My geek credentials have been put on probation. Somehow, I made it for over a year without realizing that "The Children of Hurin," written by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher, was an actual novel. I was vaguely aware that it had been released, and surprised to see that it hit the New York Times Best-Seller list, but had assumed that it was the latest entry in Christopher's "History of Middle-earth" series, an ongoing scholarly walk through the mountainous text that the elder Tolkien left unfinished at his death.
I said my absolutions, then put the book on hold. A new novel is a very, very big deal. Tolkien is my first and greatest love in fantasy, and I've devoured not only The Lord of the Rings but also The Silmarillion, the Book of Lost Tales, and a couple of the Histories. These are all very different experiences. I usually explain it to others by saying that TLotR is a story told in the present tense, describing what's happening; The Silmarillion and the others are histories told in the past tense. You might be able to apply the word "dry" to them. The actual contents of the stories are simply amazing, in my opinion surpassing TLotR in their scope and grandeur and complexity and sheer power. Yet, physically reading them can feel like a chore at times. Maybe this is why I have a hard time listening to people who complain that TLotR is slow or unfocused; compared to other Tolkien lore, the trilogy positively gallops, carrying you along on its incredible journey.
I was hoping for something more like TLotR and less like the Histories. It turns out that I got something else entirely: not a novel or a history, this is a mythology. Reading this reminded me of nothing else so much as a Greek myth. Like a myth it is firmly set in the past, and has an inbuilt sense of distance from the reader. It is also like a myth in that it tells an exciting story that resonates with you, and has grand larger-than-life characters who succeed and fail, live and die for reasons much like the way we mere mortals do.
The Children of Hurin is also Greek in that it is a full-on tragedy. People who have read The Silmarillion will be well acquainted with the dramatic style that seems to be applied to all tales from the First Age... a long, slow, steady decline from the joy of Arda's creation through the unstoppable corruption by Morgoth through the eventual annihilation of Bereliand. There are moments of victory and joy, but they are just flashes of hope set against the backdrop of a steady march towards oblivion.
The Children of Hurin is mainly focused on the character Turin Turambar, almost certainly the most tragic of the dozens of heroes from the First Age. In an extremely well-written foreword to the book, Christopher explains a crucial point about the nature of the tragedy of Turin. Early on, Morgoth curses Turin's father Hurin, proclaiming that evil will befall all his descendants. We're used to thinking of curses as invoking a higher power to accomplish an evil end - a witch calling on spirits, a dark priest calling for a dark god's aid. In this case, though, Evil ITSELF is cursing Hurin. The actual God of Evil (though Tolkien doesn't use those terms), one with his own agency, lays down the curse. It isn't a request, or a statement, but an active willing on the part of Morgoth to bring ruin to Hurin's line. In this context, all the bad things which occur to Turin and his sister Nienor are not unfortunate luck. There is a huge sense of horror as you realize all the ways in which the Dark Lord, who helped weave together the very fabric of the world itself, is crushing these souls into despair.
Um... in case you haven't gotten the message yet, this book is dark. Very dark. There are individual scenes that show lighter aspects of Middle-earth, and moments of great victory for Turin, but the overall trajectory is downward.
It's been a while since I read The Silmarillion, and I have to admit that I had confused his story with that of Earendil. Earendil has a much happier story than Turin's, but Turin's is more powerful and moving.
Many years ago, I ran a pen-and-paper role-playing game set in the Fourth Age of Middle-earth. Extending the Tolkien mythology to this time was incredible fun; I ought to write a post on it sometime! Anyways, because the PCs were lowly Level 1 characters about to venture into the dangerous Trollshaws, I whipped together a couple of NPCs to swell their numbers and give them a better chance. They were Erestor the Dorwinian, Thexter the Uruk-hai (hey, the Fourth Age is a more open-minded time!)... and Turin Turambar, a bard. That Turin had nothing in common with this one other than the name. I've ever been a thief of names, and on a purely musical level, Turin Turambar is one of the most lyrical that Tolkien ever invented. Which is saying something.
So, all together... I can't recommend this book to people who are looking for another Lord of the Rings, but I can unhesitatingly recommend it to people who love Middle-earth and want to explore it more deeply. I also hope that this book will help put to death the canard that Tolkien was a moral absolutist... he does portray ultimate Evil (in the form of Morgoth) and ultimate Good (in the form of Eru), but I defy anyone who claims that Turin belongs firmly to one side or the other. Tolkien portrays a world where mortals must struggle between good actions and bad, which feels a great deal like the world we all inhabit here.