The Children of Húrin

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I have been a long-time admirer of the ability of J.R.R. Tolkien to weave a story. I loved both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings despite some misgivings about both the implicit theology of the works and of much of the writing (most particularly the poetry.) The same problems hold true for this book, only more so.

The Children of Húrin is a long narrative cobbled together from the bits and pieces of a variety of writings--many of them previously published. Christopher Tolkien took upon himself the task to creating a coherent narrative of the whole story and he has done a very fine job.

The problem I have with this book is that it is as though Tolkien were thumbing through the Index of Folklore and Mythology and pulled out some random threads that he then inserted and interpreted with a ruthlessness that may have served the first age of Middle Earth, but doesn't leave the reader satisfied. The net effect is to create a lay, book, story, or what have you in which evil unequivocally triumphs over good. Perhaps only temporarily, but resoundingly, thoroughly, and disastrously. And this is a strain in Tolkien I don't quite trust. He seems to have greater confidence in evil than in good.

At the end of Lord of the Rings the triumph of good leads to the destruction of nearly everything good. Lothlorien is abandoned, the Shire is overrun with foulness, and the elves all leave Middle Earth.

It is naive to assume that the triumph of good means good results for all; however, it is equally naive to assume that evil consistently betters good.

Okay, my quibbles aside, how is The Children of Húrin. For a cobbled-together story it is quite readable and very entertaining. The tale is a bit disjointed, and perhaps because of its origin has bits and pieces that seem extraneous to the main point--but even these extraneous moments are of high interest and so perhaps extraneous only in the sense that we do not have the fuller story that might have resulted had Tolkien ever been led to finish it himself.

The story is told in a convoluted difficult diction that is orotund and epic but doesn't approach the turgidity of some sections of The Simarillion. Overall, once one gets used to the effects of the language, it flows smoothly in its course and helps to create the atmosphere.

So, net recommendation--certainly for Tolkien completists, and perhaps for those who want some insight into the Earlier ages of Tolkien's mythos without the investment of a huge amount of time and energy. But for those who have not found Tolkien easy going, this certainly will not change their minds

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Great point about Tolkien...I'd never even thought of that.

..probably because I lack enough confidence in the power of good.


In good natured defence of Tolkien:

Steven, you're right that evil seems to be more powerful than good in Middle-earth. I'd add that Middle-earth is actually on a steady downward spiral, and is powerless to stop it.

Notice how each age is less sublime than the last--and each race of elves and men noticably superior to their descendants. Even the word "descendants" implies a fall--which I'm sure Tolkien, as a lover of Latin, would have noted. And when you have the story of so many generations in one book, the fact that they are falling is made so much more obvious. This is true even of the wonderful elves of Lorien and Rivendell.

Yet this is only fitting because these fallen races cannot "renew the face of (Middle) earth" without any grace from Iluvatar. Since Middle-earth is supposed to be our own world, hundreds of thousands of years in the past, Tolkien couldn't have written a real Redeemer into his chronicles. So there is really no way that good could have decently vanquished evil, at such an early stage.

Of course, you probably knew all this already and I just failed to get your point! :P

PS--Steven, I thought I had submitted this comment yesterday. In case this one just repeats something I've already said, then please delete this! :)

Dear Anonymous,

I see your point and have thought about this and find it even more disturbing because it appears to imply that the redeemer is not coeternal and that Iluvatar is simply a deist entity not intruding into human/elf/dwarf affairs in any way.

It seems to imply that grace was not available to the human race before Jesus Christ, and that simply isn't so--God carried on a long and loving relationship with humanity before Jesus in the first covenant with the People of Israel.

That said, there is implicit in your comment something that seems a most valid point. If we look carefully at Tolkien's characters, even the best of them, they are irremediably struck by pride. In the present book Túrin and the whole lot of the children and wife of Húrin are prideful in the extreme. Obviously grace cannot intrude where pride pushes it out. So perhaps, if looked at that way there is some sense to all of this.

And I should make clear that it has never stopped me from enjoying Tolkien, it has merely niggled at me when I hear from others how profoundly religious he is and how deeply Catholic his writing. If so, I would have to conclude that it is a deeply jansenistic strain of Catholicism. But I don't. What I think has taken place in Tolkien is not a diminishment of Catholicism as a catholicizing (sorry for the bad word) of paganism. Drawing from Nordic myth and legend which is about as downbeat as you can get, Tolkien pulls it up and redeems it with an infusion of grace, but retains ultimately the structures and the leitmotifs that inform the original. It isn't the theoogy, perhaps, that is suspect, but it is the source materials that need redeeming.

At least that's one way to look at it.

Thank you for writing.




Steven, I'm the one who posted that last comment! I didn't mean to be anonymous and I don't know why it came out that way. :S

I see what you mean about the source material, though. Just this evening, I was browsing in a bookstore and found an interesting anthology entitled Tales before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy. The editor put together as many stories as possible to reflect the influence contemporary Fantasy writers had on Tolkien. He didn't include the Norse myths, deliberately limiting himself to writers born around the same time as Tolkien.

Given his title, such a narrow scope is defensible, but you make a good point that we cannot understand Tolkien as well as we'd like to without also going deeply into the Norse myths.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 3, 2007 7:31 PM.

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