New from the pen of Tolkien

2008-02-01 00:00

A new book from the pen of Tolkien (senior) is something very special: the author has been dead for 34 years and has been a dominant figure in serious English fantasy-writing for decades.

The Children of Húrin is a curious book: nearly every word of it was written by J.R.R. himself, but as a coherent book it was only put together quite recently from numerous unfinished and/or disconnected pieces by his son Christopher. That said, it is still a literary landmark (not least for Christopher's masterly editing).

Comparison with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is inevitable. Unlike the former, this one is certainly not for children. As for the latter, the new book is not as epic in scale nor quite as “cosmic” in its implications: it has more the dimensions of an Icelandic saga. It is set in the first age, long before the war of the rings, and interestingly provides much background material only touched on in the great trilogy. Like the trilogy it involves an ongoing conflict between (relative) good and definite evil - elves and men are more or less on the good side (although none is perfect, and Húrin's son Túrin, although an amazing warrior, is a highly problematic person); Sauron's predecessor Morgoth is the dark lord in this novel, aided by the huge (and eloquent) dragon Glaurung, and they are deadly enough for most tastes. Húrin's other child, his daughter Niënor, is a lovely and sad figure. It becomes clear that Húrin's offspring are doomed from the start due to their father's earlier defiance of Morgoth; and that highlights a major feature of this story: it is deeply tragic. The steady working out of Morgoth's curse, via a succession of mistakes, misunderstandings, character-flaws (especially on Túrin's part) and unhappy coincidences, is painful to behold - much like watching a Greek tragedy.

Like most Tolkien, this book is not easy: it is full of names (of people and places; and some have more than one name), and it is written in Tolkien's archaic, dignified, starkly monumental style. But the book has a useful list of names and a good map; and above all, it is a gripping story of good and evil, loss and pain, good intentions and tragic consequences. It is well worth the effort. This edition is also beautifully illustrated by Alan Lee's colour paintings and pencil sketches.

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