Review of Children of Hurin

Children of HurinWhile it is possible for an author’s unfinished works to be published posthumously, is it necessary? Even with an implicitly trusted editor, can the later works take their place alongside the former? These questions apply particularly to The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee (Houghton Mifflin, $26.00). With The Children of Húrin, Christopher Tolkien presents a stand-alone version of a story already reproduced in the previous posthumous publications Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion. Is a third recounting actually necessary? In all of the languages of Middle-earth, the answer is yes.

Húrin and his wife Morwen have three children: Túrin, Urwen, and Nïenor. Urwen succumbs to a pestilence and dies in childhood; of the three children, she is the most fortunate. Because Húrin, a prisoner of war, resists the will of his captor Morgoth, his children are cursed and he is compelled to watch them suffer. Túrin is sent to live with the elves, but Morwen, who is with child, does not accompany him. Thus Túrin does not meet his sister Nïenor until later in life, under dubious circumstances. Túrin grows into a mighty hero, but he is ill-fated nonetheless and those around him, be they friend or foe, man or elf, male or female, suffer for it. Túrin fails by succeeding. He single-handedly slays the great dragon Glaurung, which has long plagued and pursued him, but his vengeance is merely a Cadmeian victory. When the dragon meets its demise, so does its horde of lies, and the terrible truth that remains destroys both Túrin and Nïenor. Húrin is released by Morgoth in time to find Morwen dying on the same spot.

The Children of Húrin is a great tree of a tale grown from the seed of the story of Kullervo found in The Kalevala, and nourished by the deep soil of Middle-earth. Along with The Tale of Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin, it is one of the ‘Great Tales’ of the Elder Days, tales that are integral to the history of Middle-earth yet sufficiently self-contained to exist independently, as indicated in a letter the author wrote in 1951. Five-and-a-half decades later, Tolkien’s intent has been fulfilled.

Christopher Tolkien has proven himself a dedicated editor of his father’s writings as well as a faithful executor of his father’s wishes. The task of editing Tolkien’s compilations is complicated by the fact that he was his own greatest revisionist, setting aside incomplete manuscripts only to begin new versions years later. After careful consideration of multiple extant but undated versions of the story, Christopher Tolkien has produced this authoritative book, greatly enhanced by the lustrous, grand-yet-subtle illustrations of Alan Lee, which was always meant to stand on the shelf next to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

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