J. R. R. Tolkien's most recently released book, The Children of Hurin, takes us back to the world of elves, orcs, sword fights, and fire-breathing dragons during the First Age of Middle Earth. However, this is not the same type of adventure tale readers of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings might expect. Episodes of this work are only loosely connected by a common character, Turin, who progresses from point to point without a clear goal. The cast of characters is much smaller than in other Tolkien tales, but the conflict of a hero battling forces of evil is a familiar one.
The book is published thirty years after the death of the author, thanks to the editorial work of his son, Christopher Tolkien, who put together various manuscripts his father had drafted over decades of his career. Tolkien began this tale before he wrote The Hobbit and picked it up again after publishing The Lord of the Rings. Full details of the editorial process are provided in an appendix, including an unsuccessful fragment of the story in the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
In this story Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, remains in his stronghold, Angband, and wages war intermittently against the elves. Following an early, decisive battle, he captured Hurin and curses his whole family with a cloud of 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" (p. 64). Against this backdrop the tragedy of the children of Hurin unfolds.
How much of what happens to Turin and Nienor (the children of Hurin) is a result of the curse-or the power of the dragon Glaurung-and how much of it is their own pride and bad choices? When Turin should put all his energy into saving Nargothrond and a damsel in distress (Finduilas), the dragon casts a spell on him and tells him to go take care of his mother and sister. In fact, his mother and sister are under the protection of the elves, so Turin should have saved Finduilas, who dies by the hands of the orc conquerors, while he returns to Dor-lomin on a futile quest. Is it his choice or the dragon's spell that contributes to his doom? Just after the fall of Nargothrond, when Turin's mother and sister look for news of him, they encounter the dragon, who casts a spell over Nienor, causing her to forget everything-her identity, her language, and her history, which ultimately has tragic consequences.
While the curse and the dragon's spells have in part determined the fate of Turin, his pride is as much to blame for his downfall. He leaves the relatively safe world of the elves and embraces exile with outlaws by choice. In that he follows his mother's choice to remain in Dor-lomin and take abuse from the Easterlings rather than to sue for grace from the elfin king. Later, when threats reach Nargothrond, Turin's pride keeps him from securing the area. Hot-headedness also has serious consequences when he mistakenly kills his friend Beleg and when he murders one of the men of Brethil near the end. Although this may give the impression that Turin is not a very heroic hero, he does have his redeeming qualities. He is a brave and skillful warrior, whose success in battle takes him from the world of the elves to the world of the outlaws and finally to the world of civilized men. In each case he is elevated to a leadership position-at first by birth but soon because of his victories in battle. In addition, his loyalty to the outlaws and his willingness to lay down arms in Brethil are admirable. But they are not enough to keep him out of trouble for very long.
Is there redemption for Turin (or any of the other characters) in the end? That's an open-ended question that depends on how redemption is defined. There is a glimmer of light at the story's beginning when Hurin encourages Turgon to retreat during the end of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears so that not all may be lost: "out of your house shall come the hope of Elves and Men" (58). That promised light will come in the form of Elrond of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings, however, and not by the end of this tale. For Turin himself, if it is a matter of weighing his good deeds against bad ones, he might come out on the positive side, but the darkness of this tale has more in common with a Shakespearean tragedy than a tale of redemption and light. If this is a Christian allegory, it is one without a God figure to rescue the hero.
The narrative structure of this tale also offers some interest: the woodsman Turin befriends as a child provides information on where his mother and sister are many years later. Turin's experience with his sister Urwen in his early childhood is mirrored in his relationship with the elf Nellas in Doriath and his relationship with Niniel toward the end of the novel.
The names and genealogies can be a challenge; the introduction packs in more background information than is helpful in setting the stage for the tale to follow, but the maps and family trees in the back help the reader track geography of Turin's journey and battles as well as who is related to whom. In his reliance upon family relationships and genealogies, Tolkien's style is sometimes a little too close to the Anglo-Saxon sagas for modern tastes; however, for the reader brave enough to wade through lists of names and places without context, the tale of Turin eventually becomes compelling: a hero wandering from people to people trying to make his way in a world filled with violence and injustice.
For prospective readers: if you can hang on to the story until Turin grows up and goes out on his own, the tale of his journey-his adventures and the consequences of his choices-is worth the wait