Like any other Tolkien nerd I’ve been tracking the worldwide release of The Children of Húrin, one of his oldest stories – J R R began writing it as a young man, during the First World War, and now it’s been published as a complete narrative for the first time, more than 30 years after his death. This is the latest in a series of projects by Tolkien’s son Christopher (an octogenarian himself), who’s been collating, editing and publishing versions of his father’s unfinished manuscripts for decades.
To understand why so much of Tolkien’s work has been published posthumously, one needs to understand his tortuous writing career, which spanned over 60 years, and to realise that the stories told in the 1,200-odd pages of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were mere fragments of a much larger picture: a collection of myths and folktales that described the creation and long history (over many Ages and thousands of years) of an invented universe.
Anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings will know that much of that book’s charm comes from the many nebulous glimpses of a distant back-story: frequently, characters stop to tell each other about lore from the past, recite songs and seek inspiration in the lives of heroes from a much earlier time. In fact, Tolkien had already written detailed versions of many of these back-stories long before he wrote either LOTR or The Hobbit. He began working on these tales in the army barracks of WWI, and he worked on them throughout his life – continually revising them, often preparing alternate versions of each tale, changing the names of characters and dates, but never completing them to his satisfaction. After his death Christopher collected the hundreds of pages of manuscripts that his father had left behind, ironed out the inconsistencies, and published a series of books including (most famously) The Silmarillion and the 12-part The History of Middle-earth. The Children of Húrin is the full version of one of the many stories included in those works.
Set during the First Age of the Sun, roughly 6,500 years before the events told in The Lord of the Rings, this is an account of the struggles of the Eldar (a race of Elves), the Edain (a race of Men) and others against the tyranny of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord. (Morgoth, originally known as Melkor, was the Satan figure in Tolkien’s invented universe, a fallen God and a much bigger bad-ass than Sauron, the villain of LOTR.) The protagonist of The Children of Húrin is the anti-hero Turin Turambar, a conflicted young man whose internal nature combines tragically with his circumstances; he’s one of Tolkien’s most abiding creations, and his story is as compelling as many of the mythologies it was inspired by (such as the Norse and Finnish myths).
The Children of Húrin isn’t a previously unpublished work. I’ve read most of it before – the bulk of it can be found in the “Narn I Hin Húrin” section of Unfinished Tales, published in 1980. This new version has an extra chapter or two and slightly more risqué language (at one point, Turin “sets the point of his sword in [an enemy’s] buttock” while pursuing him; this wasn’t in the earlier version), as well as new illustrations by Alan Lee. Also, the version in Unfinished Tales was interspersed with editorial commentary and footnotes, while the form it takes here is of an uninterrupted narrative.
Inevitably, there’s going to be some scepticism about the timing of this release. With the new Harry Potter just a couple of months away, it’s difficult not to see this as a marketing strategy – remember that the film version of The Lord of the Rings brought Tolkien’s works to a new, younger market that might be eager for more of the same. However, readers who are only casually interested in Tolkien are unlikely to develop a taste for this book. Also, before you pick it up and toss it to your younglings, a word of caution: small children will struggle with the language, which is in the dense, archaic style one associates with myths. (Personally, I enjoy the repeated use of such words as “verily” and “smite”!) There are many character and place names, which can be confusing. And some of the content is adult: there’s a subplot featuring incest, with shades of the Oedipus myth and the Kullervo story from Finnish mythology. That said, it’s definitely not “X-rated”, as an article in the Sunday Times suggested.
P.S. For the patient reader The Children of Húrin can work on its own terms as a high tragedy, full of interesting characters and twists of fate, but it’s much more satisfying and contextual if you’re already familiar with – or willing to become familiar with – Tolkien’s mythologies. Suggested supplementary reading: The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, Vol 2. Also see The Encyclopaedia of Arda, an exhaustive and ever-growing online resource on Tolkien’s world.