Monday, April 23, 2007

The Children of Húrin 

People are starting to ask me about The Children of Húrin, the new Tolkien yarn which was released. For anyone who doesn't know, this is an old yarn, which Tolkien began writing before 1920. He never completed it, and our knowledge of the story comes from references in The Lord of the Rings and the cut-down versions produced by his son Christopher for The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. Other materials related to the story were published by Christopher Tolkien in The War of the Jewels and The Lays of Beleriand, vol. 3, which contains a remarkable version in alliterative verse. The Children of Húrin is a new attempt by Christopher Tolkien piece together a longer, more novelistic version from his father's unfinished drafts. I have not yet read the new volume; my copy should arrive sometime in the next couple of days. My greatest fear is that it will be too similar to the materials we have seen before. But my disappointment should that prove to be the case, is not a critical judgement on its quality as a work of literature.

In fact, the first couple of reviews have already appeared on the web: Bryan Appleyard's odd piece in The Times, Elizabeth's Hand's review in the Washington Post, and the blog "review" of Michael Drout. I am struck by the fact that Appleyard, who is unsympathetic to Tolkien's writing, claims to like The Children of Húrin. [Note: This is updated wording. My original post accidentally lumped Elizabeth Hand's approach in this categoricy and thus misrepresented her review. Thanks to Hand for pointing this out.]

Appleyard's approval (however qualified) has got me thinking. Perhaps Tolkien's impact and influence is simply undeniable now, and saying you don't like Tolkien is beginning to sound simply contrary--like saying you don't like Shakespeare. It is legitimate to quibble about details, but dismissing Tolkien's work as rubbish, as some critics once did, is perhaps no longer possible.

I wonder, however, if there is not something else at work here. The Children of Húrin does not have a happy ending; it is ultimately a tragedy. I don't want to say much more for fear of introducing spoilers. Instead, I want to think about the possibility that this tragic quality is in fact what is triggering the approval of normally unsympathetic critics. Tragedy is somehow weightier and more profound than comedy (in the medieval sense of a story with a happy ending) or romance (which also gestures in that direction). Perhaps the arbiters of modern taste feel that Tolkien has finally obliged them with a work which meets modern criteria. I think this is a bit unfair with respect to the dynamism of Tolkien's earlier published work (especially as this tale has already appeared in shorter forms). On the other hand, this would be the first complete free-standing tale in the tragic genre--and perhaps there is something new and significant in that. I have always felt that the tale of the Children of Húrin--even in condensed and draft forms--was particularly powerful, and this version might enhance that power considerably. Perhaps this is the workfor which Tolkien could have said,

Go litel bok, go litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make yn some comedye.
But litel bok, no makyng thow n'envye,
But subgit be to alle poesye,
And kys the steppes where as thow seest pace,
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lukan, and Stace.
I hope at least, that this new work will give the reflexive comparisons to Homer and Virgil a new meaning.

More on The Children of Húrin once I've actually read it.

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