set forth in the company of elven warriors to try and search for him; the quest goes poorly, and Niënor is so affected by what they encounter that she ends up losing her memory entirely. When Niënor and Túrin finally meet, they do not know each other, and Luke and Leia flavoured naughtiness ensues; but even this happiness is not destined to last, especially not with the intervention of Glaurung, Father of Dragons, one of Morgoth’s deadliest servants.
Túrin’s part of the story is all awesome – he becomes a brigand, ambushes dwarves, establishes and loses a little bandit-kingdom, is present for the destruction of Nargothrond, wields a cursed black Stormbringer-style sword, and is refreshingly bloodthirsty for a Tolkien protagonist. Unfortunately, he also hogs the spotlight; really, the title of the book ought to be The Child of Húrin Who Was Túrin, With Occasional Input From Niënor. Like Éowyn, Niënor at one point does disguise herself as a warrior so she can go out and actually do stuff; unlike Éowyn, Niënor is at no point permitted to actually achieve any deeds of note. The most she does is go on a cross-country trek in order to watch some other people do something heroic. Then Glaurung looks at her and she goes mad. Compared with Túrin’s deeds this is frankly pathetic, but I suppose expected from Tolkien.
If the elder Tolkien’s biases remain evident in the text, his obsessions are too. His preoccupation with describing the geography and plant life of particular locations in meticulous detail remains intact through Christopher’s editing. There’s a bit where Túrin’s outlaw band come to a big hill with some red fauna on the top, and one of them says “there’s blood on the top of the hill” and the captured dwarf bringing them to the hill mutters about how there isn’t, but there will be, and it’s all foreboding, which is great except Tolkien ruins the moment by spending a few paragraphs before that describing precisely what that red plant was. Likewise, there is a lot of travelling, likewise there is a lot of attention paid to food, likewise there is lots of gushing over how great lembas is, and how nice the elf realms are, and basically how completely awesome every fucking thing the elves touch is.
Reviewers when The Children of Húrin first came out had a lot to say about how grimdark it was, but even that’s not entirely unfamiliar from Tolkien’s other work – it’s no more grimdark than the rest of the section of The Silmarillion the story takes place in, which is a long portion in which Morgoth cockslaps the elves and then the elves cry and try ineffectually to make him stop and then Morgoth cockslaps them again, and the cockslapping continues until the Valar show up with their cock, which is better than Morgoth’s cock because it was forged in the West and is attuned to the intended harmonies of Ilúvatar, and the Valar slap Morgoth with it so hard he is cockslapped out of the world entirely (though not before he bequeathed his cock to Sauron, who used it to cockslap the Numenoreans and the Gondorians until Gollum accidentally cockslapped him). Hilarious cock tangents aside: the tone isn’t really that different from that of The Silmarillion or the darker bits of The Lord of the Rings, so anyone expecting a major departure from Tolkien’s usual style will be disappointed – The Children of Húrin slots perfectly into his grim Dark Ages myth mode (as opposed to his whimsical fairy story mode).
It has to be said too that it’s fairly clear that this story, whilst more developed than most from The Silmarillion, isn’t exactly finished either. Major battles and plot events are sometimes narrated in the space of a page or two, whereas comparatively minor incidents (though no incident in the story is especially minor – there’s no filler or details inessential to the plot) are narrated in some depth. And there are points where the invented names and places do get over-dense. And one of the woodlands of the First Age is called the Forest of Region, which I am half-convinced is just a placeholder name Tolkien was using until he thought up a proper Elvish term for the place.
But nonetheless: The Children of Húrin is what it is: another Tolkien novel, of as polished a standard as any book completed after an author has died, telling a pretty good story in a never less than satisfactory manner. It is a shame that Niënor couldn’t have had more of a spotlight. But you’d have sail off to the West and interrogate Tolkien if you wanted to know more about her.