Someone dear to me noted that I read mostly non-fiction. Guilty. But in my defence I want to say that I do read fiction from time to time. (Although I haven't reviewed any here I guess.) It sort of goes in periods. Now and then I really want a good story, but at other times it only stresses me out.
In any case, I had been looking at the new (edited) release of (the old story of) The Children of Húrin by JRR Tolkien since it came out last year, and a month ago it felt like a good time to buy it and read it.
As a teenager I was something of a Tolkien-nerd (among other kinds of nerd). After reading Bilbo and then The Lord of the Rings, I went like a hungry wolf for Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales. This Middle earth mythos is written in a very different way from the more known Tolkien books, but are non the less both beautiful and interesting. They were however published from the huge collection of text left behind after JRR Tolkien died in 1974. Some of these texts were finished, others not so, and it fell upon JRR's son, Christopher Tolkien, to edit these books.
Thus, it may be natural and also quite understandable, that several different versions - this is the third time I read the story of the children of Húrin - of these tales of the old ages exists in print. While it is the first time the story is published on its own, the tale is represented elsewhere. Some of these earlier books are also quite heavily laden with footnotes and cross references. More like works of academia then something meant for leisure. Still, I would recommend them any day, and especially The Silmarillion to anyone that liked reading The Lord of the Rings and want to know more about the world and its history.
Well, back to The Children of Húrin. This tale is one of the more central in the long history laid out in the Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales. It centres around the family tale of Húrin (one of the mightiest early humans in Tolkien's mythos), and then especially his son, Túrin. A lot of work has gone into editing the story into a readable book without any footnotes or ambiguities. A discussion of changes to the original work and the different versions of the text is provided for interested readers, but this can be skipped.
The story itself is set in the older days, a few thousand years before the tale of the Ring. I believe the only characters mentioned in both stories are Glorfindel (assuming that this is indeed the same Elven Lord that escorted the party the last bit of the way to Rivendell; and no, he does not show up in the films. Yes, they are quite all right, but.. Shoo, go read the books!) and Sauron (briefly mentioned as a vassal of Morgoth, the fallen god and main enemy of the world in the older days).
The tale starts by telling about the early life of Húrin; his younger years and how he became a great leader among men and a friend of the elves. It also tells briefly about the ongoing war fought against Morgoth, the great enemy, by the Noldor elves. At a great battle the tide of war turns when Morgoth through deception manage to wipe out most of the armies of men and elves. Húrin saves the last lord of the Noldor by covering their retreat, and is himself the only survivor of the battle. He is taken prisoner by the enemy and in captivity Morgoth questions him. But Húrin is strong minded and defies the dark lords will. As punishment Morgoth lays a curse upon Húrin's family and sets him on a throne to watch all that happens in the world.
What follows is the main part of the tale in the book, focusing on Húrin's son, Túrin. We follow Túrin through childhood, youth, and as a grown up man; The reader experiences how Morgoth's curse effects the life of Húrin's son and anyone that comes near him. Nothing really goes right for Túrin. He is skilled and brave, just and also kind at times; but he always make the wrong decisions. Imagine someone whose choices in life always leads to the worst possible outcome. For himself and for the people he loves. The same goes for his mother and sister, the two other family members under the influence of the curse, as well.
The reader is made to see the catastrophes approaching, as well as the many "right" choices that could have been made. Thus the book is both pleasure and pain. A pain because one has to watch how the doom of the family is approaching. A pleasure because it is so masterfully written. It is clear that Tolkien used the old Greek tragedies as a model for his story. While some of the main characters might make "wrong" decisions form the reader's point of view, they make perfect sense for them. Pride, love, and loyalty. Virtues lead to the fall. The curse of Morgoth is not something explicit, nothing that causes magical things to happen. Rather it is like the will of the evil god make the small things in the world go against the protagonists. Think about those days when nothing really seem to work out for you; Túrin has a life of that.
To summarize: it is a nice, well told drama and a series of adventures worthy Tolkien's name. On the negative side, I have a feeling that the amount of characters and places mentioned in the passing can be very confusing if one picks this up right after The Lord of the Rings and expect more of the same. In addition, some of the motivation and back story is missing without the story of the Silmarills. I think that new readers may find this really annoying. Maybe Christopher Tolkien should have put in a brief (if that is indeed possible) summary of the Silmarills and the exile of the Noldor. As it stands now I am tempted to recommend someone interested in The Children of Húrin to first finish Silmarillion. On the other hand, then you would know the story already (if my memory serves me), because I think the fate of Túrin is mentioned there. On the other hand, this book is a great adventure, and in my eyes now the true long story of Túrin Turambar.