Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Children of Húrin – review

The Children of Húrin was a fascinating read. Outside of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings this is the only other book by J.R.R. Tolkien that I have read and it was excellent.

I have to say the archaic writing style made the story feel really old which suits the book perfectly as it is a tale from the First Age in Tolkien’s legendarium. The writing style reminded me of Homer’s style of writing, especially the way Tolkien mentions the lineage of a person in the earlier chapters of the book. I also like that the novel is written in a matter-of-fact way. Tolkien tells you what happens as much as he lets it happen through the dialogue and the actions of the characters. Some people do not like the “tell and not show” style but when telling a story that is supposed to have happened a very, very long time ago it works exceptionally well. It’s almost as if the story is so old there are a few details missing, that explains why the writing is clear and to the point because only the most important details have survived through the ages.

Morgoth is an interesting villain. Like many villains he lets his henchmen do much of his bidding but when it is required Morgoth will take a more central role such as with his confrontation with Húrin. Some might complain that Morgoth does not play large enough a role in the novel. I don't think so. I’m fine with that; this is after all the story of Húrin’s children. The main character is Túrin and later on his sister Niënor plays a larger role. Besides, Morgoth’s evil is felt throughout.

The way Tolkien writes about magic is very interesting. It’s almost a religious magic in the sense that objects and people can be blessed or cursed according to the spell caster’s wishes. For example, a black blade may be forged by a powerful Dark Elf and seek to drink the blood of its victims as well as choose if and when to change masters. It’s a blade blessed with sentience and in some hands it may be a blessing for the good deeds it accomplishes in the hands of a good person but it may choose to change hands and be a curse to those that wield it by taking the lives of loved ones. As well, a person may be cursed, like it’s the case for Húrin, who is cursed to see with the sight of Morgoth and witness the hardships of his children.

The Children of Húrin is a tragedy; it’s unreasonable to expect a happy ending. In the tradition of classical tragedies, it doesn’t end well for many of the characters. It’s interesting how different in tone this book is compared to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Good and Evil are also portrayed different, they are more nuanced than in those two earlier books (published earlier but placed much later in the history of Middle-Earth). Túrin is the hero but throughout the book he does some terrible, qualitatively evil, things. Can we still consider him a hero despite his actions? You can if you remind yourself he’s been under a curse for most of his life. The evil actions he commits are done because of the curse, he’s not entirely in control of his fate and it makes for a tragic hero. I’m certain an English Major would have much to say on the character of Túrin and many other interesting and flawed characters found in the book.

This book is good for the same reason most of Tolkien’s books are good. There is a real sense of history to these stories. Finishing Children of Húrin you are left wanting more, much more. I was so curious about the history of the First Age and of the geography of Beleriand. Being much more familiar with the history of Middle-Earth during The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I was a bit lost and confused when I first started to read The Children of Húrin but after poking around online and in my Tolkien related books such as A Guide to Tolkien by David Day. I found the First Age to be perhaps more fascinating and engrossing than the events that take place near the end of the Third Age. Having read the book I wanted to know more of Morgoth, the hidden city of Gondolin and Turgon its king, I wanted to know more of the elves of Goliath, King Thingol, Melian, Eol, Beleg, Mîm the last of the Petty Dwarves, I wanted to know more of Glaurung, father of Dragons, Fingolfin, Faënor and his sons, I would like to know more of Húrin and his father and brother and more on the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.

The Children of Húrin is a short novel but it’s dense and immensely engrossing. Tolkien impresses us with the depth and scope of his story without sacrificing story and character. I genuinely cared about many of the characters and that’s one of the reasons I want to know more about them. I want to know more of the world and its times because I know we’re only scratching the surface of the history of Middle-Earth and Tolkien makes that clear in his storytelling. As for the characters, that’s where this book shines whether it’s a short appearance by Turgon or the continuing story of the life of Túrin, they fascinated me and I want to read so much more about them. Good thing I’ve never read The Silmarillion.

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