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Tolkien’s Children of Hurin: Break a Leg, Professor

April 17th, 2007 · 5 Comments · Books, Culture, Fantasy, Journal, Lit, Mythology, News, Peoria

Children of HurinIt appears that Christopher Tolkien has one more book to produce out of his father’s magic hat, although this one will almost certainly be the last. The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien goes on sale today, three decades after his death:

Tolkien’s son and literary executor Christopher, now in his eighties, constructed “The Children of Hurin” from his father’s manuscripts, and said he tried to do so “without any editorial invention”.

Already told in fragmentary form in “The Silmarillion”, which appeared in 1977, the new book is darker than “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”, for which Tolkien is best known.

Asked if it was fair to assume “The Children of Hurin” would be the last “new” Tolkien work to be published, he replied:

“I think it is a reasonable assumption. There are other tales in ‘Silmarillion’ that could stand alone in this manner, but none of them have attached to them this amount of developed text.”

I suspect that like The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin will be a book for those of us who are already Tolkien fans, and have read and cherished The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings more than once — and not really something that will win over new fans except to whatever extent it creates publicity for the books as a set.

Although I loved The Silmarillion, as did all the members of my grade school chess team (yes: I’m not saying I was any good at chess, but I was on the team), I’ve known plenty of people who found it unreadable.

Of course, the majority of those cases were people who tried to read it before reading the four primary books. Sometimes this was because they’d heard that it precedes the other books in chronological terms, and while that’s true, it’s misleading. You have to read The Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy first because they supply the warmth, charm, and humanity necessary to make you fall in love with Middle-Earth, and then want to know more about those great, ancient tales that are hinted at in the story, and supply its dizzying sense of scale.

It’s only after you’ve gone on those journeys with Bilbo and Frodo and Sam a time or two that you’ll have the requisite curiosity about the deeper layers of their world that’s necessary to propel you through the grander but more distant mythological style of The Silmarillion.

The Silmarillion came out in paperback in the spring of 1979, the spring I got my leg broken on the wrestling mat in PE class (a story I’ve told elsewhere). In fact, the paperback edition was released the very week I arrived at the hospital, and I remember my mom presenting me with a copy of it almost as soon as I was conscious following the operation to set my leg. Unbeknownst to her, my peers on the chess team had also scraped together various quarters and fifty-cent pieces to buy me a copy as a get-well present — but when they found out my mom had already filled that niche, the second copy was quickly re-appropriated by whichever member of the collective had done the actual purchasing.

Tolkien was popular among my classmates because we’d been lucky enough to have a sixth-grade teacher who was so addicted to Tolkien that there was a giant map of Middle-Earth on the wall of our homeroom. He read aloud to us every day for a half-hour after lunch, slowly working our way through The Hobbit and most of The Fellowship of the Ring by the end of that school year, and long before May arrived we were all Tolkien casualties for life. It’s one of the best gifts any teacher ever gave me, and I still marvel at the luck of landing in his homeroom instead of the other sixth grade teacher, who had no such map on her walls and indulged her class in no such fantastic nonsense after lunch. There but for fortune!

After they fixed my leg I was wheeled home from the hospital, clutching the book, and for the next couple of weeks I had nothing to do all day but work my way through The Silmarillion while listening to Top 40 radio, with the house to myself and a supply of Faygo root beer and goldfish crackers close at hand. I remember finding out for the first time about Morgoth and Feanor; Varda who made the stars; the two shining trees that illuminated the world before the sun and the moon; Ungoliant the giant light-devouring spider who came long before Shelob; Huan the hound who could only speak three times before he died; beautiful Valinor over the sea, where Frodo and Bilbo were headed when they set sail from the grey havens at the end of The Return of the King. Just the names alone were magic; the stories themselves were pure icing.

And after all these years, I can still tell you that “Heart of Glass” by Blondie, “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty, and “Music Box Dancer” by Frank Mills were in heavy rotation on Peoria’s Top 40 radio station that spring — and for me those songs are still strangely linked to the imagery of Middle-Earth’s first three ages, in a way I’m sure would curl Professor Tolkien’s eyebrows if he knew about it.

At any rate, although I’m expecting The Children of Hurin to be more of an addendum to Tolkien’s work than a major addition to it, I’m looking forward for the opportunity to open that doorway to Middle-Earth one more time.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • David

    My God, I read the trilogy a million times in junior high. Don’t tell anybody that….

  • Ocelopotamus

    The thing is, it gets better every time you re-read it. Those books are like the kind of friend who doesn’t really start to confide in you until they’ve known you a while and you’ve spent a lot of time together. (And other people wonder why you spend all your time hanging out with that weirdo …)

  • Aaron

    Oh, God how I remember Peoria’s infatuation with “Baker Street.” If I never hear that song again, I may still set myself on fire. That, and “How Much I Feel” by Ambrosia. I could sing ’em backwards. Feh!

    Our fourth grade teacher actually read to us from “The Hobbitt.” In a Catholic school. I never realized how progressive that was until years later. (Of course, she also read to us from a “Gilligan’s Island” novel published by Bantam Books or something, so I guess it balanced out…)

  • Ocelopotamus

    I’ve been trying to figure out what the through-line might be between Tolkien’s work and Gilligan’s Island, and it just came to me: giant spiders!

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