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BOOK REVIEW

Lore of the 'Rings' is the lure of 'Húrin'

'The Children of Húrin' is a story abandoned by J.R.R. Tolkien (above), and posthumously revived by his son Christopher. "The Children of Húrin" is a story abandoned by J.R.R. Tolkien (above), and posthumously revived by his son Christopher. (Agence France-Presse)

The Children of Húrin, By J.R.R. Tolkien, Edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp., $26

Last week, Houghton Mifflin released the first new work by J.R.R. Tolkien in 30 years, "The Children of Húrin." But let's qualify "new."

The book is actually an old story, begun when "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were but a glimmer in the Oxford professor's eye. Tolkien (1892-1973) began composing "Húrin" in the 1920s as a 2,000-line alliterative poem, akin to his beloved "Beowulf." Later, he cast the story in prose. It was to be one of the "Elder Days" tales Tolkien imagined for his "legendarium," as he called his elaborate, self-made heroic mythology, and it later served as backstory to the events of "Rings."

But when "The Hobbit" and "Rings" took off, Tolkien abandoned the project. Now his son and literary executor, the 83-year-old Christopher Tolkien, has combined various unfinished manuscripts and fashioned a stand-alone tale set some 6,000 years before Sam, Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf et al. try to destroy the Ring.

There's another reason "Húrin" isn't all that earth-shatteringly fresh. The 227-page novel (once you subtract the preface, intro, and appendix) is actually another version of a story that had previously appeared in Tolkien's posthumously published works, namely "Unfinished Tales" (1980) and "The Silmarillion" (1977), both edited by Chris t opher Tolkien.

Still, travelers to Middle-earth will be eager to visit there again. Now that the brouhaha of the Peter Jackson films has died down, craving for new material may be at an all-time high. And there is speculation Christopher Tolkien felt it was high time to return fans to the printed word. The question is, which fans will enjoy "The Children of Húrin"?

Certainly readers of "The Lord of the Rings" will be pleased to see the orcs and elves, eagles and evil lords, again. But they may be dumbfounded by the style.

"Húrin" concerns the fates of Túrin and his sister Niënor , who are swept up in the war between Morgoth, the first Dark Lord (this is way before Sauron), and the elves. Because their father, Húrin, defied Morgoth, the evil leader pits a dragon named Glaurung against them.

Clearly the book was written by a young Tolkien entranced by Scandinavian storytelling like the Finnish "Kalevala." The opening lines, cataloging Húrin's lineage, are a dead giveaway: "Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-beloved by the Eldar. He dwelt while his days lasted under the lordship of Fingolfin, who gave to him wide lands in that region of Hithlum which was called Dor-lómin. His daughter Glóredhel wedded Haldir son of Halmir, lord of the Men of Brethil " and so on. This reads more like an Icelandic saga than anything written in the 20th century. So much for catchy openers.

We get none of Gollum's split personality machinations, which brought an everyman's believability and compelling psychology to the overarching doom and gloom of "Rings." And while "Húrin" uses the bigger brushstrokes of a folklore, it's no amusing yarn like "The Hobbit" with winking asides to the reader. "Húrin" is like "Grimm's Fairy Tales" on steroids, dark, and sincere almost to a fault.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. It's simply a matter of readers preparing themselves for a narrative that's archaic and, to modern sensibilities, far from user-friendly. Those who found "Rings" tough going may find "Húrin" tedious. But the dedicated Tolkien fan, or the reader undaunted by "Beowulf," will find much to delight in.

Of almost equal interest is Christopher Tolkien's task editing his father's abandoned projects. In his appendix, he explains his editorial process this way: "While I have had to introduce bridging passages here and there in the piecing together of different drafts, there is no element of extraneous 'invention' of any kind, however slight." He was criticized for having monkeyed with his father's text when putting "The Silmarillion" together. This pre-emptive strike must be meant to allay the fears of Tolkien's most persnickety readers.

In the final analysis, Tolkien was what he was. He didn't want to write a modern novel like his contemporaries. So one hesitates to criticize the obsolete diction and days-of-yore storytelling voice found in "Húrin." Oddly, in anticipating the cultural need for myth and fantasy, Tolkien was ahead of his time. But he was also centuries behind it.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

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