Book Review: The Children of Hurin

The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien
Book review by Domenico Bettinelli, Jr.

It’s a strange feeling hotly anticipating a new book, looking forward to reading it for the first time, all the while knowing exactly how it turns out.

The story of The Children of Hurin will not be a surprise to anyone who’s read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, since the bare bones of the tale of Turin Turambar are laid out there. But The Children of Hurin expands on that story, building a narrative framework upon it.

Again, those who are expecting a story in the style of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit will be sorely disappointed. This is not a fully fleshed-out tale full of dialogue. It reads a lot more like Homer’s Iliad or Beowulf. That’s not to say it isn’t accessible; it’s just … different.

Okay, enough of what it’s not.

The Children of Hurin takes place during the First Age of the Middle Earth, when the Elves were still in the full-flowering of their power and Men were strong and young, as a race. The locale is Beleriand, a land located to the West of the Middle-Earth we know of from LOTR (and connected to it as one continent), but which was later sunk beneath the waves in a great cataclysm.

The Great Enemy in this book is Morgoth, a fallen angel, an analogue of Satan. If you think Sauron was bad, he’s just a lieutenant to Morgoth here. In a C.S. Lewis analogy, Sauron would be “Screwtape” and Morgoth would be “Our Father Below.”

Morgoth is at war with the Elves (aka the Eldar) and the allies among Men (the Edain), a hopeless war because they are fighting a supernatural power without recourse to the divine assistance.

It would take too long to explain the whole background of the tale here, although Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son and the book’s editor, does a creditable job of it at the beginning, but it is clear that J.R.R. Tolkien intended this as the classic tale of the danger of hubris and how an all-consuming addiction to revenge and self-glorification, as well as a hair-trigger sense of the personal slight, can lead not only to one’s own downfall, but also to the destruction of everything that we love.

Pride Before The Fall

Hurin is a leader among the Edain captured by Morgoth at a great battle and cursed by him, or more accurately his family is cursed. Hurin is then forced to watch the destruction of his family take place from afar over the course of the life of his son.

Turin, son of Hurin, spends his life alternately between planning revenge for his father’s seeming death and pining to be reunited with his mother and sister. Turin was sent away soon after the battle was lost to live in one of the few protected enclaves of Elves as a foster-son to the king, Thingol. Turin is brave and skilled at arms, but there is a darkness in him, such that he can’t recognize love even when it’s before him. And in his undoing, when he is forced to defend himself from an unjust attack, he appears to be the provocateur. Rather than defend himself, his pride - and his doom - asserts itself and he leaves.

In a series of events, we see Turin alternately attempt a new beginning under a new name and succeed for a while at suppressing the dark fires that burn in his breast, only to have them come out again and lead to the destruction of the innocents who took him in and believed in him. The tragedy is that Turin is a great man of arms, a warrior of great skill and cunning whose counsels always appear wise, but ultimately lead to doom because in his pride, Turin believes that supernatural evil can be conquered by the natural force of arms alone.

Always the forces of evil are there, tempting him, tripping up Turin and his family at every turn, in the most subtle ways, but always to his doom.

This is the way that evil works in our lives. Rarely are we confronted with evil head-on. Thankfully, encounters with actual demons are rare, limited to saints and movie screens. No, our most common experience of the temptations of the devil are subtle whisperings in our ears and most diabolically they appeal to our strengths, not our weaknesses. Thus the eventual fall is all the greater. Compassion is turned to concupiscence. Valiance is turned to arrogance. Confidence is turned to pride.

In this short volume (73 pages of the 313 are appendices, preface, introduction and the like), there is no room for flourish or Rococo accretion. The nature of the fallen human condition is pared down to the essential elements and we see the fate of mankind absent the salvific and redemptive power of the Cross. Without Christ to save us, we would be doomed to seeing our attempts to good turned toward evil, despite our best efforts. This is the timeless message of The Children of Hurin: “Remember, O man, that you are but dust and to dust you will return.” No matter how strong or capable we think we are, no matter how just our cause, without our surrender to Christ our quest is hopeless.

A final note: Contrast the tale of Turin Turambar and The Children of Hurin with that of Beren and Luthien. The latter is a tale profoundly about hope even though so many of the elements are similar. Why? Because it is built upon a pure love, a love that extends beyond the borders of death and include casting of oneself upon the divine mercy. It’s a difference I think Tolkien had in mind.

© 2007 by Domenico Bettinelli, Jr.
This review originally posted at Bettnet.com, May 4, 2007.
Reprinted with permission.

Domenico Bettinelli, Jr. is a Catholic writer who lives in Peabody, Mass. with his wife and daughter. He has a theology degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville and currently works for the Archdiocese of Boston. He blogs at Bettnet.com

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