Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: "Children of Hurin" by J.R.R. Tolkien

As a sophomore in high school, I was assigned to read The Hobbit by my English teacher. I've been thanking him ever since. A year later, I picked up a huge single-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and read it, as I recall, in about a month. Loved them all.  So when the movies adaptations started rolling out in 2001, I was overjoyed, and had in fact been following their development as much as two years before their release. One of my fondest movie nerd memories came in 2003, with the release of LOTR: The Return of the King in theaters. With a pack of friends, we attended "Trilogy Tuesday" at a theater in greater Des Moines that was showing all three movies in succession. We spent nearly 12 hours in a movie theater packed with fellow nerds. It smelled funny.

Last month, my wife went on a ladies-only trip to NYC, so my daughter and I set about watching a movie-a-night from the LOTR trilogy. With that enjoyable experience fresh in my mind, I picked up from the library the latest book to be published from the Middle-Earth universe, The Children of Hurin, of course by J.R.R. Tolkien, but also extensively edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien.  There was some hesitation on my part going into reading it, as I had unsuccessfully attempted to read The Silmarillion in high school after completing the LOTR trilogy. Happily, this book captured me in much the same way that The Hobbit and LOTR had before.

The Children of Hurin takes place in Middle-Earth, but in the "First Age" or the "Elder Days," thousands of years before the events found in the most popular storyline.  The protagonist of the book is Turin, the son of a king (Hurin). Threatened by darkening days in his childhood, Turin is sent away and raised by Elves and becomes nearly indistinguishable from them in appearance and ability. Cursed by the Dark Lord, Morgoth (predecessor to Sauron from LOTR), Turin is haunted all his days, despite the great success and valor he attains.

This story is much more of a straight-forward narrative than is LOTR, but is still set within, and instrumental to the massive world that Tolkien dreamed up in Middle-Earth. Despite Tolkien himself never being much of a fan of allegory, his readers have often touted the allegorical merits of LOTR. This nature of this story offers much less in the way of allegorical connections, which is perhaps to the author's intent. This book is also not a "happy ending" book, as are The Hobbit and LOTR. So readers who can't live without happy endings shouldn't take this one up. But it has elves, swords with names, dragons, and quests, so what more could a fantasy-fiction reader want?

The book read quickly, and I was actually surprised when I got to the end that it was finished, wanting more. What added to my delight in this book are the appendices at the end, which is common to Tolkien's stories. In the first appendix, Tolkien's son, Christopher, explains the historical context of the development of this story, which started and stopped over much of his father's life. Hearing the story behind the stories of Middle-Earth was enjoyable. Family genealogies and a glossary were also provided, all of which I read. Oh, and to my nerdly delight, there was a fold-out map of the area in which the story take place, designed so that you can unfold it while reading the book and refer to it as you read along! (You need it, if you want to keep your bearings.)

From cover to cover, I soaked this book up like a sponge. It gave me my first narrative taste of the First Age of Middle-Earth, offering me a deeper sense of the history and trajectory of the world. The moments in the book which registered some connection to future events that I was already familiar with were exciting. It also deepened my appreciation for the genius of J.R.R. Tolkien in the creation of this massive world with its long history and intricately-woven narratives of the Children of Iluvatar, the Elves and Men.

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