Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Review: "The Children of Hurin" by JRR Tolkien

I may earn the wrath of my peers for saying this, but I'm not particularly fond of "The Lord of the Rings". By which I mean Tolkien's novels, because I do enjoy the Peter Jackson films despite their numerous flaws. But I read Tolkien's original trilogy once and never felt any compulsion to repeat the experience.

I'll give the man credit where it's due: yes, in many ways "The Lord of the Rings" is the seminal fantasy text. It's also extremely long-winded, remarkably obsessed with minutiae (is there any particular reason I need to know the entire genealogy of a tertiary character?), it's horrendously gender-imbalanced even for a pre-feminist work, it features massive tangents completely unrelated to the main thrust of the narrative (to this day, I have yet to be convinced that the Tom Bombadil section is of any relevance at all), and it commits dramatic self-sabotage at practically every turn. This was something Peter Jackson actually improved on: it's much more climactic to see Boromir's last stand against the Uruk-Hai, rather than be told about it after the fact.

So, all in all, I prefer Peter Jackson's interpretation of the text to the text itself. Granted, said interpretation has its own flaws:

And I'm not even going to talk about the subtext:

But in terms of plot, dialogue, pacing, characterization and so on, Jackson's contributions only elevate the source material.

And yet, paradoxically, I find that I'm quite partial to "The Silmarillion", a pseudo-Biblical novel pieced together by Christopher Tolkien after his father's death. "The Silmarillion" details the creation of Middle-Earth and the formative events which take place in the pre-history of "Lord of the Rings". Oddly enough, the fact that "The Silmarillion" is a patchwork text sewn together from the fragments of Tolkien's notes seems to make it more readable than Tolkien's would-be masterpiece itself. Whereas "The Lord of the Rings" is frighteningly overextended as a quest narrative, the structural scope of "The Silmarillion" allows for simultaneous exploring of the macro (cosmic wars between good and evil) and micro (the tragic tale of Turin Turambar) levels. That may in fact be what makes "The Silmarillion" so much more engaging to me than its predecessor - the fact that it's able to tell all these different stories without feeling like it's straying from the one it's supposed to be telling (well, that and the fact that unlike Sauron in "The Lord of the Rings", Morgoth is an active antagonist who actually participates in the story, and that goes a long way).

This is all a very long pre-amble to what I'm actually reviewing, "The Children of Hurin". It's basically the complete version of a fragment originally presented in "The Silmarillion", expanding one of the sub-stories - the tale of Turin Turambar, a tragic hero in the ancient Greek tradition. Tolkien the younger has done an excellent job of combining the text originally featured in "The Silmarillion" with expanded material both drawn from Tolkien's unfinished notes and from his own imagination as well: the result is a narrative that reads well and presents a consistent, enjoyable fantasy tale that stands on its own, something accessible to people who enjoyed the movies but find the heavy, laborous reading of the original novel too daunting - "The Children of Hurin" offers an alternative glimpse at Middle-Earth's pre-narrative history. Not just for Tolkienites!