Book Review: The Children of Hurin, by J. R. R. Tolkien

22 Mar

Bestseller Books Online The Children of Hurin J.R.R. Tolkien $17.16  - fantasy, mythology, classic

Plot Summary: A son and a daughter are born to Hurin during a tumultuous time in the ancient history of Middle-Earth, when the evil Morgoth persecuted the land. The son, Turin, grows up to be a great warrior among Elves and Men. The daughter, Nienor, finds shelter in the forest of Brethil. But both are destined for lives of woe while their father remains a prisoner of the enemy in the north. “The Children of Hurin” elaborates in fuller detail what is only summarized in part of the history of “The Silmarillion.” Published after Tolkien’s death by his son, Christopher.

My Book Review: *This review is rife with spoilers, so be forewarned.*

I remember when The Children of Hurin came out a few years ago. It intrigued me partly because of the fact it was published so long after Tolkien’s death. And then I heard somewhere that if one were to read all the books about the history of Middle-Earth in chronological order, one would start with this. I’m not sure if that is correct, and here is a website that helps one to be able to truly read Tolkien in chronological order, but I am supposing that TCoH has got to be one of the first, as it takes place thousands of years before the Lord of the Rings. I vaguely remember reading about the story of Hurin in summaraized form in the Silmarillion, but TCoH was meant to elaborate on it, and we get to enjoy it in full here. This is rare when it comes to the writings of Tolkien, as unfortunately he was unable to do this for many of his wonderful story ideas (hence we have the books Unfinished Tales and the Book of Lost Tales).

Gondolin from the 1st age   I think I enjoyed this book more than The Silmarillion for the simple fact that it does elaborate. Tolkien originally wrote it to be a lay, but eventually gave that up since it began to be too long before he was halfway finished with it. It comes with a convenient pull-out map in the back of the book, a dictionary of names and places, notes on pronunciation, genealogy charts, commentary by Christopher Tolkien, and wonderful illustrations by Alan Lee. For all that, I still would often get lost in all the names and had to go back and study and restudy to keep them all straight. I decided not to read the Introduction by Christopher Tolkien until after I’d read the book because I feared it may give too much of the story away. It turns out I was partially right. But it would have helped explain about some of the history of Middle Earth that I had forgotten from The Sil, and would have helped set the stage for my understanding of the TCoH at the beginning.

As like other Middle-Earth stories by Tokien, this will not read like your typical novel. It is created to sound like a history, an epic legend. It reads sort of like the Bible. “And it came to pass in those days…” This makes for wonderful thrills down the spine, but a bit hard to read aloud for long periods of time and keep up the excitement.

This story is a dark, grim tragedy that gets bleaker and greyer the more you read along. At first I was reading this as pure entertainment, enjoying the mythology, the wonderful words and names, etc. But then I realized that there is a deeper story here. Duh.  It’s Tolkien!  Should that really have surprised me?

Ted Nasmith: Morgoth punishes HurinWe start at the beginning with the tale of Hurin’s capture by Morgoth and a legendary debate between the two. Because Hurin won’t comply in giving the enemy what he wants, Morgoth threatens to curse his children.

“Behold! The shadow of my thought shall lie upon them wherever they go, and my hate shall pursue them to the ends of the world.”

Most parents would give anything to protect their children. But still our hero won’t give in.  Hurin knows that even if he spills the secret of the whereabouts of the hidden city of Gondolin, he most definitely would lose all. Evil villains don’t keep their word. That’s why they’re evil.

There’s something else that Hurin knows that lifts his head a little higher, gives him a bearing of victory (really, you have to admire him). He knows that even while Morgoth is evil, men still have free will. He tells Morgoth:

“You speak in vain. For you cannot see them, nor govern them from afar…”

It is easy to forget this line when you proceed to read of what befalls Turin and Nienor. Over and over again, we are struck by the miserable events that plague these characters’ lives. It seems bad luck is destined to follow them all the days of their lives. Others stand back at arm’s length to distance themselves from this curse that seems to hang about them. For even though they are both good-hearted people and Turin is a hero in his own right, calamity seems to be their middle name.

Times were hard for all peoples living in such a land. What makes Turin and Nienor any different? Was it the curse of Morgoth? Or could it be that Turin just never listens to wise counsel? It is true he grew up without the influence of his father Hurin, but he had the mentorship of wise men such as Sador, King Thingol, and Beleg. Despite this, Turin shows a sort of arrogance in repeatedly refusing to listen to their advice. Thingol advises him as a teenager to wait until he is older to fight the Orcs, but Turin won’t listen. Perhaps if he had stayed longer he may have learned wisdom along with his sword skills. Mablung tells him to wait for Thingol’s judgment, but Turin runs instead. Beleg counsels Turin to return to a place he’ll be safe, but Turin is convinced his way is best; as a result a friend is killed. Gwindor explains his reasons for withdrawing from fighting, but Turin insists on his plans; as a result, a whole elvish city is decimated. And when a dragon attacks peaceful woodfolk, Turin usurps the authority of their leader to lead the charge. He never seems to learn from his mistakes.

But it isn’t just Turin who exhibits this trait. His sister Nienor shows that she is just as insensitive to others’ advice. She won’t stay in Doriath as her mother cautions; as a result, she ends up in a tragic accident. And she decides to rush into marriage when others around her are uneasy about it; therefore she marries someone she knows nothing about and is later horrified when she learns the truth.

Morwen did not gainsay him, for in Hurin's company the hopeful did ever seem the more likely. But there was knowledge of Elven lore in her kindred also, and to herself she said, Let’s look a little further… I believe Turin and Nienor learn their reckless behavior from the model of their mother, Morwen. Though a courageous woman, she doesn’t pay heed to wisdom, either. Hurin tells her she must not wait to move their family to safety if he doesn’t return. And what does she do? Stall around until it is almost too late to send Turin to Doriath, and for years refuses to come herself or send her daughter to safety as well. All because she is too proud to ask for help!   Eventually they do come to the safety of the elf kingdom, but not until Turin has already left. The advice of the elves is to stay where it is safe, but Morwen won’t listen and as a result puts herself and others in grave danger.

Of course there are terrible consequences to all of these characters’ decisions. Turin was able to accomplish many good deeds, but his reckless choices only result in many numerous innocents’ lives.

I don’t believe this is because of a curse. True, Turin and his family may have had harder choices than most (perhaps this is because of Morgoth’s ill-meaning interest in Hurin’s family). But their lives could have turned out much differently if they had heeded wise counsel to begin with. When the young boy Turin goes to the kingdom of Doriath, his mentor Beleg tells him,

“For though you are yet small you have the makings of a valiant man, worthy to be a son of Hurin the Steadfast, if that were possible.”

It could have been possible. He had many opportunities. Unfortunately, he chose to be arrogantly blind to them. As one character in the book so aptly puts it: “the doom lies in yourself, not in your name.”

There was one thing I didn’t realize until I came to the end and finished reading: Hurin, as part of his torment, was enabled by Morgoth to watch all of the things his family was going through while he was held captive. At any time he could have given in out of sheer grief and given Morgoth the information he wanted. But he held steadfast to the end. What an amazing hero!

A word must be said here about the character of Brandir. I’m not quite sure what to make of him. I pitied him for the most part, in that I’m not sure how I would have fared any better in governing my people if I was lame in the face of a dragon attack. But then I think that perhaps a true leader would have been able to find a way to inspire respect for authority in spite of it. FDR led a nation through one of the worst wars in history from a wheelchair. Even though there were some circumstances out of his control (his pure motives are often misunderstood), I think Brandir basically gave up out of self-pity. He was meant to be a doctor, not a king. I respected him for his treatment of Nienor. His counsel for her to wait to marry the man she loved was not so much out of his jealousy for her but his intuition that something was not right. He patiently looks after her when she runs to the place of battle and encounters great grief.  I think he showed his true love for her even when he couldn’t have the one he most desired.

I enjoyed this book because it got my cognitive wheels turning. Don’t read this if you are looking for a happy ending. I’m not giving anything away by saying that because the titles of the chapters will do that for you, and if you’ve read the Silmarillion, you probably knew this anyway.

*There is a wonderful audiobook version read by Christopher Lee if you’re interested in the hearing it instead of reading it.

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Posted by on March 22, 2015 in Book Reviews


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