Saturday, 29 March 2008

Millenia before The Hobbit

The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, illustrated by Alan Lee, HarperCollins, 313 pages, hardback, NZ$49.99

I’ll admit that my heart sank when I first saw this book. Remember the grumbling when The Silmarillion was published? Many readers, eager for another The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, found themselves baffled by the highly-condensed myths and legends of Middle-earth that Tolkien had painstakingly created as the foundation for his later works. Surely the Tolkien barrel had been scraped clean? Would it be a disappointment?

The news is good. The legends recounted in The Children of Húrin have a “length and fullness” which makes them far more enjoyable reading than those in The Silmarillion. This is because Tolkien’s son Christopher, after a lifetime of exploring “the labyrinth of drafts and notes,” has felt able to complete the saga of Túrin begun in the trenches of the Western Front.

Although some complex editorial decisions were involved, Christopher has spared the reader footnotes. (Instead a detailed appendix provides the enthusiast with details of the various versions selected from the Unfinished Tales, the Silmarillion and the masses of manuscript notes to “fill the gaps.”) The Children of Húrin is thus presented as a single flowing narrative, set in the Elder Days over six thousand years before The Hobbit, a narrative which establishes the uneasy relationships between men, dwarves and elves.

The first pages hold a scene that will resonate with Tolkien’s readers, when Húrin and his brother are rescued from Orcs by eagles and carried to the hidden Elvish city of Gondolin.

More dramatic action follows as Morgoth, the powerful Black Enemy, lays a curse upon Húrin and all his kin, so that his son Túrin’s life becomes one of tragic suffering and blighted love. Battles and betrayals follow, all told in Tolkien’s famous high style, “Now the power and malice of Glaurung grew apace, and he waxed fat, and he gathered Orcs to him, and ruled as a dragon-king…” With its complexities of character and motivation, conflicts and doomed loves, this saga is grimly enjoyable, especially because of the extra layer of depth it gives to the more familiar Tolkien novels.

The book’s presentation is superbly done, with appendices, a useful name-list, family trees, a fold-out map and Alan Lee’s stunning colour illustrations.

This review by Trevor Agnew was published on 19th May 2007 in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand.

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