J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin is a tragedy and not just because I had to read it. The posthumous novel unfolds in Middle-earth six or seven thousand years B.F. (Before Frodo), and concerns Túrin, an exile wandering among outlaws because his family has been cursed by the dark lord Morgoth. Túrin's anguished mother has no idea what has befallen him. His sister's destiny is on a collision course with his own. And before long, he gets swept up in Morgoth's genocidal war against the Elves. Only his wits, his decency, and his faithful sword Gurthang called Anglachel before it was reforged at Nargothrond stand between him and the dark lord's wiliest dragon, Glaurung. Nothing at all stands between him and his Shakespearean fate. To reveal any more would be...boring.
Look, I love Tolkien as much as the next guy who got pissed when he couldn't be Dungeon Master in high school. (Okay, college.) And I reject the notion that his work is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. It's possible to be stunned by the expansiveness of The Lord of the Rings' vision without it, there would be no Star Wars or Harry Potter, end of story but still groan over its swampy, unedited prose. It's possible to remember The Hobbit as a singular event from childhood, but still suspect that The Silmarillion is just a migraine waiting to happen. Tolkien died in 1973, sailing away to the Grey Havens at age 81. His son Christopher has been holed up in the south of France ever since, contending with thousands of pages of Dad's stops and starts. Sad to say, but Christopher, now 82, will either finish cobbling together the whole, wide history of Middle-earth, or literally die trying.
Tolkien began writing The Children of Húrin in his early 20s, then tried and failed to finish it decades later. (Obsessives may remember the characters from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales.) The author's signature themes are in place: bravery, loyalty, men who keep changing the name of their swords. But writ far larger are Tolkien's foibles. While editing fragments together, Christopher declined to insert any connective or explanatory prose of his own a noble gesture that comes at a cost. At its worst, Húrin is an impenetrable forest of names, lacking in subtlety and delight, overstuffed with strangled syntax: '''Alas!' he cried. 'Too well did I teach this child of Men craft in wood and field! An Elvish band almost one might think this to be!''' (Who invited Yoda?) Húrin is so awkward and immature a piece of writing that you ultimately feel a pang of compassion not for Túrin, who proves to be an impetuous jerk, but for Tolkien himself. This is hardly the return of a king. D