April 17, 2011

The Children of Húrin (#109)

The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien

What I said then:

This smells like a cynical cash-in, but I bought it, so it obviously worked on me.

What I say now:

This might be a heretical notion to a lot of my fellow geeks, but I think Middle-Earth needs hobbits to really work.

The Children of Húrin is a story from far back in the 'history' of Middle-Earth, pre-dating The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by thousands of years in Tolkien's chronology of his imagined world. It tells of one anecdote in the long wars waged by elves and men against Morgoth (an evil fucker who wants to take over the world and enslave everybody and just be generally evil and cover all the lands in darkness and stuff). Húrin, a mortal man, gets captured in battle and is brought before Morgoth, but defies him to his face, so Morgoth curses Húrin's kin.

His son Túrin and daughter Niënor, separated from their earliest childhoods, become pawns in Morgoth's revenge, living their entire lives under the weight of his curse and eventually being destroyed by it, despite their best efforts to defy him. One of Morgoth's lieutenants, a flightless dragon called Glaurung, causes Niënor to forget who she is; when Túrin chances on her wandering in a forest, he rescues her. They fall in love, marry and conceive a child, at which point the dragon releases Niënor from her spell. Túrin kills the dragon, Niënor kills herself in horror at her unwitting incest, then Túrin does the same. It's not exactly a barrel of laughs.

The problem is that Tolkien's elves and 'high' men are characters unidentifiable with us everyday mortals. They are removed from any recognisable human psychology or understandable motivations. The codes of chivalry and honour that they live by make all their actions read as though they are pawns being moved by the author however he requires, rather than full-blooded characters groping towards decisions in their own right.

Which is why the hobbits of The Lord of the Rings are so central to that book's success: being much more down-to-earth folks than the high-faluting, cultured people they meet, the hobbits act as guides and commentators to the audience. They prick the pomposity of what's going on around them. Unfortunately, The Children of rin's pomposity remains unpricked. I found it impossible to feel any connection to what was going on, because all of the characters were so emotionally removed from me.

This is an expansion of a chapter in The Silmarillion and it actually, in my opinion, works better in the shorter form. The Silmarillion is a curious book: rather than being the story of Middle-Earth, it's more like a book written about the history of Middle-Earth, like it's an academic reconstruction of ancient texts or something. The nearest I can come to describing it is that it's like, rather than being a Middle-Earth version of The Iliad or The Odyssey, it's the fictional equivalent of a dry, dull book about greek myths. The Silmarillion is unquestionably a weird reading experience, but I think it's more successful than The Children of rin, because the expanded version of the story, so lacking in emotionality, shouldn't be presented as narrative fiction.

It doesn't help that Christopher Tolkien, in editing The Children of rin together, has 'helpfully' provided a long introduction to sketch out where we're at in Middle-Earth's history at the beginning of the book. This twenty pages is essentially an interminable list of made-up names, and is boring as hell. I was in a bad mood before the story of The Children of rin even kicked in.

And now the geeks of the world will descend and tear me to pieces, I'm sure. Sometimes duty calls ...

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
books to go: 108

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