Hurin — heavy going
Children of Hurin
J R R Tolkien
I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in my early teens and enjoyed them well enough. I read The Silmarillion a few years later, and actually quite liked it, in a funny way. I mean, if approached as a novel it is not really adequate; but then by modern standards many long narratives are not really novels in the sense of being a story of evolution of character, or at least a character with a problem to solve. As pseudomythology, The Silmarillion is an interesting exercise. Creation myth, evil coming into the world, fate and doom, etc. I quite liked Melkor/Morgoth as a mythological figure. Driven to take part in creation but limited to a subservient role by the deity, he decided he needed his own world to rule. And though in the end defeated, his influence could never be eradicated. As he poured his spite and lies into the world, he became less, more limited, more worthy of scorn himself. Turning the world dark cost him his own substance yet meant that the world could never be free of his shadow. It’s a neat idea, well implemented.
So in that great battle of mere Men and Elves against the he who had been the right hand of the creator, there were, the prefatory material tels us, three key tales that Tolkien wanted to flesh out. This is the one that he came closest to finishing and thus the one tht allowed itself to be shaped into a coherent volume without the need for new text. And because Tolkien is a name to conjure with, and to sell many book, here we have Children of Hurin.
It is really the tragedy of Turin, son of Hurin. Powerful, impetuous, he fights and flees and fights and flees and where’er he goes Morgoth’s hordes follow and wreak destruction, such that Turin is like a plague, bringing disaster upon whoever helps him.
It’s all very high and mighty and mythic. But it is also more like a ‘normal’ story than The Silmarillion — it’s more like a novel. And weirdly that (for me) makes it less successful than The Silmarillion (caveat — I was young when I read the latter, and perhaps less critical). It makes no sense to judge The Silmarillion as a novel, but Hurin is a novel, yet the plot is like a Greek myth, the hero more like Beowulf, and the result is a weird clashing. Turin is so stupid! He is this great fighter who eggs on his supporters to fight Morgoth and so brings them destruction, and then he utterly fails to learn anything from this. In a myth, that might work, when everything is seen from a distance, like chess pieces viewed from above. But in a novel we expect at least some kind of sense from our actors, so his behaviour just fails to ring true and so undermines the whole story; we have grandeur, but no sense. “Who is carrying the idiot ball this week?”
When reading The Iliad, an adjustment modern readers have to make is that the players do emphatically not rise and fall based on their own strengths as people. They rise and fall based on who is favoured by the gods, which can make the plot seem arbitrary and lacking in internal motivation. It is a fundamental split from what we have come to expect in our fiction since probably the 18th century at least. Hurin needs to be read in a similar way, at least that’s what I found; I had to make a conscious effort to not expect what I usually expect from a novel. (What do I implicitly expect? A person has a problem, external or internal, and makes attempts to solve it/overcome it/avoid it. These attempts at least seem reasonable to the reader or seem like the kinds of things the protagonist would actually do given their character. A skillful writer can make the protagonist very different from the reader and yet still reasonable to the reader. )
Turin never becomes enough of a character for me to see his actions as reasonable in his terms, yet behaves irrationally in my terms. I think that’s why the book ultimately was unsatisfactory. The book is interesting if Tolkien’s world is interesting. It is not at all bereft of grandeur and striking images, notably the battle with Glaurung. Worth a read for the fan of fantasy, but it must be recognised that it is closer in tone to The Silmarillion than to The Lord of the Rings.