J.R.R. Tolkien’s Narn I Chîn Húrin – The Tale of the Children of Húrin; Christopher Tolkien, editor

cover, The Children of HurinLisa Spangenberg wrote this review.

The Children of Húrin is most of all about Húrin’s son, Túrin (better known to Tolkien mavens as Túrin Turambor) and, to a lesser extent, about Húrin’s daughter Nienor, and Húrin’s wife Morwen. It’s a tragic tale that pre-dates the more familiar matter of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, since it’s set roughly six and a half thousand years before the Council of Elrond.

Húrin is taken captive by Morgoth, Sauron’s predecesser and master. Morgoth, or Melkor as the elves name him, is one of the Valar, the supreme beings of Tolkien’s creation myth. He is locked in a centuries long war with the elves, and with those few men who have chosen, like Húrin, to align themselves with the elves. Because Húrin refuses to reveal the secret location of Gondolin, and its king Turgon, Morgoth curses Húrin, Morwen and their offspring:

Behold! The shadow of my thought shall lie upon them wherever they go, and my hate shall pursue them to the ends of the world . . . upon all whom you love my thoughts 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.

But when Húrin even then obdurately refuses to reveal the location of Turgon and the kingdom of Gondolin, Morgoth binds Húrin to a chair of stone, and sets him atop a peak, “and Morgoth cursed him again, and set his power upon him so that he could not move from that place, or die, until Morgoth should release him.” He adds, moreover, that “with my eyes you shall see, and with my ears you shall hear, and nothing shall be hidden from you.”

Morgoth’s curse condemns Húrin to watch as his enemies invade his home, as his pregnant wife and his son Túrin suffer. Morwen manages to smuggle Túrin out so that he finds his way to Doriath, and the halls of his kinsman Thingol, who takes him as his foster son and treats him well. But Túrin, like his mother, is proud, and somewhat introverted, and manages to provoke jealousy. Misjudged, and too proud to explain, Túrin flees and chooses a life of outlawry, falling in with a band of brigands, and eventually, a dwarf, who avenges the death of his son by attempting to cause Túrin’s death.

Though Túrin often has good intentions, like Oedipus he always makes the wrong decision, and chooses the wrong path. Nontheless, he is a true hero and manages against all odds to slay the first dragon, Glaurung, though he is unable to escape his final doom, or the doom of his sister, as Morgoth’s curse has its way with the children of Húrin.

Tolkien began this particular tale in 1919, and his son Christopher published parts of it in The Silmarillion and in Unfinished Tales. But though this very readable narrative does include parts of both those versions, it is substantially more cohesive and complete, and includes much new material (it also omits some of the earlier matter). This is all very much the work of J.R.R. Tolkien; it’s not re-written. As Christopher Tolkien says, “while I have had to introduce bridging passages here and there in the piecing together of different drafts, there is no element of extraneous ‘invention’ of any kind, however slight, in the longer text here presented.”

There are the usual things one expects in Tolkien’s mythic prose; it’s archaic but less like the King James Bible than some of his work, and a bit more like Norse saga. That said, there’s influence motifs from Siegfried and Norse saga, and the Finnish tale of Kullervo in the Kalevala. There’s a bit of medieval Irish too, in terms of the effects of the curse; it’s reminiscent of geasa like the one Macha put on the men of Ulster. But for all its archaism and tragic mythos, the Children of Húrin is extremely readable, and a very well made book. It’s slim with unusually well done typesetting, and it has several helpful extras including a preface, an introduction, a note on pronunciation, genealogies, an appendix that has notes on the evolution of the tale and on the production of the current text, a list of names, a fold-out map, eight color plates of Alan Lee paintings, and a number of Lee’s pencil sketches used as interior art.

(Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

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