Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Children of Hurin

by J. R. R. Tolkien,
edited by (his son) Christopher Tolkien
Del Rey, 2010, 320 pages

It is no accident that this is the darkest of the tales of Middle Earth. An expansion of one of the tales of The Silmarillion, it is Tolkien's response to the pagan elements that he believed formed the background of Anglo-Saxon legendry. This is not a story for children, but it is a tragedy suitable for adult Christians, who may see their own weaknesses in its tragic hero Turin - who, as one of the "children of Hurin," both suffers under, and brings about, the curse on Hurin's family.

Tolkien saw the stories of Beowulf, the Grendel-killing and dragon-slain hero of Anglo-Saxon literature, as essentially pagan, even though they mention God and feature descendants of Cain as Beowulf's opponents. In Tolkien's tales, the proud boastfulness of a Beowulf (even if God is given some credit for his success) can only lead to disaster. In this story, as Turin becomes more and more proud, his arrogance eventually leads him to oppose the Valar themselves - the chief servants of Illuvatar, the creator of Middle Earth.

Turin's sin is what the ancient Greeks called hubris - raising himself to the level of God (or for the Greeks the gods). In Greek tragedy, when human beings are guilty of hubris, they experience divine wrath - a fate that, like Oedipus's in the plays of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, is worse than death. Turin's sin is also very much like the first sin of Adam and Eve - seeking to be like God. Tolkien shows how such sin inevitably leads to destruction - pride going before a fall, as Solomon warns us in Proverbs.

At the same time, Turin is a warning for all of us, for he is more than just an arrogant superhero/antihero who gets taken down in the end. His pride also sometimes takes forms that even the humblest of us are sometimes guilty of - self-pity and whining. The tale helps us see that even these less prominent sins involve setting ourselves up as judges of, and therefore demeaning, God.

The Children of Hurin is for mature readers who can stomach seeing the bitterness of the conflict of the races of men, elves, and dwarves (somewhat like the racial and ethnic conflicts of our own time); the cruelty of a cunning and powerful dragon very much like Smaug in The Hobbit; and the destruction of a tragic hero. Most recent editions, including the paperback linked to by this post, feature illustrations by Alan Lee - who contributed his artistic skills to the Lord of the Rings film trilogy - that skillfully complement the somber nature of this tale.

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