Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Review - The Children of Húrin

Fantasy as a genre – in literature, film, and video games – owes its modern existence and development to J. R. R. Tolkien. Whenever a dwarf resides in his mountain halls, there’s Tolkien. Whenever a hero battles to claim his rightful crown, there’s Tolkien. Whenever a dragon flies overhead, there’s Tolkien. And whenever the sun rises on a majestic world where good and evil are clear-cut, there’s Tolkien.

Tolkien once wrote that “Those who enjoy the book [The Lord of the Rings] as a “heroic romance” only, and find “unexplained vistas” part of the literary effect, will neglect the Appendices, very properly.” Like much of Tolkien’s posthumously published legendarium, ‘The Children of Húrin’ seems to be only for those who really want to know the backstory and mythology of Middle-earth.

It’s a classic grand sweeping epic in the vein of Norse mythology or Wagner’s Ring Cycle. As such the story moves through events quickly not lingering on characters or describing the backdrops. There is a story here and it could even be a powerful one but as presented there’s nothing more in the novel than the bare bones of the story. When editing, Christopher Tolkien probably didn’t want to deviate far from his father’s notes. This bare bones approach to story-telling comes across as exceedingly clinical: there isn’t the heart or the humour of Tolkien’s masterpiece. Characters come and go and seem very generic.

Since it is one component in a body of mythology, the text is particularly dense. The reader is bombarded with names from the start and it can be hard to find one’s bearings. It doesn’t help that the main character, Túrin, declares a grand name-change every damn time he joins up with another group. The names are relentless which can make the story seem like an excuse to ladle out heaping spoonfuls of fictional genealogy, geography, and history. Some backstory and world-building is great but not at the expense of narrative: that’s what appendices are for.

Special mention must go to Alan Lee’s fantastic illustrations and we can only hope that, like with the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, he’s somehow involved in art direction on ‘The Hobbit’.

I hate to criticise Tolkien so instead I’ll criticise his son. ‘The Children of Húrin’ as a fully-fledged novel feels superfluous. Yes, it’s one of the three Great Tales of the First Age but it has been published before in a very similar form in ‘Unfinished Tales’. I personally can’t see that a great deal has been added or improved upon.

The real tragedy is not the story of Túrin and Niënor: it’s that Tolkien’s legacy will always be ‘The Lord of the Rings’ rather than, as I get the impression he would have preferred, the legends surrounding ‘The Silmarillion’ and his elaborate history and languages of his fictional universe. As for me, I discovered that I’m in the fantasy game for the “heroic romance only”.

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