on 24 August 2008
This is a tale of unrelenting tragedy. Drawn from the history of the First Age of Middle-earth, it tells of how Morgoth, the original Dark Lord to whom Sauron was but a lieutenant, wreaked appalling vengeance upon the family of the man Hurin, chiefly for his refusal to betray a great hidden city of the elves who were his allies. Readers acquainted with the story from a more summary version published three decades earlier in THE SILMARILLION will have some idea what to expect. They will also understand the part these events ultimately did play in the fall of virtually every elven kingdom in the vast land of Beleriand before it sank beneath the sea, still millennia prior to the events recounted in THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
This new telling, however, differs from the former in at least two respects. First and most obvious, it greatly develops the details so that we come to know the doomed players more intimately, better appreciating both their flaws and their virtues, and thus feeling the tragedy more personally when it manifests itself in turn after turn of their lives.
Second and perhaps more subtle is what this version leaves out. THE SILMARILLION continued the story further, revealing later events which, while not negating these present disasters, at least mitigated them somewhat, suggesting that evil's triumph was indeed only for a season. (There were also poignant touches, such as the extraordinary future of a certain gravesite, which lent a melancholy beauty to the sorrow.) Here, however, Christopher Tolkien, the author's son and editor, chooses to end the tale at a point which before had occurred in mid-paragraph. When I first glanced through HURIN and then reacquainted myself with the earlier publication, I seriously questioned this decision.
It has been said that part of Shakespeare's genius in writing his own tragedies was his choice to abstain from moralization. Rarely did the Bard attempt to explain a character's fate in terms of what he or she ought to have done, or of some divine wisdom which, if glimpsed, might explain or even vindicate the suffering. Shakespeare simply showed tragedy with all the seemingly pointless capriciousness of real life, and left it to his audience to speculate further.
Tolkien was not Shakespeare, however. While even THE HOBBIT and LOTR are haunted by melancholy and a sense of loss, Tolkien believed in a transcendent Sovereignty and argued eloquently for some element in such tales which, however faintly, foreshadowed a distant 'Eucatastrophe' (i.e., happy ending) to come, 'giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.' By cutting off the story of Hurin's family where he does, Christopher denies it that consolation.
Having said this, I must make a confession: When I had read HURIN through properly from the beginning and came again to the final two pages, I broke down and sobbed. The same juncture had had no such impact on me in THE SILMARILLION. I may prefer the elder Tolkien's tempering of tragedy with hope and question the philosophical implications of ending this story so abruptly; yet I can not deny that doing so made the bitterness of that end immeasurably more powerful. For a moment I FELT the despair of those who had endured such relentless doom, who left the world knowing nothing of some vaguely conceived consolation in the far future. While that moment lasted, for me their suffering had become very real.
If there is, as Tolkien believed, a 'Joy beyond the walls of the world', the heartbreaking fact remains that there are those who live and die and, for any number of reasons, fail utterly to apprehend it. Consolation may be, yet some are never consoled. THE CHILDREN OF HURIN is not a pleasant book, yet it captures something of the seeming futility in which so many souls have passed through the world. At the least, it reminds those who find and live in hope not to grow callous toward those who are cheated of it.