Words of majesty in Middle- earth music
Cecilia Dart- Thornton The Children of Hurin By J. R. R. Tolkien HarperCollins, 320pp, $ 49.95
The world was fair, the mountains tall, In Elder Days before the fall Of mighty kings in Nargothrond And Gondolin, who now beyond The Western Seas have passed away — J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
IT was with great excitement that I received the most recently published work of my favourite author of all time, J. R. R. Tolkien. To think that once again I held his words, unread, in my hands was thrilling.
Worrisome, too, in a way, for these were not purely his words: they had been edited by his son Christopher, because this story of Middleearth’s Elder Days, The Children of Hurin , was unfinished at Tolkien’s death.
What if, during the editing process, the son’s admirable and loving pedanticism had spoiled the free- flowing style of the father’s writing? As it turned out Christopher’s editing was magnificent.
If you are hoping for another The Lord of the Rings , do not look for it in The Children of Hurin . Tolkien wrote in three different voices: one for his children’s stories, another for The Lord of the Rings and a third for his heroic tales. In approach, The Children of Hurin is similar to the tales found in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion : dark and tragic, written in wonderfully epic language, yet less close and personal than The Lord of the Rings. It is produced in a formal style springing directly from ancient literary tradition and rich with words inherited, unchanged, from Old English.
The moral values inherent in the old sagas are here, too. In choosing this mode, Tolkien was deliberately being faithful to the mindset of classic tales such as Le Morte d’Arthur and The Children of Uisnech .
Without knowing something of The Silmarillion and the style of ancient sagas and legends, it is hard to fully appreciate The Children of Hurin and impossible to understand it. Those who view it purely in the light of modern literature will be unjust in judgment.
Enhanced by Alan Lee’s delicately evocative illustrations, this beautiful, dark tale unfolds, transporting the reader to a place of pure invention, Middle- earth.
As in Tolkien’s greatest work, the landscape itself is a character. The plot of The Children of Hurin is wide- sweeping, brilliantly conceived and intricately interwoven.
Turin, son of Hurin, is a believable and extremely flawed character. We have all seen men like Turin, troubled, prone to sudden anger, yet utterly committed to someone or some cause. Devoted to his mother, torn from her at an early age and responding savagely to any insult against her, he is dangerous and wild on the outside, tender hearted within. The reader feels sympathy for Turin, but never liking.
He is completely lacking in judgment and social skills, humourless and paranoid to boot. His courage is extraordinary, though one suspects this has something to do with disregard for his own life, born of the conviction that it is better to be respected than to breathe.
In this tale it is not money but pride that is the root of all evil. Pride, revenge, cruelty, violence on a grand scale; it is all there in this new volume — yet also ‘‘ beauty that pierces like swords’’.
An aching sense of loss, too, is ever- present. Phrases such as, ‘‘ he remembered the Hidden Kingdom, and he seemed to hear the names of the flowers of Doriath as echoes of an old tongue almost forgotten’’ strike a chord, as if we, too, have all lost something rare and wonderful. Yet the feeling is bittersweet, never hateful.
There is also the constant sense of impending doom: ‘‘ Then they came near to death, for winter came cold from the north, but not so light was Turin’s doom.’’ Tolkien favours, perhaps instinctively, the compelling words that have descended unchanged from Old English: winter, north, death, bitter, cold, mist.
Do not be daunted by Tolkien’s labyrinth of invented names. Treat them as a feast of sensory delights; music to the ear and ( to some, at least) beautiful in print. The labyrinthine path is illuminated by stirring turns of phrase: ‘‘ the light of the drawing of the swords of the Noldor was like a fire in a field of reeds’’, ‘‘ his elven sight saw far off a dust and the glint of steel like stars in mist’’.
Now, like Tolkien, I shall make a pronouncement of doom, for none shall ever conjure names more beautiful, or words of such strange power, and his like shall never more be known. Cecilia Dart- Thornton’s latest novel, Fallowblade, is published this month.