The Abyss and the Critics
Review: The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien
Turin is captivated by “the Sindarin tongue”, “older, and . . . richer in beautiful words”. Tolkien endorses this equation of archaism with beauty, but doesn’t show why it is more desirable to write “dwelt” than “lived”, to describe a sword that “would cleave all earth-dolven iron” or to have people say, “Await me here until haply I return.”
After reading that, I spent half an hour combing through The Children of Húrin line by line, looking for the sentence that Mr. Deveson found so needless and offensive. It is dialogue, of course, Morwen’s last words to her daughter Niënor before setting out to find her son. That is a perilous quest, and indeed a hopeless one, as Thingol and Melian, her hosts and protectors, have warned her. But as we so often do, she makes a decision in a moment of high emotion and then sticks to it out of stubborn pride, letting no counsel sway her.
Tolkien knew better than any author of his time the uses of archaism, and the tricks and techniques of inserting them successfully into more or less modern English. Haply is a good deal more archaic than most of the vocabulary in Children, though not too antique for the style. Yet Tolkien produced many of his best effects by coupling archaic syntax with deliberately ordinary vocabulary. Why did he reach for a half-forgotten word in this case? The best answer is the one he gave to one of his friendlier critics, Hugh Brogan:
[R]eal archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many of the things said could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom. (Letters, no. 171)
I have, as it happens, some experience of précis work, and of editing texts to various lengths; I know how sloppy most modern writers are. Had I the time to dehydrate all the English prose that is published each day, I could liberate enough water to run Niagara Falls out of business. The sentence Mr. Deveson objects to is as dry as ship’s biscuit. If you take it apart, and put it back together in purely modern English, it means: ‘Wait for me here until I come back — if that ever happens.’ That takes twelve words to Tolkien’s seven. Morwen’s almost parenthetical use of haply expresses all the fatality of her decision and the fatalism of her outlook, and does it in a way that no other single English word can match. She is fey, desperate, and almost hopeless, and Tolkien shows us the extremity of her plight without a word of narrative. That, Mr. Deveson, is why haply is desirable.
On the other hand we have the gushing reviews of the fans, the completists who would have it that every word to drop from the master’s pen must be equally admired. It takes a very great author indeed to survive the sycophancy of his friends. Tolkien was not quite up to the task; but then, neither was Shakespeare. Tolkien wrote his full share of tosh and drivel; some of the worst can be found in the two volumes of The Book of Lost Tales, especially the verses, which after all he wrote in his early twenties. We must all learn our craft somewhere. Few have mastered it as thoroughly as Tolkien, or with such herculean effort: he did not persevere in vain. But then few of us are so unfortunate as to have our early efforts published and preserved. There are fans, I suppose, who claim that the Lost Tales are great work in themselves, just as there have been those who called Titus Andronicus a classic.
When The Silmarillion came out, thousands of readers tried hard to like it, failed, and refused to confess their failure. When the Lost Tales came out, thousands who had enjoyed The Silmarillion repeated the process. Lately the buzz has been that Children is a return to the novelistic style of The Lord of the Rings, more accessible than The Silmarillion. We have been told so by a formidable array of Tolkienists, Tolkienians, Tolkienologists, Tolkienosophers, Tolkienographers, and Tolkienicians, most of whom had never seen the book themselves when they issued these favourable pronunciamentos. Now I am not a Tolkienist, a Tolkienian, a Tolkienologist, a Tolkienosopher, a Tolkienographer, or a Tolkienician, but I have at least read the book; and in my considered opinion, we have been told a whopper. This new volume is as accessible as The Silmarillion itself, and no more, or very little; and for very much the same reasons.
The Children of Húrin could have been as accessible as anything Tolkien ever wrote, if he had followed through on the impulse that led him to begin the Narn i Chîn Húrin, apparently in the early 1950s. Some of his very best work dates from that period, after The Lord of the Rings had been finished but before it reached print. As he wrote to Sir Stanley Unwin in 1950:
For me the chief thing is that I feel the whole matter is now ‘exorcized’, and rides me no more. I can turn now to other things, such as perhaps the Little Kingdom of the Wormings, or to quite other matters and stories.
In the event, few of the tales he projected in those days were ever taken up, and none were finished; but before the impulse failed, he had written substantial chunks of a ‘novelistic’ retelling of the Silmarillion. That would have been worth having, and arguably it would have been a better use of Tolkien’s time than the academic busywork that fretted him until his retirement in 1959. But it was not to be. Portions of it were cannibalized for Christopher Tolkien’s 1977 edition of The Silmarillion, and much more for Unfinished Tales and the last four volumes in the History of Middle-earth. I understand that some still has not been published. The Children of Húrin represents Christopher Tolkien’s best effort to present one of the ‘late’ long-form tales as a complete and independent story. It is an admirable effort, ennobled by his scrupulous refusal to add more than a few connective phrases to his father’s unfinished and disjointed drafts. But at the same time it is essentially quixotic. The thing cannot be done; there is not enough of the raw material to do it with.
And not all the material that exists is really suitable in tone for readers expecting a modern novel. Many people complained because The Silmarillion begins with a creation myth, like the Old Testament. They will not be better pleased to find that Children begins with a genealogy, like the New:
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 at the same feast his son Galdor the Tall wedded Hareth, the daughter of Halmir.
Children is typeset with short lines and wide line-spacing, and it is somewhat misleading to say that this retailing of family trees goes on for two straight pages. The tighter typography of the old Unwin (and Houghton Mifflin) hardcovers would have fitted it in a page; but even that is too much for modern stomachs.
‘But now the tale returns,’ Tolkien (father or son) says at last, ‘to Húrin and Huor in the days of their youth.’ That would have been a better place to begin. The story of their fight against the Orcs, their rescue by the Eagles and their secret sojourn in the hidden city of Gondolin, makes a gripping little tale; it could with profit have been longer. It is there that the essentials of the background are spelt out: the age-long war of the Elves against Morgoth, the friendship, sometimes tense and wary, between Elves and Men, and the foreknowledge that Gondolin, for all its secrecy, would be merely the last realm to go down before Morgoth to inevitable defeat. A few pages later, the lame craftsman Sador says all that is needful about Hador, ‘the old lord,’ and his successors down to Húrin; and the stuff about the Men of Brethil and their marital entanglements could well have been left until Túrin arrived in Brethil to make the relevance of this information clear.
The mediaeval audience of the Beowulf-scop, or even of the Gawain-poet, liked to know in advance who all the dramatis personae were, and how everyone was related to everyone else, and expected these things to be important to the plot. Modern readers, brought up as atoms in a society that hardly knows what a family is, have no patience for it. Regrettable as this may be, it is pointless to burden them at the outset with knowledge that they do not want.
The story really takes on detail and interest with the Black Breath and the death of Túrin’s sister Lalaith, and gathers speed and force as Húrin rides to war in the host of King Fingon. The account of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears is grievously docked, according to Tolkien’s own intention, but I suspect much to the confusion of those who have not read the full account in Chapter 20 of The Silmarillion. The exact details of the eastern battle we can get by without; but more probably needs to be said about the Union of Maedhros, and about who Maedhros was and why his Union in fact failed to unite all the Elves of Beleriand. Few of the folk of Nargothrond joined his alliance, and hardly any from Doriath; and as those are the Elf-kingdoms principally dealt with in Children, it might have been helpful to explain why. The whole atmosphere of the tale is one of brooding fatality, of suspicion between friends, distrust and division between ancient allies; but if you were to read Children without having read The Silmarillion, that mood might seem strange and unmotivated. This was an avoidable lacuna, created perhaps by Christopher Tolkien’s unwillingness to splice in bits of extraneous text or to venture explanations of his own.
A worse gap, but an unavoidable one, occurs in the very heart of the book, in Chapters XI and XII. Túrin’s fate was foreshadowed from his childhood, but sealed by his rejection of Finduilas and her ill-starred love. This is glossed over in a few short passages, for Tolkien never wrote any long version of the Finduilas story. Christopher has included a fragment dealing with the love-triangle of Túrin, Finduilas and Gwindor, but not enough to build up its significance, or to carry the emotional weight that conditioned Túrin’s later dealings with the unknown maiden who turned out to be his sister.
In a purely factual sense, however, enough is told to convey the story in essence. Tom Deveson misses the point, or perverts it wilfully to revive the old charge of racism against Tolkien:
When, after a long separation, he meets and falls in love with his sister, she is “tall, and her eyes were blue, her hair fine gold” — now there’s a surprise. Lineage is all and virtue is hereditary.
The people of Hador were of what we should describe as a Scandinavian type; they were nearly all tall, blue-eyed and fair-haired, Túrin himself being an exception because of his foreign mother. (The people of Bëor, from whom Morwen was descended, bear a decided resemblance to Finns, and the people of Haleth to the Brythonic Celts. Tolkien’s taste in languages comes out in unexpected ways.) It hardly counts as racism to say that Niënor resembled most other people of her race. But Túrin’s attraction to her does not depend merely upon the supposed bias of Western society in favour of leggy blondes. He has but lately learned the grisly circumstances of Finduilas’s death, and regretted his failure to requite her love, when he finds this unknown maiden lying unconscious on Finduilas’s burial-mound. If you have paid attention to the (all too brief) descriptions in the Nargothrond chapters, she appears to him almost as Finduilas returned to life:
Finduilas the daughter of Orodreth found her heart moved whenever he came near, or was in hall. She was golden-haired after the manner of the house of Finarfin, and Túrin began to take pleasure in the sight of her and in her company; for she reminded him of his kindred and the women of Dor-lómin in his father’s house.
When Túrin sees Niënor on the grave of Finduilas, the circle of memory is closed: for this is in truth a woman of his father’s house. But because he has never met Niënor before, and has no reason to guess that she has left the safety of Doriath, he fails to recognize her, and that circle becomes a noose that soon draws tight around them both. In the end Glaurung the dragon reveals to Niënor that Turambar, her husband, is also Túrin, her brother. Believing that he is dead, she despairs of him, and knowing that she has committed incest, she despairs of herself for shame; and nothing short of suicide can allay her grief. Then Túrin in his turn finds out the truth and kills himself.
This is the crux of the tale, the element Tolkien took from the Kalevala and made his own. It is only the ‘elvishness’ of The Children of Húrin, its place in the high matter of the Elder Days, that raises it above the sordid tale of Kullervo. But to know this you would have to do some reading; you would need to know more about the Silmarillion, and about mythology in general, than a Deveson is allowed to know without surrendering his licence to sneer.
In like fashion, Ms. Salij aims an ignorant barb at Tolkien, or what she fondly believes to be a barb:
Tolkien's weakness for making his heroes so very, very good and his villains so very, very bad is particularly grating. Middle-Earth is the place to go if you must have the morality of your fiction be black and white, and apparently the simplicity was worse early in its history.
Beyond any doubt Túrin is the protagonist of Children, and the hero of the tale if it has one. He has the interesting trait, common enough among ‘men of honour’ in primitive cultures and still more in their mythological traditions, of having the strictest scruples without any actual morals. He is stubborn, stiff-necked, wilful, impulsive, violently touchy, immune to good advice, and prone to murderous rages against his closest friends; I can barely resist adding, ‘And those are his good points.’ I can account for Ms. Salij’s complaint in only two ways. Either she had already made up her mind to complain about ‘black and white morality’ before ever reading the book, or she really does think that a psychopath like Túrin is ‘so very, very good’. I am not quite sure which explanation disturbs me more.
Even the Elven-kings, Thingol and Orodreth, are reckless and pusillanimous by turns, and push Túrin and his sister towards their grisly doom by their foolish miscalculations. On the other side, Morgoth himself is Tolkien’s Satan-figure, and not meant to be a sympathetic character in any respect; for Tolkien knew what traps awaited him if he followed too closely in the footsteps of Milton. But he is not a significant mover in the plot. Everything that happens to Húrin’s son and daughter is, as it were, over-determined; in fact, the whole plot is a formidable inquisition into the nature of fate and free will. We see it first in the description of Túrin’s friend Sador:
He had been a woodman, and by ill-luck or the mishandling of his axe he had hewn his right foot. . . .
Which is it, fate or his own lack of skill? Is it Túrin’s obsession with Finduilas that leads him to commit incest with his sister, or the doom laid upon them by Morgoth? Is it Morwen’s pride that leads her to separate herself from her son, and then abandon all safety to go chasing after him when it is too late to save him? Or is some more elemental evil at work? In Chapter V, Túrin himself leaves Doriath because he has chased Saeros to his death over an insult; as so often happens, Saeros’s words struck a sorer spot than he intended. But between the insult and the revenge, Mablung the Hunter touches on the same question of fate versus freedom:
‘But if either be slain it will be an evil deed, more fit for Angband than for Doriath, and more evil will come of it. Indeed I feel that some shadow of the North has reached out to touch us tonight. Take heed, Saeros, lest you do the will of Morgoth in your pride, and remember that you are of the Eldar.’
In the whole tragedy of Húrin and his family, the only character who acts in direct obedience to Morgoth is Glaurung. He pushes the plot along at crucial moments, first by diverting Túrin from Finduilas’s trail, then by wiping out Niënor’s memory, and in the end by restoring it before he dies; but these things, while necessary to accomplish Morgoth’s vengeance, are far from sufficient. More important are the times when the human characters do Morgoth’s will by their own free choice. The whole plot reminds me of the traps and temptations in The Screwtape Letters, with the epic portentousness of an ancient skald in place of Screwtape’s corrosive wit.
What is the flaw in the world that makes all our paths turn crooked against our will; or in ourselves, that we choose the crooked path when we would walk straight? The question was old when Shakespeare made it the moral heart of Macbeth, and when it vexed St. Paul a millennium and a half before:
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
Those verses would serve well as an epitaph for Túrin and his family. In The Children of Húrin, for all its flaws and gaps, Tolkien has produced a masterly meditation on the evil that lies sleeping in the human heart, and the evil in the world that calls it into wakefulness. Even in this incomplete form, it stands as a monument to the themes and obsessions that drove Tolkien to write the calamitous history of the Eldar.
Who, then, is morally simplistic, or childish, or escapist? Is it the great authors of the last century — Tolkien, Orwell, Vonnegut, Burgess, to name only a few — who dressed up human wickedness in fairy-tale costumes so that we could bear to look upon it and call it by its name? Or the academics and critics, the Modernists and Postmodernists, who refused to look and pretended it did not exist? It takes a peculiar and wilful blindness to accuse Tolkien of moral puerility, or to read him without seeing the deadly seriousness of the issues his fantasies raise. The Children of Húrin is Tolkien at his darkest, Tolkien looking into the abyss; and I find it deeply disturbing that none of his enemies and few of his friends seem capable of grasping the fact.
19 May 2007