Unfinished tales

A new volume has been added to my Tolkien collection of roughly 200 volumes. The fact that I do not know precisely how many is perhaps more indicative than anything else how disconnected I have been from this deepest of my literary passions for the past few years. Despite my optimistic expectations to the contrary I ended up suffering from some serious movie burnout, and the recovery has been very slow.

But the publishing of The Children of Húrin this past week has proved to be the tonic I have been waiting for, reawakening my soul to all things Middle-Earth. It is ironic that this should be so: I was initially bitter when I first heard news of this upcoming release last fall. I had intended to undertake this exact same project — compiling a completed readable edition of this unfinished tale — and had dreamed of it being my ticket to the ranks of true Tolkien scholarship, my contribution to an already-crowded field. Yet when I heard that Christopher Tolkien, the youngest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s three sons and his tireless literary executor, was doing just that, my feelings were quickly mollified. If anyone deserved to have their name on this book as editor, it was Christopher.

I do not usually have very strong feelings about parodies. Very rarely do I find them actually funny, but mostly they seem harmless to me. However today a friend emailed me a link that made my blood nearly boil. This piece from the Guardian utterly offends me to a degree I have not experienced in may years. I realise that I should probably just laugh it off, but I cannot. The implication that what is clearly to me the crowning achievement of a lifetime spent making as much as possible of his father’s vast legacy of incomplete writing available to the reading public is nothing more than “cashing in” on the success of the recent movies is absurd and offensive. Christopher rather unnecessarily played the curmudgeon in his careful distancing himself from the Jackson films, but he has spent the past three decades furthering his father’s legacy, ensuring that he will leave none of his own. He is bound to seem a little obsessive late in life.

For those of you unfamiliar, The Children of Húrin is a tale that forms part of the mythic-epic history of the First Age of Middle-Earth that occupied Tolkien his entire adult life. The Silmarillion, still incomplete at the time of his death in 1973, was put into a ‘completed’ form by his son Christopher and published shortly in 1977. The style of The Silmarillion is very daunting to readers looking for more Lord of the Rings; it is in conception very much a summary of a long history of a tragic legendary past. It was Tolkien’s intention to build on this framework of summary and develop the more important episodes into full-fledged narratives. Unfortunately none of these reached anything like a completed form, most trailing off mid-flight, abandoned as he turned to another project, and then another, later revised but never finished. The most nearly completed of these is the story of Túrin son of Húrin, a woe-filled tale of a family cursed by a malignant force of evil. It is powerfully told in high mythological style, yet there is a deep humanity throughout. Rereading it again for the first time, as it were, I am struck more than ever at how Tolkien subverts the idea of fate even as he subscribes to it; At every turn it is Túrin’s choice that lead to the fulfilment of his fate, and whether it is the curse that hangs over his family that makes him choose as he does, or his own unfortunate free will, is left to the reader to decide.

So I am on my Tolkien soapbox again, ever the apologist and fan. I am pleased and surprised at how well this latest addition to the published work of the most creative author of the Twentieth century has sold: the first printing vanished in mere days, and the publishers are now scrambling to get more to press and off to a public clearly not yet finished with a dead author and his world which shall live forever.

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