on 8 October 2012
When the Tolkien Estate announced a new Tolkien novel to be published in April, 2007, the world was shocked. After all, Tolkien died 34 years before THE CHLDREN OF HURIN was published. Reactions varied from trepidation and fear, to charges that the Estate is trying to milk the pubic for more money, to sheer excitement that, beyond all odds, we're getting another Tolkien story. We all know Hollywood is eying it greedily, though the Estate has made it quite clear that it is not interested in selling the film rights any time soon.
Naturally, an event such as a publication of a new novel by a long deceased major author is bound to excite different reactions from different quarters. Depending on where you stand in Tolkien fandom will largely define your reactions to the story.
First, just a few quick facts about the novel.
*CoH can be read independently of Tolkien's other works, due largely in part to C. Tolkien's excellent introduction, explaining the background and context in which these events occur in Tolkien's imagined cosmos. Having an overall general knowledge of Tolkien's legendarium is certainly helpful, but fortunately it is not a pre-requisite as the story is strong enough to stand independently.
*CoH is much darker than the Hobbit cycle. It is a very tragic story on a Shakespearian level, and altogether not suitable for children, featuring incest and murder as prominent plot features.
*The plot revolves around the Dark Lord Morgoth's curse on Turin and Nienor, who are the Children of Hurin, for Hurin's defiance against Morgoth. Morgoth is Tolkien's equivalent of Satan, and who Sauron is but a servant too.
*CoH is easier to read than THE SILMARILLION, though CoH still employs in places the archaic style found in that book. In style and content, it bears similarities to both LOTR and THE SILMARILLION, mingling the archaic style of the later with the more conventional novel style of the former.
*Although the novel has been "reconstructed" by Christopher Tolkien, unlike certain elements of the published SILMARILLION, there has been no editorial interpolation or invention. Other than minor grammatical errors and some brief transitional passages, the text is entirely as Tolkien conceived it.
*Approx 25% of the text has never been published before. The remaining 75% has been published in THE SILMARILLION and UNFINISHED TALES, though Christopher Tolkien notes there are several changes to the text that do not appear in UNFINISHED TALES
*Though the press has made much of the fact that Tolkien began this in 1918, almost all the text used in the book was written AFTER LOTR was written
*There is a swift narrative urgency. While THE SILMARILLION stands as a broad overview of Tolkien's mythology with hundreds of characters vying for the readers' attention, CoH keeps its focus on a well-defined cast of main characters.
There are three primary readerships that will be approaching THE CHILDREN OF HURIN. Depending on what group you belong to will largely define your reaction to the work.
The first group is that portion of Tolkien's fanbase who has read the Hobbit Cycle, and most if not all the posthumous publications regarding his legendarium (THE SILMARILLION, UNFINISHED TALES, and the HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH series). These are the hardcore Tolkien fans, who are known to debate the rather arcane finder points of the mythology and are very much into the "lore" of it all. This reviewer belongs in this group.
This group will overall be quite pleased with the work. Tolkien left much of his work unfinished, and it is nice at long last to have a completed version of one of the central legends of the First Age. Much of the actual text will not be new to them, as the much of the novel largely has already appeared in UNFINISHED TALES and THE SILMARILLION, though there are several stretches that have not been published before, or the material is handled differently than in previous publications. Naturally, the story is already well known to this group, and there are no plot surprises. I will say, however, even though I knew how the story ended, when I finished reading CoH, I was moved by the sheer pathos of the tragedy, moreso than when I read the other, compressed versions.
The second group are those who largely have read only the Hobbit Cycle, and found THE SILMARILLION and other books very dry and difficult to get through. It is for this group, and the third group, that C. Tolkien primarily did this project for. Due to the arid, remote style of THE SILMARILLION, and the diffuse, contradictory, and unfinished nature of most of HoME, as well as the heavy editorial content, much of Tolkien's mythology remains unknown to the casual reader. This book was meant to address that, and to make the legends of the First Age more accessible to the general reader. The style is a successful blend of both the Silmarillion and LOTR. For those of this group unfamiliar with the story, many will probably be surprised at how dark and altogether depressing. Undoubtedly, there will be readers who find the pathos and tragedy of Turin rather offputting, but on the same token there will be readers who find it riveting.
The third group is those who know Tolkien primarily through the Peter Jackson films. This group will probably have the most far ranging variety of reactions of the three main groups, from sheer delight at the story to utter bewilderment and confusion. Those looking for a story along the lines of the Hobbit cycle will be invariably disappointed, and this group may be the most surprised at the darkness of the story.
A fan once wrote to Tolkien, saying that he only read THE LORD OF THE RINGS during the Lent season, because the novel is so hard and bitter. For those unfamiliar with the storyline of THE CHILDREN OF HURIN, many will be surprised at how dark the "new novel" actually is. CoH is much bitterer than its famous predecessor
Overall, I think that CoH is a fine novel in its own right, and I also think that it is a perfect bridging link between his most famous work (LOTR) and, as Tom Shippey says, the work of his heart (the Silmarillion). I also feel that CoH, in terms of style, is, to put it in vulgar terms, Silmarillion light and LOTR heavy, and serves as a primer for what to expect within the Silmarillion. While CoH certainly shares several main hallmarks of the Silmarillion style, especially the beginning chapters, the book reads quite well, and bridges (successfully, in my opinion), the remote style and wide focus of the Silmarillion with the more conventional novel approach of the Hobbit cycle. CoH also has the benefit of being a product of long study of the manuscripts to produce the most accurate version to Tolkien's intentions, something that cannot, unfortunately, be said of the 1977 SILMARILLION.
Will it stand the test of time? That, only time can answer. But if I was a betting man, I think time will be very gracious to this last novel from the father of fantasy.