The Re­turn of the King

A new novel from the cre­ator of Mid­dle Earth.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Book World - Re­viewed by El­iz­a­beth Hand


By J.R.R. Tolkien

Edited by Christo­pher Tolkien

Houghton Mif­flin. 313 pp. $26

If any­one still labors un­der the delu­sion that J. R. R. Tolkien was a writer of twee fan­tasies for chil­dren, this novel should set them straight. A bleak, darkly beau­ti­ful tale played out against the back­ground of the First Age of Tolkien’s Mid­dle Earth, The Chil­dren of Húrin pos­sesses the mythic res­o­nance and grim sense of in­ex­orable fate found in Greek tragedy.

Ac­cord­ing to Christo­pher Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son and lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tor, The Chil­dren of Húrin had its ge­n­e­sis in a tale penned by his fa­ther in 1919. Tolkien ob­ses­sively wrote and rewrote sto­ries over the course of his long life, and slightly vari­ant tellings of this tale have pre­vi­ously ap­peared in sev­eral of his other works. But this is its first stand- alone pub­li­ca­tion, in­cor­po­rat­ing all the var­i­ous ver­sions and at­ten­dant frag­ments into a seam­less whole. Does it war­rant the at­ten­tion of read­ers other than Tolkien purists? Ab­so­lutely. Even ca­sual read­ers, as well as fans of Peter Jack­son’s phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful film adap­ta­tion, will find their ex­pe­ri­ence of Mid­dle Earth con­sid­er­ably en­riched by this new vol­ume, which also fea­tures su­perb il­lus­tra­tions ( both color and black- and­white) by Alan Lee.

The Chil­dren of Húrin takes place 6,000 years be­fore the Coun­cil of El­rond ( a piv­otal event in The Lord of the Rings), as Christo­pher Tolkien points out in his use­ful in­tro­duc­tion. Its set­ting is not your great­great- grand­fa­ther’s Mid­dle Earth, but the forests and moun­tains of Bele­riand, a coun­try that was drowned, like At­lantis, eons be­fore var­i­ous Bag­ginses and their ilk pop­u­lated the Shire.

There are no hob­bits in The Chil­dren of Húrin. The pri­mary play­ers are Men, Elves, Orcs, a few Dwarves, Mor­goth ( the orig­i­nal Dark Lord — Sau­ron was his most pow­er­ful lieu­tenant), and Glau­rung, “ fa­ther of dragons,” who ranks with the mon­strous spi­der Sh­elob as one of Tolkien’s most ter­ri­fy­ing cre­ations. For cen­turies, Men and Elves have been en­gaged in a mostly los­ing bat­tle against Mor­goth’s forces, whose mem­bers — Orcs but also Men known as Easter­lings — re­sem­ble ma­raud­ing Vik­ings more than the crude, slightly car­toon­ish reg­i­ments de­picted in The Lord of the Rings. More than any other Tolkien work, The Chil­dren of Húrin evokes the Scan­di­na­vian and An­glo- Saxon epics that Tolkien loved and stud­ied and taught and em­u­lated. Its cen­tral pro­tag­o­nist, Túrin, is one of the most com­plex char­ac­ters in all Mid­dle Earth, a tor­mented, brood­ing anti- hero who bears hall­marks of a sword- wield­ing Heathcliff.

Shortly af­ter the book opens, Túrin’s fa­ther, Lord Húrin the Stead­fast, has been im­pris­oned by Mor­goth fol­low­ing a doomed cam­paign mounted by Elves and Men. In the bat­tle’s af­ter­math, the 9- year- old Túrin and his preg­nant mother, Mor­wen, barely man­age to es­cape be­com­ing thralls of the Easter­lings. At Mor­wen’s urg­ing, the boy flees to a hid­den Elvish king­dom where he finds sanc­tu­ary. His sis­ter is born not long af­ter .

Túrin grows to man­hood among the Elves, whose king treats him as a fos­ter son, giv­ing him a drag­oncrested helm that is an heir­loom of Túrin’s fore­bears. Such treat­ment, along with Túrin’s sternly aloof, even haughty, de­meanor, causes re­sent­ment among some of the Elves. One of th­ese de­trac­tors goads Túrin, then way­lays him, and Túrin in­ad­ver­tently causes his at­tacker’s death. Out of shame and re­morse, but also pride, Túrin leaves the king­dom be­fore learn­ing he has been par­doned. He joins forces with a group of out­laws and in short or­der be­comes their leader, mus­ter­ing them against the Orcs.

The House of Húrin matches that of Atreus in curses com­ing home to roost upon doomed and some­times in­no­cent fam­ily mem­bers. Read­ers look­ing for happy end­ings will find none in this book. In­stead, there is grand, epic sto­ry­telling and a re­minder, if one was needed, of Tolkien’s ge­nius in cre­at­ing an imag­i­nary world that both re­flects and deep­ens a sense of our own mythic past, the now- forgotten bat­tles and leg­ends that gave birth to the Aeneid, the Old Tes­ta­ment, the Oresteia, the Elder Ed­das and the Mabino­gion, Be­owulf and Par­adise Lost.

Years from now, when our present day is as re­mote from men and women ( or cy­borgs) as the events of the First Age were to the Coun­cil of El­rond, peo­ple may still tell tales out of Mid­dle Earth. If so, The Chil­dren of Húrin will be one of them.

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