Essay by Linda Echo-Hawk and Roger Echo-Hawk
In June of 2016 we held the premiere meeting of the Tolkien Reading Circle. We sat down together in our Hobbit Hole and pondered how The Children of Húrin encircles Tolkien’s entire legendarium. This was his last major creative project, and it is rooted in his first creative project, “The Story of Kullervo.”
Moving into the narrative at our next meeting, Ivan observed how a story is like a dream and readers need to be drawn in. Feeling that the first chapter of The Children of Húrin was more of a chronicle than a story, we wondered how Tolkien would have transformed it had he lived to finish it.
Over the next ten months we traversed Tolkien’s unfinished vision of the impassioned ambitions and hopes and defeats of Elves and Men in Middle-earth. We sat down on a mountaintop with Morgoth; we mulled the malice of Anglachel; we pondered the Elvish conquest of Beleriand; and we felt wise to make friends with fairy-like Nellas. Then we took a break under a cheerful autumnal equinox to celebrate our Hundredweight Harvest Holiday.
When the Tolkien Reading Circle returned to Beleriand, we joined for a time with Túrin’s outlaw biker gang; we visited Mîm’s home on Amon Rûdh; we held aloft magic Fëanorian lamps to admire crystal fountains; at the great dwarrow-delving of Nargothrond we became mesmerized by Glaurung’s dark gaze; we trekked with lonely Túrin through snowy passes into Dor-lómin; we followed Túrin’s men as they carried Niënor up the Rainy Stair to the Shuddering Water… All these adventures and more we found in the pages of The Children of Húrin, as can be seen in our meeting reports from those days.
At our April 13, 2017 meeting, we focused on the last three chapters of The Children of Húrin, giving thought to how this book compares to Tolkien’s other visits to Middle-earth. The story does not culminate in what Tolkien described as “eucatastrophe.” It is instead a more purified exploration of moral doom – a dark story best read with friends, we decided. It is also a good story to read slowly, a couple chapters at a time. This brings out the strength of the succinct poetic imagery, the deft character portrayals, and the wonderfully wrought dialogues in the narrative.
It is possible to savor the powerful writing without being overwhelmed by the story. But the story is grim, darkly textured. The final chapters unfold gloomy suicidal realizations, not happy heroic endings. We pondered the degree to which Tolkien intentionally took aim at portraying the solemn poetics of a doomed world – was he exploring his own inner experience in some way… a forbidding depressive state of mind?
Nicole reminded us that the wider literary context of this work must be relevant to understanding Tolkien’s creative energies. To what degree is Túrin like Beowulf, she wondered. Beyond the Kalevala, the tragic events of The Iliad and the aura of Ophelia could well have added some of the dark tones that we encounter in The Children of Húrin.
Some members of our group also pondered the quality of Tolkien’s portrayals of women in this book. If this was his final major journey into Middle-earth, why do so many women characters give in to sorrow and suicide? The excellent – and all too brief – renderings of Melian and Nellas left us wishing that Tolkien had done more with them, giving them more to do, bestowing more narrative weight on their shoulders.
Andrea felt that the power of Tolkien’s writing redeems the bleak themes of the book and its final plunge into an unforgiving chasm. Tolkien’s mythic tales of the First Age can prove difficult for some readers. Several members of the Tolkien Reading Circle reported negative initial responses to The Silmarillion and to the tale of Túrin in particular – these unfinished writings provide the background mythic history for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
In the pages of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s nuance at detailing this historical backcloth imparts a sense of depth that is notable even when readers skip over the poetry where it often appears. Readers inevitably compare the differing tonal and thematic essences of his three novels, and this range of qualities makes them difficult to compare.
Tolkien did not keep writing the same kind of book in his lifelong labors as a novelist. The power of his magic may inspire in many readers the wish for more of the same, but when we set foot in Middle-earth, our journeys become unexpected. And that makes the experience multi-dimensional, full of glimpsed vistas, fragmentary and mysterious. Ultimately, to a notable degree, the richness of Middle-earth as an invented world flows from the diversity of its narrative texturing.
Presenting this tale as an independent project is a debatable choice by Christopher Tolkien. His father evolved the Silmarillion legends together as a coherent project, and although The Children of Húrin stands alone as a novel, the absence of any quality of “eucatastrophe” is notable. The great denouement of the cycle of legends – the happy ending – was always designed to occur later in the scheme.
It is evident that The Children of Húrin is important because it establishes the dark magic that is merely referenced in The Lord of the Rings. We experience first-hand the doom uttered by Morgoth. We get entangled in an anguished narrative uttered by a desolate cosmic sorcerer who bends the world to his sullen will. This kind of tale is difficult and unpleasant, just as we find in the weary trek of Sam and Frodo across the wastes of Mordor.
The tragic fate of Túrin and Niënor leaves us in the midst of an unrelieved catastrophe. This is merely an epic moment that Tolkien designed to help perfect the coming eucatastrophe that he crafted in all his fantasy writings. And this crucial element is missing from Christopher Tolkien’s presentation of the story. We leap off the final edge of this story and no eagle seems willing to save us. It is proper to sense a narrative truncation here, bereft of the dreamlike bittersweet magic of Middle-earth that we treasure, an enchantment of the imagination where despair gives way to a glimpse of fabled realms of hope.
With the forthcoming issuing of an “independent” presentation of the legend of Beren and Lúthien in June 2017, we close the pages of The Children of Húrin and make ready to open the pages of a concurrent tale that will reveal more of JRR Tolkien’s intended vision for his legendarium of the First Age. This will hopefully provide some of the light that is missing from the dark matter of the tale of the doom of Túrin and Niënor. The Tolkien Reading Circle looks forward to continuing this journey!