Just when you think they can't find another draft, note, poem or shopping list written by J.R.R. Tolkien, something new pops up.
But in the case of "The Children of Húrin," the result is a surprisingly solid and lucid story, full of familiar characters from other books about the history of Middle-Earth. Tolkien's timeless, formal prose and richly-imagined world make this novella pop from the pages, especially without his son's stuffier footnotes.
It opens with the story of Huon and Hurin, heroic brothers who lived back in the first age. But when battling the terrible Morgoth (the Middle-Earth Satan), Huor is slain and Hurin is taken prisoner by Morgoth, who torments and curses him. The Easterlings overrun his lands, and in fear for her son and unborn baby, Hurin's wife Morwen sends her son away to be fostered in Doriath.
And so Turin grows up in Doriath, until the day when he feels the need to go out and defend his distant family. His adventures take him through Middle-Earth, encountering great elves, orcs, lives with outlaws, and Mim the petty-dwarf. But his life is cursed by Morgoth -- as is the mysterious girl he falls in love with -- and his downfall will be one of horror and disgrace, even as he slays the most terrible dragon in Middle-Earth, Glaurung.
This book is actually a jigsaw puzzle -- Tolkien worked on the interrelated stories and poetry throughout his lifetime, but he never quite finished a solid cohesive story. So Christopher Tolkien cobbled together these various stories with Tolkien's unfinished works, pasted them together, and the result was "The Children of Húrin."
Surprisingly, the resulting story is very solid and strong, with a darker finale than "Lord of the Rings." While the main storyline is about Hurin and his son, it's sprinkled with familiar characters, such as Melian and Morgoth. And the rich, tragic storyline is full of noble elves, great human heroes, ancient lost cities and even a vengeful, talking sword.
And Tolkien's writing is somewhere between his "Silmarillion" style and his "Lord of the Rings" style -- it's formal and archaic, but he includes strong descriptions ("A flash of white swallowed in the dark chasm, a cry lost in the roaring of the river") and dialogue ("You are one of the fools that spring would not mourn if you perished in winter". One of the best scenes is when Morgoth and Hurin argue about theology and the "circles of the world" on a tower.
Despite the formality of his writing, the characters really pop out of their stories -- Turin is fierce, passionate and tragic, and his last scenes are absolutely stunning. His noble father and moody mother also come across well, and we get plenty of other colourful characters, from snitty elves to the evil Morgoth himself, who torments Hurin by forcing him to see everything Morgoth sees.
Since the actual story is only about two hundred pages long, it's fleshed out considerably by Christopher Tolkien's introduction and appendices, which explain about the writing and construction of the stories and poems, as well as a pronunciation guide, and a series of family trees.
And Alan Lee provides several beautiful drawings (both black-and-white and color), including Doriath's forests, eagles carrying Hurin and Huor, elven smiths, the dragon, Elf warriors, and finally the death of Turin, over a grey river under some burned trees.
Despite its brevity, "The Children of Húrin" is a stunning, brilliant piece of work, full of Tolkien's vibrant storytelling and memorable characters. Definitely a must-read.