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Archive for May 18th, 2007

The first of Tolkien’s unfinished works to be published since Peter Jackson released his operatic version of The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Húrin has actually made several bestseller lists. I suspect that it will be a book like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Tiime that people buy and don’t read. At the most, they may only open it to admire Alan Lee’s moody full-color illustrations — which, incidentally, have always struck me as inspired by Tolkien’s own amateurish watercolors, although rendered by an infinitely more talented artist. But, for whatever reason, people like me or the members of the Mythopoeic Society find ourselves once again in the embarrassingly unfamiliar position of having our tastes become popular. However, if the critics are any indication, it won’t last long, because most people are simply unequipped to appreciate Tolkien’s unpublished papers.

To start with, let’s dispense with the idea that the book was published to cash in on the success of the movie. The Tolkien family has already made a good thing from their ancestor’s literary works, and works like The Children of Húrin aren’t going to substantially improve the royalties.

Even more importantly, Christopher Tolkien, who edited the book, stitching different pieces together to make a coherrent whole, has been printing his father’s unpublished works for several decades, so it’s not as though he suddenly decided to cash in. Probably he can’t be completely unaware of the commercial probabilities, but in such a sustained effort over so many years, scholarship and love have to play a large role, too. To harp, as the Globe and Mail did, about the movie that could be made from the book overlooks the more basic point that this may be the last piece of his father’s works that Christopher Tolkien publishes, since he is now in his eighties. Christopher Tolkien may have wanted that last piece to win a large audience so that it becomes the crown of his editorial efforts, but probably we can exonerate him from any motives more mercenary than that.

For another thing, Tolkien’s prose model is evidently the Norse sagas, with which the average critic or reader today is unfamiliar unless they happened to grow up in Iceland and learned to read from them. This is a highly readable tradition, but it is not the modern European or North American novel tradition. In the saga tradition, speech is not naturalistic, and motives and characters are stated plainly, not revealed in action or through indirection. And, like most sagas, The Children of Húrin is about the concerns and feuds of a family. That’s why it starts with detailed explanations of who is related to whom, and ends with a family scene. What seems tedious to a modern sensibility is a necessary part of the saga form.

As well as the sagas, Tolkien is also drawing on Norse traditions of the dragon slayer, like Beowulf or Sigmund, the hero of Wagner’s Ring cycle. It is a part of this tradition that the dragon slayer himself must die, often, as here, for a wrong that he has done unknowingly. What drives the plot is not sudden twists, but a sense of fate unfolding inevitably. Here, fate is nudged more than a little by the curse of Morgoth, Sauron’s tougher former boss, but the effect is much the same as though less concrete forces are at work. The main characters struggle with their fate and in the end fall prey to it, but in their struggles they become figures of heroic grandeur. It is an existential, Germanic sense of fate at play in The Children of Húrin, and someone who only knows tragedy from the Greek version of the word is unlikely to appreciate it.

Another major misunderstanding that you encounter among critics is that The Children of Húrin is written in an archaic style. It is true that the tone of Tolkien’s work, like that of the King James Bible, has a balanced and dignified cadence, but aside from a few archaicisms such as “save” for “except for,” Tolkien is actually one of the twentieth century’s great masters of simple prose.

Should you have any doubts on the matter, read this passage (chosen at random) aloud. Húrin and his brother have just returned to their father Galdor on the backs of giant Eagles after being lost and rescued by the elves of a hidden kingdom. To keep the kingdom secret, they have promised not to reveal how they have survived so long:

Their kinfolk rejoiced to see them, for messengers from Brethil had reported they were lost; but they would not tell even to their father where they had been, save that they were rescued in the wilderness by the Eagles that brought them home. But Galdor said, “Did you then dwell a year in the wild? Or did the Eagles house you in their eyries? But you found food and raiment, and return as young princes, not as waifs of the wood.” “Be content, father, said Húrin, “that we have returned; for only under an oath of silence was this permitted. That oath is still on us.” Then Galdor questioned them no more, but he and many others guessed at the truth.

The simplicity of the language is probably due to the inspiration of the sagas, as well as Tolkien’s preference for Old English words over ones derived from French or Latin. But the overall effect is one of dignified restraint between men who share a strong sense of honor and are somewhat constrained at expressing emotion to each other. Such passages are, quite simply, beautiful, and anyone who alleges archaicisms and fails to mention the power of the language prove themselves the owners of tin ears, at least when they are reading silently.

If you don’t know the tradition that Tolkien is working in, whether you like The Children of Húrin can be predicted by what you thought of the appendices in the The Lord of the Rings. If you thought the story of Beren and Lúthien romantic, or the image of the last kings of Gondor brooding childless in their towers evocative, then chances are The Children of Húrin will be just as moving to you. But if you found the appendices a bore and skipped through them, do yourself a favor and avoid this new book. You’ll also be doing any Tolkien readers a favor by not prodding at it with your clumsy and unknowing fingers.

But for people like me, who devoured the first book of The Lord of the Rings one summer Saturday in Grade Six and spent a frantic Sunday waiting for the store to be open on Monday so I could get the next book, The Children of Húrin is a welcome return to a familiar place — especially since, to paraphrase Bilbo Baggins (that inestimable old hobbit) it may very well be the last drop of the old Smaug vintage.

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