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Thousands of years before the diminutive but brave hobbits saved Middle-Earth from certain doom at the hands of Sauron, the elder inhabitants of the ancient First Age were engaged in a prolonged struggle with the evil Morgoth Bauglir, Sauron's powerful mentor. Morgoth, a fallen god, ruled over the world through fear and force, commanding impressive armies of orcs, dragons, and other creatures of evil against the forces of elves, men, and dwarves. Millennia before the War of the Ring, chronicled in J.R.R. Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings, Sauron served as a mere lieutenant of Morgoth, and makes but a brief appearance in The Children of Húrin. Tolkien's newly published tale is not about the machinations of evil lords or magic jewelry, but rather the cruelty of fate and the evil inside us all.
The Children of Húrin unfolds during the waning days of the First Age, some six thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, between the devastating Battle of Unnumbered Tears and the climactic War of Wrath, which saw the gods of Valinor defeat Morgoth in battle, a confrontation that completely altered the landscape of Middle-Earth and ended the First Age. After Morgoth's defeat and imprisonment in the Void, Sauron would emerge as the incarnate of evil and wreak havoc on Middle-Earth during the latter two ages before his destruction at the end of the War of the Ring.
The story of The Children of Húrin focuses on the life of Túrin Turambar, the son of the valiant Húrin and his wife Morwen. Early in the narrative, Húrin, the sole survivor of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears against the forces of Morgoth, defies the Dark Lord, which leads Morgoth to curse Húrin's children. Morgoth announces to Húrin:
"upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. 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." Morgoth then imprisons Húrin in a chair high atop the mountains surrounding Morgoth's stronghold to "look out upon the lands where evil and despair shall come upon those whom you have delivered to me."
Not only are Húrin's children cursed to lives tainted by evil, but Húrin himself is forced see the world - and his children's demise - through Morgoth's eyes.
Throughout the rest of the novel we follow the travels of Túrin (and, much later in the story, those of his sister Níniel), whose every action is labored, as the curse of Morgoth looms heavy on everything he does. During the course of the tale Túrin interacts with elves, men, dwarves, orcs, and a dragon, and becomes one of Middle-Earth's most cunning warriors. There is valor, courage, adventure, and romance here, but the overwhelming feeling is one of despair. Túrin is indeed cursed, as evil seems to follow his shadow throughout Middle-Earth and touches nearly everyone he encounters.
This tale is a dark and brooding one, much more so than The Hobbit or even The Lord of the Rings. While Sauron is certainly evil and willing to do nearly anything to secure dominion over the world during the War of the Ring, Morgoth is far crueler than his lieutenant. And so there is much bloodshed, violence, and death throughout Túrin's travails, with little hope for salvation. And there is one cruel plot twist - another result of Morgoth's curse - that will make readers cringe and perhaps weep, one that would seem far too harsh for the world of The Lord of the Rings. The Children of Húrin serves as a prelude to the war and devastation of the later ages, and also reflects the horrors of the twentieth century world that Tolkien endured. When reading any of Tolkien's works, we must remember that the author experienced first-hand the horrors of trench warfare during the First World War, an experience that he and millions of other soldiers who were lucky to survive never truly recovered from. In many ways The Children of Húrin is a grim reminder of the evils that we continue to impart upon our fellow human beings. Is evil inherent within all of us? Can we change ourselves? These are Tolkien's great questions.
It must be noted that The Children of Húrin is not a "new" story, recently unearthed or discovered in a pile of forgotten manuscripts. Many readers will wonder, then, if this is a necessary publication, considering the story - officially titled Narn I Chîn Húrin - has already been told twice, first in abbreviated form in The Silmarillion, published in 1977, and in a more extended version in Unfinished Tales, published in 1980. Is this story worth being told for a third time? Those who grew bored with Christopher Tolkien's tedious twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth, which seemed to analyze every fragment of writing his father left behind, will be pleased to learn that The Children of Húrin is a complete and concise tale with minimal notes, and is indeed worthy of this stand-alone effort. The text is also accompanied by beautiful full-page color illustrations by Alan Lee, as well as numerous black-and-white drawings at the beginning and close of every chapter, which bring the strange world of the First Age to life.
While epic in scope, The Children of Húrin does not contain the same kind of sensory detail as The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a master of descriptive setting, a talent that made Middle-Earth feel as real as ours. A large part of the enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings comes from the richness of detail of the various forests, countrysides, mountains, and other geographic locales. For an epic novel, The Lord of the Rings feels remarkably intimate. The Children of Húrin is a different kind of story, more akin stylistically to The Odyssey or Beowulf than The Lord of the Rings. At times Tolkien's prose weighs down the effectiveness of this work, though the writing is not as dry as that of The Silmarillion.
The Children of Húrin is more engaging as a piece of drama than the various tales from The Silmarillion, and fans of Tolkien's lore will more than pleased with this glance into the elder days of Middle-Earth. Delectable treats include a glimpse of the hidden city of Gondolin, the characterization of Morgoth, and a major plot thread focusing on the menacing dragon Glaurung. The geography of The Children of Húrin, however, will confuse all but the most knowledgeable scholars of Tolkien's massive legendarium, and the accompanying map is of little help with its lack of detail. At several points I needed to consult Karen Wynn Fonstad's excellent Atlas of Middle-Earth to find my bearings in the unfamiliar realm of the First Age. For the world that became so familiar to us in The Lord of the Rings was a drastically different one in the First Age, before the widespread destruction of the War of Wrath, the rise and fall of the island nation of Númenor, and the complete retreat of the Valar from the world.
Peter Jackson's excellent (though by no means perfect) three-part film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings introduced a new generation to the wonders of Tolkien and the rich world of Middle-Earth. The Children of Húrin, however, is not recommended for casual fans of Tolkien, but rather those who are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the lore of Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings stands on its own as an amazing literary achievement, but it is only after delving deeper into the lore of Middle-Earth through the tales of The Silmarillion and now The Children of Húrin that one begins to appreciate the depths and complexities of Tolkien's world. The Children of Húrin is one of the three essential tales of the First Age, along with the story of Beren and Lúthien and the fall of Gondolin. Perhaps Christopher Tolkien will give these two remarkable tales a place of their own in the near future. For now, though, fans of Tolkien's should be more than content to visit the fascinating world of the First Age, where the curse of a more powerful evil than Sauron forever tormented the family of Húrin and left an enduring scar on the world of Middle-Earth. SEE ALSO: www.tolkiensociety.org
SEE ALSO: www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com
Eric J. Morgan
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Eric J. Morgan is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Colorado. He has an orange cat named Nelson and longs for the day when men and women will again dress in three-piece suits and pretty dresses to indulge in three-martini lunches and afternoon affairs.
See other articles by Eric J. Morgan.
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