Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Praising Middle-Earth's darkest hour: A review of the Children of Hurin

Warning—some spoilers follow.

Although critical appreciation for J.R.R. Tolkien has increased over the years, fantasy's greatest author has frequently been derided as a spinner of happy-ending fairy tales, a writer of children’s stories and guilty of wish-fulfillment. Back before I began to understand what The Lord of the Rings was all about, but had read some of Tolkien’s critics, I thought, mistakenly, that maybe these guys were right, and my love of these stories was merely a vestigial piece of my childhood, a guilty, secret passion best left behind closed doors.

Of course, it was they who were wrong—so dreadfully wrong. For now, if the time hasn’t already come, we deserve another re-evaluation of Tolkien. So say I after reading The Children of Hurin.

Were they given The Children of Hurin as a companion piece to read alongside The Lord of the Rings, my guess is that Tolkien’s detractors would have experienced an epiphany on the level of a First Age cataclysm. Once I closed its covers I immediately began to re-evaluate everything I had previously known about Tolkien. Suffused with the perspective of the great, bleak, tragic tale that is The Children of Hurin, it's impossible not to. This story casts a long shadow over all the succeeding events of Middle-Earth, back-lighting Tolkien’s world in a grand opera of suffering and cruel fate. My appreciation for the man’s works is now all the more deeper and richer, if that is indeed possible.

Before I get too carried away, The Children of Hurin is not in the same class as The Lord of the Rings. It lacks that book’s tremendous depth, sweep, and sheer imagination. But The Children of Hurin in no way tries to imitate LOTR. It’s a different kind of book, very much inspired by Tolkien’s love of the old Norse sagas.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I picked up The Children of Hurin anticipating another Silmarillion. I’m a big fan of The Silmarillion but I’ve always thought of it as a reference work, something to pick away at and enjoy in small bursts. In fact, it’s not unlike reading the Bible—though that ancient holy text contains some great stories, memorable passages, and poetic sequences, you’re not really supposed to pick it up and read it straight through. The same can also be said of The Silmarillion, which lacks a unifying, coherent narrative.

But if you’ve been avoiding The Children of Hurin for this reason—as perhaps, subconsciously, I had been since I purchased the hardcover—fear not. It is not dry history, but a red-blooded retelling of a tale of the elder days of Middle Earth.

The Children of Hurin could have accurately been titled The Tale of Turin Turambar, since it follows the life of this character, Hurin’s son, from his childhood until his death. It’s a story of cruel, inescapable fate. It explores the great paradox of man’s ambition, perhaps our greatest trait and our greatest flaw, capable of elevating us to perform great deeds and also leading us to ruin.

For The Children of Hurin is, among other things, a cautionary tale about the dangers of pride. In the First Age, the elves (which exist in much greater strength and numbers than they do in the Third Age), repeatedly warn Hurin and later Turin of reaching too far. Theirs is the safe counsel—against the powers of Morgoth, it’s best to take the long view—to fight defensively, to hold on to what is dearest for as long as you can, and to wait for the right time, if it ever comes. In other words, to swallow your pride.

But Hurin and later Turin are men of action, if not entirely rash then overbold, gamblers who believe that you should strike hard and now. Their first and strongest instinct is to meet the enemy on the open field and crush him, or die honorably in the attempt (I myself am sympathetic to this view). But while the elven perspective is (probably) right, Tolkien obviously had a soft spot for the passionate race of men, the Ragnarok spirit, and of the hot-blooded Hurin and Turin in particular. These two great warriors very closely resemble the great figures and heroes of northern myth with which Tolkien felt an obvious kinship. We cannot help but sympathize with their unyielding spirit, even when it leads them terribly astray.

Hurin is a fully realized human—a man of great passions and strengths, but also great flaws, the greatest of which is pride. Turin, being of the same blood as his father, is destined to follow in his footsteps. And thus, very early on we realize that The Children of Hurin is a tragedy of the highest proportions. This is a black book, filled with untimely deaths and bitter defeats. Despite his unparalleled skill at arms and the great victories he wins, Turin is forever hearing the feet of doom creeping behind him.

And yet Tolkien is a writer of many meanings. It is never made explicit whether the doom of Hurin/Turin is self inflicted—the result of their own ill choice—or whether Morgoth, who curses Hurin and his children, is responsible for their downfall. Tolkien is revisiting familiar ground here, as the same argument swirls over the One Ring—is its wielder bereft of choice, consumed by its terrible power, or does the Ring reflect and amplify our own weakness? Turin is indeed cursed with terrible luck, but he does have a choice in how to react to the terrible events that befall him—and his own flawed responses, perhaps more than Morgoth's pronouncement of doom, makes him the “cursed” man that he is.


But ahh, Morgoth. You thought Sauron was evil? Get ready to meet a dark lord of ten times his strength. In The Children of Hurin Morgoth is in full, wicked bloom as a dark demi-god, and more—he is a symbol of all that is twisted in mankind’s soul, all that of which we despair in the dark of night, rolled into a being of unspeakable malice. When he lays his curse upon Hurin and Turin, they are truly doomed. Morgoth evokes the ultimate fear of all mankind: that death is the end, and that nothing—literal, uppercase Nothing—awaits us in the grave. Says Hurin:

    “Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.”

    “Beyond the Circles of the World I will not pursue them,” said Morgoth. “For beyond the Circles of the World there is Nothing. But within them they shall not escape me, until they enter into Nothing.”

I must warn potential readers that finding light in the gloom and darkness of The Children of Hurin is difficult, to say the least; it is well that the story of Middle-Earth was not told chronologically, else few readers would have the stomach to finish it to the end. The third age, and its victory over Sauron (pyrrhic though it was), is downright cheery in comparison.

Great elven cities fall in The Children of Hurin but seemingly only after they open their gates to men; Tolkien’s message may be that magic loses its wonder when it is examined and exposed; best leave it alone as a shadowy once upon a time. But, fortunately, Tolkien ignored this instinct and produced this time-shrouded tale of the First Age. With the help of his son and editor Christopher, the two have brought to life a brief, enduring moment from that time with The Children of Hurin.

Yet more reasons to read
All the above is my interpretation after a first read, but there’s so much more to commend The Children of Hurin than I’ve mentioned. I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the following, which make it worth reading for simple reading's sake:

Glaurung, a horrific wingless dragon, the wyrm progeny of Smaug. Glaurung is mighty of body but, horribly, his most fearsome power is the wicked lies he spins with his voice, great charisma, and hypnotic eyes.

The fall of Nargothrond, a great elven city sacked by an army of orcs with a fire-breathing Glaurung at its head. Glaurung’s encounter with Turin at the gates of the city is unforgettable.

Turin’s black sword, Gurthang. Steve Tompkins over at The Cimmerian wrote a nice piece about the echoes of cursed blades throughout fantasy literature—two noteworthy examples being Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. The Children of Hurin adds another legend with Gurthang, a black sword made of iron that fell from heaven as a blazing star ("The heart of the smith still dwells in it, and that heart was dark.") Gurthang can be viewed as a metaphor for those mighty weapons whose power is too great to handle and, once employed, are cursed to destroy their wielders.

The Battle of Unnumbered Tears. This brief chapter, which describes the utter ruin of a great army of elves and men and dwarves gathered outside Angband, contains perhaps the best writing in the book. The cover price is worth these (alas, too short) eight pages. My favorite passage in The Children of Hurin is the following description from the battle, which already ranks among the greatest scenes I’ve ever read in fantasy literature:

    Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and seized the axe of an orc-captain and wielded it two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried aloud: ‘Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, who thought thus to do him more evil than by death.

Seventy times, day shall come again—that sends a chill down my spine, especially knowing the long, long night of Morgoth’s victory, the full extent of which colors every page of this wonderful book. Go read it.


Dave Tackett said...

Great review (as always), though I'm afraid you vastly overestimate the open-mindedness of too many past and present literary critics, such as Edmund Wilson - "Ooh, Those Awful Ores."

Many are driven by strictly by ideology and Tolkien doesn't fit their idea that literature is merely a tool to expose the evils of capitalism.

Others have an arrogant disdain for the "unread" masses. If any book is popular then it must be simplistic and childish otherwise the masses wouldn't be able to comprehend it.

The quality of the text is far less important to them than the author's worldview and the demographics of the readership and Tolkien doesn't meet those criteria.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Dave, thanks for stopping by. You're right on; some critics' views of Tolkien "the man" won't allow some critics to ever give his works a fair shake.

Did Tolkien believe in God? Was he a conservative? Of course, the answer is yes. But while these elements inform his works, they are not its entirety, nor are they what the Lord of the Rings is all about. Death, and how we cope with it; War; the problem of Power; the dangers of isolationism; these are just some of the themes that LOTR contains that many critics (seemingly willfully) overlook. After all, it's a lot easier to rip down than to analyze, and labelling Tolkien as an intolerant, back-thinking religious conservative is a great way to stir up controversy and win you points in most "literary" circles. But it's a lot more heat than light.

Anonymous said...

Another outstanding review. I am adding this book to my reading list.

Ryan Rasmussen said...

Nice review, Brian. Have you seen that Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and GudrĂșn will be coming out this spring?

Day shall come again, indeed!

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Ryan, I have seen that. I was debating a post on that (still am), but was beaten to it by several other more worthy sites, including The Cimmerian.

But thanks for stopping by, and yes, the day is bright these days for Tolkien fans.