(Published in the Business Standard, April 23, 2007)
Legions of diehard Tolkien fans may feed me to a balrog for saying this. But the chief emotion The Children of Hurin evokes in me is relief that this is the last of the offerings we’re likely to get from the overflowing tray of Tolkien out-takes.
The first draft of The Children of Hurin was written almost exactly 99 years ago. Versions of the story of Hurin and his children, Turin and Nienor, appear in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. It took JRR Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien over thirty years to piece together a complete version of this tale from the mass of Middle Earth material his father created over the decades. Any fan of Middle Earth should be out there cheering at the thought that, 34 years after Tolkien’s death, his last work should finally be available.
The problem is not, as some Tolkien fanatics have erroneously suggested, that The Children of Hurin owes too much to Christopher Tolkien’s hand and too little to JRR’s imagination.
The rest of us embraced Middle Earth, its orcs and its sniveling evil warlords in their towers, the songs of the elves and the myths of the ents, at various stages of our lives. Christopher Tolkien grew up in Middle Earth; listening at the Eagle and Child pub as his father told parts of The Lord of the Rings to C S Lewis, insisting that his father had forgotten that Bilbo had a blue, not a green waistcoat in the first draft of The Hobbit. He spent a great part of his life taking care of his father’s legacy. The unkind said he was an accomplished raider of JRR Tolkien’s wastebaskets; the kind saw him as a loyal and loving caretaker.
Christopher Tolkien’s proprietorial concern for his father’s work occasionally drew him into misunderstandings. In one memorable encounter with a blogger who wrote a rude post about him, Tolkien’s lawyer found it necessary to correct several misconceptions. Christopher Tolkien, his lawyer clarified, did not control rights in The Hobbit, did not disown his own son Simon, was neither a lunatic nor “out of control” and did not employ a wild boar to guard his house.
The Children of Hurin is not Christopher Tolkien’s work, however; the most he has done is to add small “bridging” scenes. This means that diehard Tolkien fans, and I’m referring not to amateur Hobbit-enthusiasts, but the ones who’ve slogged through every volume in the Middle Earth encyclopaedia, must accept that it was JRR who was responsible for the uninspiring first paragraph of Children of Hurin:
“Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-beloved by the Eldar. He dwelt while his days lasted under the lordship of Fingolfin, who gave to him wide lands in that region of Hithlum which was called Dor-lomin. His daughter Gloredhel wedded Haldir son of Halmir, lord of the Men of Brethil; and at the same feast his son Galdor the Tall wedded Hareth, the daughter of Halmir.”
Once I’d woken up from the pleasant slumber into which this paragraph had inexorably led me, I did try to give The Children of Hurin a chance. It speaks of a much younger Middle Earth than we see in The Lord of the Rings, and that was mildly interesting. Morgoth, Turin’s insidious enemy, seemed familiar, definitely a precursor to the evil but faintly risible wizards who would emerge later in Tolkien’s world. But Turin’s doom seemed like a pale echo of Boromir’s sad end in The Lord of the Rings–a hero brought down by destiny and character in equal measure.
Too much of Children of Hurin sounds like a dress rehearsal for Tolkien’s later and more famous works. This is not the fault of either Tolkien pere or fils; JRR Tolkien’s universe stays real to us in great measure because of the painstaking care with which he built it up. He created languages for Middle Earth, and poetry in the ancient tongues; he drew up sagas for men, dwarves and elves alike, and created histories so rich that years later, Christopher Tolkien would draw his maps of Middle Earth effortlessly.
The Children of Hurin represents a necessary stage in that evolution, and will no doubt gladden the hearts of those Tolkien fans who speak in Elvish easier than in English. It is a passable addition to the already bulging Tolkien oeuvre, and if it doesn’t offer an embarrassment of riches, it is at least not an embarrassment.
But for philistine readers like me, who couldn’t care less if it was Bilbur the Unworthy who wed Gallimaufry the Luminous or Balbo the Unsteady who wed Gallowglass the Limber, to think of this as the last of Tolkien’s work is a disappointment. I want my hobbits back, please.