The Children of Hurin
The opening of an exhibition in a fine museum is often greeted with wary warmth from discerning patrons and denizens of style. The curator who carefully guards the work of the old masters is trusted to understand and shape the new display in such a way that the exhibition is faithful to the spirit of the masterpieces. Such in my judgment is the effort given to us from the Tolkien estate with the release last April of The Children of Húrin, a marvelous portrayal of a grand, but lesser known painting of an old master.
JRR Tolkien (the greatest mythmaker of the twentieth century) left an entire gallery of unfinished tales for the happy curator of his cosmogony. They extend from first light of the two trees to the successors of Aragorn at the beginning of the Fourth Age. Estimates place the total number of his books sold as approaching 200 million. Tolkien is among the most read writers of English fiction, and his works consistently top popular polls in every part of the English speaking world. His stories are more complex than much of Greco-Roman mythic literature, wiser than Aesop's fables and more beloved than Mother Goose. I believe eventually he will be reckoned amongst the most important authors of his century. I have privately thought for many years some scholar is going to look at Tolkien's legendarium and validate it as the best Anglo-Saxon style literature ever conceived outside of the dark ages, but I digress. Long scorned by the keepers of the English literary canon, Tolkien's legitimacy is gaining. Tolkien set out long ago to create a new mythology for Britain. Just imagine his popular audience battling its way into the academy like the great battering ram Grond knocking on the door of Minas Tirith. Now you have an accurate picture of Tolkien's place in the modern literary world.
Thus enters the latest part of Tolkien's literature into the modern fray, The Children of Húrin. The story is not properly speaking a new story, nor is it (as is being advertised) "the Oldest Tale in Middle Earth." That tale would be the Ainulindalë, found in The Silmarillion, which tells of the Creation of Arda by Eru Illúvater and his Ainur and concludes with the binding of Melkor.
Children existed in uncompleted fragments and rough drafts (some dating back to WW1) in different manuscripts from Tolkien. Think of these works as being like the Dead Sea Scrolls in the family files. For the last 30 years Tolkien's son has been putting together the pieces of the puzzle as best he could.
Large parts actually have appeared in other posthumous works. A chapter in The Silmarillion (1977), called "Túrin Turambar" first introduces the hero and his doom. Later an entire section of Unfinished Tales (1980) known as the "Narn I Hin Húrin" (Tale of the Children of Húrin) shows Túrin's tragedy in the context of his family for the first time. In volume three of the History of Middle Earth: The Lays of Beleriand (1985) two versions of the tale of the children of Húrin are recorded and amplified in ways that tantalize the reader with alternative development surrounding this saga.
The newly released book The Children of Húrin is ultimately a majority text document, carefully measured against other versions and thoughtfully crafted by the consigliore of all things Tolkien - Christopher Tolkien, son of "the professor," member in his own right of the Inklings, teacher at Oxford and literary executor for the Tolkien estate. In the preface to this edition we are introduced to a third generation of the family - Adam, son of Christopher, who aided his father in the editorial process as his father had done for his father.
Children primarily concerns the son of the remarkable Húrin. Túrin, who in his own way is an equally famous man as his Prometheus like dad. Túrin's warrior father was head of a great house of men. Elves had once greeted Túrin's distant forebears, welcoming them as settlers into their land of Beleriand teaching them speech and much wisdom in the first age. Túrin would grow up in a royal house that fell to grinding ruin after battling alongside the elves their great enemy Morgoth (Melkor of the Valar). In appreciation of his family's sacrifice the elves would take in Túrin (but not his mother and new born sister) and raise him to be a prince. In a few short years this child of the edain (men) would command armies of the eldar (elves). His fame spread throughout the world, but Túrin carried with him always the doom that fell upon his father, a man so ill fated that he brought down his entire house through his own tragedy. The story of how he discovered this doom is the story of The Children of Húrin.
A Brief Word about Tolkien's Legendarium
Whenever I read the works of JRR Tolkien I am reminded of a description once given of Moria in The Lord of the Rings. "The Mines of Moria were vast and intricate beyond the imagination of Gimli, Glóin's son, dwarf of the mountain-race though he was."
Often I seem to be like Gimli wandering again into Middle Earth. I encounter on every page a new world full of valor and treachery, hope and despair, kindness, pity and perseverance. I recognize the rise and fall of great civilizations, puzzle at byzantine genealogical relationships, and glory in sagas so grand that entire languages have been invented, lost and rediscovered just to tell the tale. So it was when I stepped back into the First Age of Middle Earth this past spring and reacquainted myself with The Children of Húrin. This tale is old, very old, and has a Job-like place in Tolkien's old testamentesque legendarium. I am tempted to say because of the darkness surrounding this tome that The Children of Húrin has been sent to us like a Balrog from the depths of the earth to trouble the world of men.
To appreciate fully The Children of Húrin one must understand the proper ancientry of Middle earth and have a fairly good grasp of the deep legends that run through The Lord of the Rings. A story that deals primarily with events occurring at the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth and culminating in the defeat of Sauron and the ascent of men as the dominant people in the world. We know this world through the recent movies, and of course through the beloved children's story The Hobbit.
Let's remember a bit of this past, the age before The Lord of the Rings was full of high drama. The Second Age primarily deals with the descendents of faithful men who have been given dominion over much of the earth. These men (Númenoreans) are rewarded with great wealth and wisdom and inhabit a chosen island midway between the shores of Middle Earth (this world) and Valinor (the next). The Second Age is thematically a blending of the promised land of Israel and the legend of Atlantis. It culminates with mankind trying to wrest immortality away from the angelic Vala, an event which literally rends the world apart.
The original age or First Age which forms the context of The Children of Húrin spans creation to the binding of Morgoth, the Luciferian protagonist who once apprenticed a young Dark Lord named Sauron. It also ends in cataclysm or "eucatastrophe" as the Tolkien scholars now love to say. Along the way through the First Age we touch grand themes such as the fall of the angelic beings, the birth of elves, men and dwarves, the origins of Ents, Trolls, Orcs, the coming of elves to Valinor (elves hereafter known as the high elves or eldar) and the return of certain high elves to Middle Earth for less than noble purposes right at the time men were first wandering into the western parts of the world. It is within this first meeting of elves and men that The Children of Húrin comes into the greater story.
A useful Tolkien dictionary for the advanced reader like Robert Foster's "Complete Guide to Middle Earth" or J.E.A. Tyler's "Complete Tolkien Collection" or the new "JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology Vol .1 & A Reader's Guide Vol. 2" by Scull and Hammond not to be confused with the excellent and equally useful "The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion" by the same authors will enable you to sort out and enjoy the saga better. At all costs avoid purchasing the new "JRR Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment by Michael Drout who is himself a nice scholar/author. Yet his publishers produced an outrageously overpriced, poorly edited and woefully formatted book.
The Children of Húrin is one of Tolkien's three grand unfinished stories about Middle Earth from the First Age. The other two are the Tale of Beren and Lúthien (one of four unions between elvish brides and men) which to the keen observer is the story of Tolkien's own married life and later a foreshadowing of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. Lastly there was the tale of the Fall of Gondolin, that most majestic of Noldorin cities within Middle Earth, perhaps the greatest city in Arda outside Valinor, secretively found within encircling mountains and guarded by the great eagles of the north. Gondolin would be the last kingdom of elves to fall to Morgoth. Each of these great tales oozed with what Tolkien and his friend CS Lewis called "northernness" and are shaped by the languages, legends and sagas of the ancient Germanic and Scandic folklore of old world Europe.
The context of the First Age contains some of the most exciting parts of the entire cosmogony. It is an age in which elves make jewels so beautiful that even the angelic Vala covet their glitter. It is the age where we first meet Gandalf (by another name) weeping by the pools of Lorien and learning pity (Tolkien's beloved virtue) for the children of Illúvater. It is an age in which civilizations are built behind hidden walls and warriors (great and small) face down creatures of immense, indiscernible power. It is the age where dragons first walked the earth. It is the age of Túrin.
The story of Túrin and his father found in The Children of Húrin may be the saddest Anglo-Saxon style tale ever written.
The Tragic Tale of Túrin Turambar
If you have made it this far, you are to be commended! If you haven't read the book or you intend to read the book and do not want it spoiled you might pause here and skip down to the last section for saga-busting context free conclusions.
We first meet Túrin in the early part of "The Lord of the Rings" at Rivendell when Elrond speaks of him in his Council meeting immediately after Frodo agrees to the Ring Quest. Elrond mentions Frodo as being worthy as the elf friends of old. He identifies Túrin and his father as "one of the mighty Elf-Friends of old."
Throughout the book Túrin is constantly being given or taking for himself new names. Taken as a whole they give you a nice sense of what his life and the book is about: Neithian (The wronged) Gorthol (The dreaded helm) Agarwaen Úmarth (the bloodstained, ill fortune's child) Adanedhel (Elf man) Mormegil (the black sword) Turambar (master of doom).
In some ways Túrin is a Southerner in 1866. He's fighting constantly, bitter about the loss of his home and the lack of dignity of his people to an invading Yankee-like swarm of Easterling carpetbaggers. Túrin comes to hate foreigners of all kind (accept Elves), and men most of all even though he himself lived the life of an outlaw his entire life.
In other ways Túrin reminds us of a virtuous Cowboy-frontiersman who saves the town from peril but always has to leave because of some calamity he brings down on himself. Túrin is John Wayne in the "Sons of Katie Elder" who has to leave because he wounds anyone and everyone who gets too close to him. He saves the day but always loses a bit of himself in the process.
What's all this Doom about?
We read early on the story of an exchange between Melkor and Túrin's father Húrin.
"I am the Eldar King: Melkor, first and mightiest of all the Valar, who was before the world, and made it. The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death."
Húrin had been faithful until death defending a retreating army of elves as they escaped from a helpless battlefield with the "auld enemy" Morgoth. Húrin would be captured after the battle and taken and tormented for the rest of his life by Morgoth. The Dark Vala tried every trick that the Father of Lies could use to wrest Húrin's knowledge of the hidden whereabouts of Elvish Gondolin. But Melkor couldn't break Húrin and so in a final effort he let him go free but did so with a malediction upon Húrin's family. This malediction brought to light the dark providence that guides Húrin and Túrin to the end of their days. Túrin would slay thousands of enemies in his life, build up little kingdoms and villages of free folk, slay a monstrous dragon but in each case he would wound himself far worse and leave tragedy in his wake.
Some Eschatology in Middle Earth
Deep within the bowels of Tolkien's legendarium one finds that Túrin is significant beyond his great heroism in the slaying the monstrous dragon. It is in the end times, the last days of Middle Earth that Túrin will achieve his greatest deed.
Morgoth we are told, will again rise and wage a "last battle" against the Valar and the faithful elves, men and dwarves (and hopefully hobbits) of that age. In that day Túrin Turambar will avenge the doom of the children of Húrin. He will lead the "children of Illúvater" in battle as final instrument of wrath and judgment upon Morgoth.
Therein is found Armageddon for Melkor, redemption for Túrin, a fitting deed for one whose doom had been ever so marred by wrath and ill judgmental begotten upon himself.
Tolkien and his critics
Harold Bloom once commented on Tolkien's Legendarium, "It's like trying to read the Book of Mormon."
Salman Rushdie famously opined "I am a big fan of The Lords of the Rings but nobody ever read Tolkien for the writing." There are some who will never enjoy Tolkien, mainly these seem to be his critics.
I suspect that Brian Appleyard will become the bane of a thousand Entmoots. His Sunday Times review (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article1613657.ece ) is noteworthy for his dismissive tone of Tolkien's body of work, yea verily Denethorian. We can all delight in the fact that for every angst ridden agnostic Anglo-Saxon phobic literary critic there will be entire generations of children learning about the English language through the cultural milieu of this most pre-modern of tales.
Why should you read this book (the conclusion)
Why should one read The Children of Húrin? You should read if you enjoy great literature grounded in a world fixed by grand Christian themes that paints a "Job-like" tale of pre-modernity. You should read this if you love the world of "Middle earth" and you want to see how an earlier age of heroes stacks up against the ones of the 3rd Age. You should read this if you want to get a sense of how Tolkien wrote his stories, and how he painted the canvas of Arda with the sadness of its fallen creatures. You should read this book if you want to see the consequences of running all the time. You should read this if you want to meet more characters from Tolkien's myth and be thrilled by sights of new places in Middle Earth.
Appendix A: Abridged Guide to Evangelicalism as Middle Earth
No Tolkien work ever gets published without a fascinating appendix. So why shouldn't a review about Tolkien. For those of you who have been struggling to "contextualize" this review into postmodern applications the following is for you. Tolkien detested allegory of all kinds, so please keep in mind this is just a hyper technical, completely accurate application of Tolkien's world to the modern evangelical scene.
PEOPLE & PLACES
High Elves (Puritans)
Numenor/High Peoples (Scotland/Presbyterians)
Middle Peoples (Baptists)
The Gray Havens (The Banner of Truth)
The Elves of Rivendell (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals)
The Elves of Mirkwood (Sovereign Grace Ministries)
Lothlorien (Desiring God Ministries)
Rohan (Southern Baptist Convention)
Meduseld (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)
Beornings (Founders Movement)
Barrow Downs (Catacombs of Rome)
The Paths of the Dead (Paedobaptism)
The Green Dragon (challies.com)
Forest of Fangorn (reformation21)
Quickbeam (Justin Taylor)
Tom Bombadil (RC Sproul)
Farmer Maggot (Phil Johnson/Team Pyro)
Glorfindel (Derek Thomas)
Village of Bree (Redeemer Church Planting Network)
City of Dale (Grace Community Church)
Rhovanion (Nine Marks Ministries)
Arnor (New England Congregationalism)
Blue Mountains (Dutch Calvinism)
Minas Tirith (Old School Presbyterianism)
Minas Morgul(New School Presbyterianism)
Ilithien (Northern Presbyterianism)
Henneth Annun (Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia)
Dol Amroth (Southern Presbyterianism)
Tirith Aear (First Presbyterian Church of Jackson)
The Dunedain (Twin Lakes Fellowship)
Lossarnach (Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville)
The Argonath (Westminster Standards)
Red Book of Westmarch (Textus Receptus)
Radagast the Brown (NT Wright)
The Blue Wizards (National Associations of Evangelicals)
Ioreth of the House of Healing (Doug Wilson)
Mines of Moria (Carl McIntire)
Ted Sandyman (Rousas John Rushdooney)
Entmoot (Philadelphia Council on Reformed Theology)
Council of Elrond (Together for the Gospel)
Helm's Deep (Battle for Inerrancy)
Pelennor Fields (Battle for Imputation)
Defense of Cair Andros (Battle for Complementarianism)
Battle of Bywater (Every committee that has ever dealt with issues of music in worship)
Saruman (Karl Barth)
Isengard (Higher Criticism in general)
Corsairs of Umbar (Emergent Church)
Southrons (Lakewood Church)
The Mumakil (Joel Osteen)
Haradrim (Eastern Orthodoxy)
REALLY BAD PEOPLE
The Nazgul (National Council of Churches)
The Mouth of Sauron (Pope Benedict)
Shelob (Joyce Meyer)
Lobelia Sackville-Baggins (Beth Moore)
Bill Ferny (Ergun Caner)
Gollum (John Lennon)
Melton L. Duncan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of church relations for Ligonier Ministries and a ruling elder in the PCA. He and his wife Lynda are raising two Southern Presbyterians near the house of Tom Bombadil in the South Carolina Upcountry. He blogs at http://riverandrhett.blogspot.com
By J.R. Tolkien
Review by Melton L. Duncan
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