Before I talk about The Children of Hurin, I wanted to say a few words about reviews in general, because I would like to do a lot of review posts on this blog, and I even hope that this will help focus my reading. Reviewing books, I realize, is a specialized skill and not everyone who reads a book and has an opinion is qualified to be a reviewer (contra Amazon.com). That is quite alright with me, and I do not aspire to be a real reviewer. The “reviews” on this blog will be personal in nature, so it’s not like – if you were interested in possibly reading a book and were googling around for reviews – you could read the review in the New York Times, read the review in the Washington Post, and read the “review” here and they would be at all comparable.
Thinking about this made me think back to the seeming multitudes of “book reports” I had to produce in school. If anyone wants a good reason why so few adults in this country like to read, I would urge them to start there. First, because simply summarizing what happens in a book is boring and seems to be geared only to proving that you did indeed read the book. Second, because of the artistic accoutrements always expected alongside book reports. I can recall some awful experiences trying to assemble shoebox diaramas and drawing covers on pieces of construction paper. How this is supposed to develop anyone’s love for literature (or even prove they read the frigging book) is beyond me.
My sixth grade teachers all loved construction paper. The more construction paper, the better. It was all about aesthetics that year. My cutting, pasting, and drawing skills were pretty bad. I was notoriously sloppy. What I lacked in style I tried to make up for with substance, but the teachers really weren’t feeling substance that particular year. My sixth grade teacher, who to this day I believe was actively engaged in trying to destroy my already-battered psyche, left as her only comment on a paper I labored mightily on with paste and colored markers and construction paper: “Would have been great if you’d typed it.” This, I may remind you, was in 1986, when typing actually meant typing. On a typewriter. And I was 11.
That same year my reading teacher had us do something on the order of 10,000 book reports – each a few pages of looseleaf with a plot summary sandwiched inside a piece of construction paper with the title written in some fancy letters and a picture of some sort. My dad was extremely fond of micromanaging every aspect of these assignments, which didn’t mean he did them for me or was even helpful – but these assignments had to be done to his satisfaction before I could hand them on. And they couldn’t be done “at the last minute”, which generally meant the last few days before they were due (yes, I know, and I’ve worked in both the government and academic science now – real life skills made subservient to blind obedience is a recurring theme from my childhood). What the fear of waiting until “the last minute” was I still don’t know, but even if I was perfectly able to get the work done on time, I might still be in trouble for waiting until “the last minute” (and yes, contrary to all rationality, this did happen).
My sixth grade reading teacher, who was a fairly easy-going guy and certainly not out to destroy my already-battered psyche, would routinely give me an A or maybe an A- and would always write “Nice cover!” on my covers. However, on one of these book reports, the grade must have been somewhat lower (though it could not have been below a B because those things just didn’t happen). My dad was incensed. He was especially incensed because the teacher had not written “Nice cover!”. He mentioned this about 100 times that night. I had to go back in the next day and talk to the teacher so that I could “fix this problem” (because it’s clearly one step from getting a single B on one of 10,000 sixth grade book reports to a life of ruin, despair, and crime) and I had to ask why he had not written “Nice cover!” on my cover. (Throughout my childhood, I was always being forced to have ridiculous conversations like this, which is part of why – despite being a good student – many of my teachers loathed me.) So I did – as with virtually everything else at that point, I didn’t really have a choice.
I don’t remember why he said he gave me the B or B+ or whatever it was. But I do remember what this guy, who seemed puzzled by the line of inquiry (I wonder if he had the first clue what I had to go home to), said in answer to my question about the cover: “I only write ‘Nice cover!’ if I think it’s a nice cover.” I think there was a lesson there, but for my dad rather than for me.
This digression actually functions as a fairly good segue into my discussion of The Children of Hurin, because you’ll understand why, as a kid and a teenager, I was a huge fan of escapism of all sorts. Fantasy books were some of the best. And Tolkien is the undisputed great granddaddy of contemporary fantasy.
My girlfriend and I sometimes argue about Tolkien because she was never able to read more than a few pages of The Lord of the Rings and insists that it is boring. She didn’t even like the movies (I, to my surprise because I thought there’s no way a movie could do justice to those books, loved them). I accept our differences, and I further admit that characterization (most especially female characterization) was never Tolkien’s strength. But I’ve got a soft spot for Tolkien, and let me tell you another story, this one more recent, to illustrate why.
When I started my current job about 15 months ago, one of the summer interns was packing up her cubicle at the end of her internship and offered me a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which I accepted. A little later my supervisor (who is a smart and insightful guy) came over, saw it on my desk, and asked me if I’d read it. I told him not yet. He appraised me for a moment and then said, “It’s probably about ten years too late for you.”
Unlike Kerouac, Tolkien came around just the right time for me. And who is going to argue that Tolkien is not the ultimate in escapism?
But that’s not all. I grew up in the inner suburbs of Long Island, folks, and I hated it. Is there any place you can conceive of – fictional or otherwise – that is more different from Long Island than Middle Earth? To my just barely-teenaged reckoning, Long Island had no mystery, and Middle Earth was full of it. Long Island had no nature, and nature ruled Middle Earth. Long Island had no solitude and isolation, both of which were available in abundance in Middle Earth. Long Island had no topography, and Middle Earth was full of hills and mountains. Worst of all, Long Island seemed to have no history (or whatever history it had was thoroughly buried under subdivisions and strip malls and was never taught to us in school, where we were far too busy with our hot glue guns and our construction paper). Middle Earth has a deep and detailed history, and that perhaps more than anything else is what drew me in. The fiction I started writing about this time was incredibly strongly influenced by Tolkien and Middle Earth, and usually involved characters very much like myself and my peers transported to a Middle Earth-like place, freed from parental and other authorities, left to our own devices. I was sure most of my peers (most of whom I also hated) would wither and die under such circumstances, while I would thrive, and my writing was focused on this theme. Escapism indeed.
All of Tolkien’s work that I’ve read (including The Children of Hurin) is suffused with what I’ve come to think of as “Tolkien-time”. Sort of intermediate between human time and geologic time – I’d say it’s time as perceived by elves and other greater beings with very long lifespans, except so many of those are immortal and would eventually dwarf even geologic time. Maybe it is more the way a tree or a forest would perceive time than the way humans do. (Though, as I understand Tolkien’s chronology, Middle Earth’s entire history is something less than 10,000 years – approximately comparable to the length of the Holocene – making it closer to Biblical chronology than to even the whole of the history of Homo sapiens, which is nearly 200,000 years. Middle Earth is unquestionably a creationist paradise, where mortal beings interact with the gods who created the world. As a brief aside, one of the great revelations for me in college, which helped greatly reduce my love for escapism of this sort, was that the real Earth had a history much longer and richer than even the one Tolkien imagined for Middle Earth.)
It always made me wonder, as we learn of Morgoth or Sauron building up their power over decades to hundreds of years, what this actually meant on a day-to-day basis. Even with The Lord of the Rings, one wonders just what Gandalf was doing for those thousands of years he wandered Middle Earth: how could Sauron’s gaining power have been a surprise? How could he not have immediately realized what Ring Bilbo had found sixty years (!!!) before the main action in Lord of the Rings? (By contrast to the “Grey Pilgrim”, Saruman’s approach of making a home and developing intelligence networks actually seems more reasonable, until you consider that it caused him to flip). But I suspend my disbelief and just enjoy “Tolkien-time” and the odd perspectives it provides.
Salon reviewed The Children of Hurin and said it was aimed at “mid-level Tolkien fans”. That category would include me: I enjoy Tolkien, but I’m no Tolkien-scholar. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings several times, and enjoyed the movies. I struggled with The Silmarillion and could not deal at all with Unfinished Tales, which was about as much fun as reading a Bible filled with unfamiliar names and places (I tried reading The Book of Mormon once, and encountered the same thing). I remember being quite disappointed (partly with myself) at my lack of success, but I just moved on to Stephen R. Donaldson or whatever the heck else I was reading at that time.
The Children of Hurin is intermediate. It is a narrative, but not really a novel (more like a myth, insomuch as I even really know what I’m talking about there, which I pretty much don’t, but it contains lots of mythical elements). It is easy to follow the dialogue and the action most of the time, though there are still too many places where it lapses into Tolkien-speak, utterly confusing any reader not totally steeped in Middle Earth names and places. All of a sudden you will read something like (I’m making this up, but it’s representative):
“And thus the bane of Numenor rose from the depths of Drawderhold, wielding the flame of Ainur as did the Mayar of Old, rising from the ruins of Hungerdin in the Land of Jusgwenif back when Manyert the Mighty ruled from the great citadel of Pokinfelt before the coming of the Hordes of Gothmorgog and the purging of the Ratskelmab.”
If anyone can explain this to me, I’d love to hear it. But I’m not going to take an hour to figure out sentences like this, which (thankfully) are usually peripheral to the main thrust of the action. (The Children of Hurin includes maps and a glossary, but even reference to them is not always sufficient for full understanding and context.)
The Children of Hurin is about a curse, and there is a feeling of dread right from the beginning. All of the dialogue is suffused with ominous premonition. Unlike The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, there is no happy ending. Also unlike those other works, the main character is a mighty warrior and son of a lord among men, not a child-like underdog. One gets to know who the characters are, but we really do not get to know them – a certain distance is always kept. We understand their motivations, but not always why they choose particular courses of action. They are cursed, and are playing out the curse, and that involves making bad decisions.
Does he have free will, or does Turin’s will differ from what it would be without a curse? Is he doomed no matter what he chooses because circumstances will help fulfill the curse? Or is it his own choices that doom him? We don’t know how Morgoth’s curse works, but it does work (though at some cost to him – just about anyone else would be sorry to lose one of their top lieutenants: a big fierce vicious dragon who has terrorized men and elves for generations).
With all the time and distance separating us from this story, it still manages to be quite evocative in places, as when Turin’s sister Nienor comes face-to-face with the dragon Glaurung. The whole story seems to take place in deep fall woods, and it’s easy to envision the ancient trees, the black rocks poking up from the ground, gray skies, the damp moss, the muted orange leaf cover.
The Children of Hurin was compiled by Tolkien’s son Christopher (himself 83 years old now) from his father’s manuscripts and notes. It’s easy to envision his large but cozy study, crammed with handdrawn maps, notebooks, manuscripts, and genealogies written in the different languages Tolkien devised. I don’t know if the reality is anywhere near so romantic, and assembling this narrative was evidently a long and laborious process. Tolkien was primarily interested in establishing a mythology for Middle Earth, not writing narratives. But each of the stories in The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales could theoretically be fleshed into a narrative at least as readable as The Children of Hurin, and I’m amazed – given the glacial rate of progress and the uncertainty even that progress will be made – that rabid Tolkien fans out there haven’t already done this themselves. The Children of Hurin is but one of these narratives…it is not clear to me whether there is enough source material to do this with any of the others or whether it really would be up to fans to do this. (I’m not advocating it be done, though if it were done well, it would be a lot of fun – think of those movies, which by all rights should have been atrocious but were actually fantastic because they were done by people who cared.)
Reading The Children of Hurin again spurred my interest in Middle Earth, made me pick up my old copy The Silmarillion and leaf through. Maybe I will give it another go.
But maybe not. The years have passed, and I have changed. I haven’t read fantasy novels in a decade or more. I’ve come to appreciate the history and mystery of our Earth. I don’t know that I need Tolkien the way I did when I was younger, and if the story is inaccessible, it may not be worth the effort.
But if another Tolkien narrative comes together some time down the road, as long as I can still pick up a book I will read it, and no doubt lose myself in memories of a place that – no matter how different from my day-to-day life – nourished me when I was younger, and still seems oddly like home.