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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