That Christopher Tolkien can find, after several posthumous releases of his father's work including the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth series, enough material to comprise another unreleased novel, is either a testament to J.R.R. Tolkien's endlessly fecund creativity and tireless work ethic, or his son's equally tireless efforts to keep the cash machine well-oiled and firing all five cylinders. Perhaps it's a bit of both. And were I in Christopher's shoes, I couldn't begrudge him the latter. Especially if the result is a piece of work as stirring as The Children of Húrin, a story that has already appeared in shorter form in The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales. This release, we are told, is the most comprehensive rendering yet of what the good professor considered one of the tentpole stories of his First Age mythos. It's an epic tragedy to make Hamlet sigh and thank his lucky stars he got off so easily.
Though the Biblical analogues are clear in much of what Tolkien envisioned for Middle-Earth's First Age — particularly in the figure of Melkor/Morgoth, the fallen Valar who became the world's first dark lord and forerunner of Sauron — there is no absolution here, no noble Frodo or Sam whose innate goodness and sense of loyalty and valor win the day over even the harshest adversity. Evil triumphs here in the cruelest possible way. And its cruelty is most evident in how the story's tragic hero is so easily led to his doom, through the simplest exploitation of his own hot-headedness and stubborn pride. With breathtaking illustrations by Tolkien artist du jour Alan Lee, The Children of Húrin chronicles the downfall of not just a man, but his allies, followers and family. It depicts evil as a runaway train. Once its wheels are set in motion, there's nothing to stop it until everything goes off the rails in a spectacular crash.
Events are set in motion when Húrin Goldenhead, a king of the race of humans called the Edain, is beaten and captured in battle by Morgoth. Húrin refuses to submit and openly mocks Morgoth to his face. The dark lord responds with a curse upon Húrin's household. Húrin's son, Túrin, who is nine at the time, is sent away by his mother to live with the elves in the shielded forest of Doriath. Túrin is adopted by the elven king Thingol and his queen Melian, one of the Maiar (the same race as Gandalf), while Túrin's mother, pregnant with what will be his sister, stays home.
An argument leading to an accidental death finds Túrin fleeing Doriath at the age of seventeen. With his still loyal friend Bereg in pursuit to bring him back under Thingol's forgiveness, Túrin falls in with a group of displaced Men who have formed an outlaw band. Becoming their captain, Túrin leads them on several victorious strikes against invading bands of Morgoth's orcs, who have been making incursions into Beleriand from the north. But it is at this point Túrin's fortunes take a turn for the worse. The more successful he becomes as a leader, the more Morgoth becomes aware of his presence. And worse, the cockier and more over-confident Túrin gets. When Morgoth sends his servant, the dragon Glaurung, to find and confront Túrin, the young warrior, while undeniably physically powerful and valorous, proves no match for Glaurung's manipulative wiles and magic. And even less able to resist are his mother and young sister. A quick succession of betrayals, bad decisions, pathetic mistakes, and two key cases of mistaken identity with horrible repercussions all add up to ruin.
The Children of Húrin is quite accessible given the classical literary style in which it's written. It's certainly much more accessible than The Silmarillion itself, which even Tolkien admitted read like the Old Testament and was defiantly uncommercial. After an infodumping opening chapter in which genealogies and families are dealt with in more detail than necessary, the story proper is propelled with remarkable narrative efficiency, its prose entirely suited to the tragic leitmotif. While most modern fantasy writers who try to do highfalutin English end up producing appallingly pretentious and affected work, Tolkien's writing, while not to all tastes in this day and age, was no affectation. This was a literary scholar attempting to create work in the manner of that which he'd devoted his entire life to study. The epic of Beowulf, the legends of Sir Gawain were his templates. And while Tolkien could easily spin the simple and uncluttered storytelling of The Hobbit and the opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, he is also the academic who spent six years working on The Lay of Leithian, an epic poem about the First Age running over 4000 lines in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, a style popular around the time of the Norman Conquest.
The Children of Húrin draws an impressive balance between the modern and the classical. Darker and less redemptive by light-years than The Lord of the Rings, its story is unutterably sad, but viscerally powerful in the way literature's greatest tragedies have been. And Alan Lee's peerless art — the color plate of Glaurung between pages 224-25 is beyond Hugo-worthy — enhances the story's sense of consequence. Perhaps a book better read by those already a little deeper into Tolkien than casual fans who picked up the trilogy in the wake of the movies, The Children of Húrin is an impassioned exercise in mythmaking, a story that cuts to the darkness within its hero, to find a frightened child.