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The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien

Edited by Christopher Tolkien

Illustrations by Alan Lee

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When the young J. R. R. Tolkien first began writing stories in a collection of battered notebooks, there were three major ones: the fall of Gondolin, the love story of Beren and Luthien, and the tragedy of Turin Turambar. Even before he began to write of the creation of the world by the Valar or the creation of the Silmarils by Feanor, these three great stories had already taken shape. In many ways the other stories were a way of exploring what could have created the situation from which those three "core" stories arose.

When Tolkien abandoned the original Book of Lost Tales, it was to turn his hand to a verse rendition of the story of Turin Turambar. Although that effort foundered before it could reach a final form, it set the general shape for all versions that would follow. Gone were the elven refugees ekeing out an existence in the river-caves, and in their place was the majestic hidden kingdom of Nargothrond, a working to rival hidden Gondolin. Similarly, the elven realm of Doriath in which Turin was fostered had gone from a poor, rustic place to the majesty it would henceforth hold in the history of the Elder Days as the most senior of the Elven kingdoms, with wisdom and grace enhanced by the influence of Melian the Maia, consort of King Elu Thingol.

All the subsequent versions of the accounts of the Elder Days descend from a brief "sketch of the mythology" which he wrote while investigating the possibility of having the verse Turin published. It would be expanded over the years into a fairly full narrative, yet it always retained the sense of being a summary, the recounting of tales already known rather than a modern novel in the sense that Lord of the Rings is.

Near the end of his days, Tolkien set out to write a fuller prose account of the story of Turin, but even it never attained a complete form before his death cut off further efforts. After the somewhat dissatisfying effort of the published Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien published some manuscripts of it in his Unfinished Tales, providing a glimpse of the fuller story that lay behind the summarized form. Subsequently he laid out the history of the manuscripts' development in the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth, showing how each successive manuscript was developed, complete with notes on various changes that were made within the process of composing them.

In this volume, Christopher Tolkien returns to the methadology of The Silmarillion, seeking to produce a completed text that can be read end-to-end rather than studied and analyzed. However, although at times the language approaches the level of detail and immediacy of The Lord of the Rings, for the most part it remains a tale told, somewhat distant and remote from the reader -- hardly surprising when one considered that the stories of the Elder Days have their beginnings as tales told to a wandering mariner. Most notably, the narrative does not depend upon suspense to move it forward, nor does the narrative voice attempt to generate any sense of suspense. In fact, in many places there is a strong sense that the narrator assumes a certain familiarity with the story on the part of the audience, treating it as part of an accepted cultural canon. Much as Cecil B. DeMille could assume that viewers of The Ten Commandments would be familiar with the story of the Exodus of the Children of Israel, or the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles could assume that the audience of the Oedipus trilogy would be familiar with the Oedipus myth, the narrator simply assumes that the general outlines of Turin's story are known to the audience.

And there is something of the tragedy of Oedipus in the story of Turin Turambar, for all that his unwitting incest was brother-sister and was revealed not by a seer but by the malice of the Dragon Glaurung. Like Oedipus, particularly in Sophocles' treatment of the myth, Turin is a man persistently blinded by his own pride, which repeatedly leads him into rash action that further entangles him into the doom that has been foretold for him. However, there will not be even the limited redemption that Sophocles permitted Oedipus, for when the mortally wounded dragon Glaurung, whom Turin has slain in the manner of the Norse hero Sigurd, tells him the truth and he realizes the gravity of his crimes, he decides to fall upon his sword. Since it is a magical one, it responds with a dark and terrible voice that it will be happy to drink his blood as it has that of those he unjustly slew.

Although in the story of Turin Turambar Professor Tolkien was able to achieve an almost perfect marriage of the literary traditions of the North with their grim gods and stern heroes with the Medeterranean tradition of the Greek tragedians, this version can really only be recommended to completists. Most readers will find it too cold and distant to enjoy, and even the casual Tolkien fan will not find sufficient new material to justify the steep price of the hardcover.

Review posted January 15, 2009

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