Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dr Vector reviews The Children of Hurin


As promised.

The Backstory

The TV show The X-Files had two kinds of episodes: "monster of the week" episodes, in which Mulder and Scully chased lake monsters, shapeshifters, and inbreeders, and "mytharc" episodes, which advanced the overarching plot concerning the big government conspiracy and the alien invasion. The X-Files movie was a two-hour mytharc episode.

Some fans, including some of my friends, loved the mytharc episodes so much that they were hardly interested in the monster of the week (henceforth MoW) episodes. Some people liked both kinds of episodes; the MoW episodes supplied more creepy thrills, and the mytharc episodes kept the whole thing grounded and made it feel like you were watching a grand interconnected story. And some people, like me, loved the MoW episodes so much that they could hardly stand the mytharc episodes, which advanced the megaplot only incrementally and portended much more than they delivered.

I bring all this up because it seems like a good lens for thinking about Tolkien, and it's relevant to my titular purpose. Many people like the fact that Middle-Earth is a sub-creation with a relatively complete history up to the end of the Third Age, with languages and poetry and all that jazz. Some people love all that backstory more than the "frontstory" of LOTR (how many, I wouldn't like to guess, but some). A lot of people, like me, like the frontstory and the backstory; the former provides the cheap thrills (if Tolkien can be said to offer such) and the latter provides the texture of reality--even if our eyes occasionally glaze over during the poetry recitations and we may not immediately recall who is Earendil and who is Elendil.

And evidently there are orc-like hordes of Tolkien "fans" who like all the bits with swords and battles and don't give a rat's ass about the Noldor and the Sindar, Morgoth, Beren and Luthien, Numenor, or any of that crap. I deduce this fact from the massive and continued commercial success of Terry Brooks and his successors.

Also, the mythology concentration increases in the main Middle-Earth books over time (their publication order is the same order in which most readers encounter them: The Hobbit, LOTR, The Silmarillion). The Hobbit is a children's story and it is fairly de-mythologized, although readers who revisit it after LOTR and The Silmarillion will find more than they did before. LOTR is...hard to describe both succinctly and accurately*, but it includes a heroic tale and some pretty good doses of mythology, enough to make some people roll their eyes. If The Hobbit is Kool-Aid and LOTR is a really good beer, The Silmarillion is the liquor of your choice, served warm and straight. It's pretty much pure mythology. It can be rewarding, but it's not necessarily fun.

* A lot of Tolkien fans have either forgotten or never acknowledged that the 3-books-in-1 are not monolithic. The opening chapters of Fellowship are very close to The Hobbit in tone, and from there the formality of the prose increases in a fairly linear fashion, so that by the end of Return you could be reading one of the jauntier sections of the Bible.

The Meat

I am willing to bet that for most readers, by far the most important question about The Children of Hurin is "What brand of Tolkien am I getting here?" Is this a Hobbit-ish lark, an LOTR-esque heroic tale, or more homework from The Silmarillion?

So let's get to it: TCOH is not a lark, nor is it homework. It's a heroic tale, and a page-turner. But it is a bit formal--like the later sections of The Return of the King--and it is a bit brisk--like The Silmarillion. In LOTR the reader follows the day-to-day movements of the characters and has a ringside seat for the battles. Contrary to some reports, most of TCOH takes place at this intimate level. But it is interspersed with summarizing passages that cover long stretches of time: "In this way, before the summer had passed, the following of Turin had swelled to a great force, and the power of Angband was thrown back."

A lot of the book consists of simple dialogues between pairs of characters. Rilstone made the point that if you could keep the battles offstage LOTR could be done as a costume drama. The same is true of TCOH. If you're dying to read about the pattern of blood-splatter as the hero's sword takes off the head of each individual orc, get thee hence. But if you like Tolkien's prose, his ideas, his world, then I'm happy to report that TCOH is the good stuff.

And you may be surprised to remember, or discover for the first time, how much enjoyment you can get from good dialogue between characters who really have something to discuss. Many of the dialogues end when one character says something so perfect that there is no point in continuing the scene. There are even a couple of jokes. Both turn on something that one character has just said to another, and neither are what you'd call knee-slappers, but I chuckled out loud at both of them.

One thing you won't find in TCOH are long descriptive passages about the vegetation. The landscape is sketched in swiftly and deftly, so that you can always picture what is going on, but there is none of the "you are there" versimilitude/boring crap that occasionally irks even dedicated LOTR readers (including me).

Then there's the question of backstory. TCOH is part of the backstory of LOTR, but it has a big pile of backstory of its own, coming as it does at the end of the multi-century Siege of Angband by the combined power of the Eldar and the Edain. I've been through The Silmarillion, and more importantly I have The Atlas of Middle-Earth handy. The latter book has a separate map for every battle or migration in the whole history of Middle-Earth along with a prose summary of each, which makes it about a million times more accessible than The Silmarillion. (I've said this before, but damn, it bears repeating. If you're curious about the Elder Days of Middle-Earth but put off by the boring-parts-of-the-Bible prose of The Silmarillion, pick up the Atlas. It's like Cliff Notes plus pictures.)

So I already knew about the Dagor Bragolach and the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (battles), and about Nargothrond, Menegroth, and Gondolin (hidden Elven kingdoms), although I couldn't have located them on a map. The general outline of the backstory (of TCOH) was familiar to me, but not the details. But it made little difference. TCOH has an excellent introduction by Christopher Tolkien that sets the geographical and historical stage, a nice map at the end of the book that folds out so that you can refer to it while you read, and a glossary of people, places, things, and events. I kept the map out most of the time and I referred to the glossary about half a dozen times. That's it.


The Verdict

So what is the total effect of the book? The story is compelling and without any big expositional lumps or descriptive logorrhea the plot moves swiftly along. The novel starts on page 33 and ends on page 259; there is the introduction before and appendices, genealogies, the glossary, and the map after. You'll probably refer to the map a lot and to the other supporting material once in a while, but is there a Tolkien book for which that is not the case? In my view it just comes with the territory. In the end, for me, this read like a "just the good bits" version of some larger, more complete, but quite possibly more boring tale. With the diss. happily out of the way I devoured it in two days; if I'd been well-rested and had a whole day off, I probably would have read it in one sitting.

Dr. Vector's Prescription

If you love The Silmarillion, read this. You may appreciate the 'close-up' window into life in the First Age.

If you love both the frontstory and the backstory in LOTR, read this. It's right up your alley.

If you love the frontstory in LOTR and tolerate the backstory, read this. It's leaner and meaner than LOTR and it won't bore you, and after you've read it some of the backstory to LOTR will actually make sense.

If you love all the battles and sword-swinging bits in LOTR and can't stand any of the "A Elbereth Gilthoniel" crap, don't bother. Robert Jordan and his ilk are defecating new fantasy series at a mind-boggling rate, and this short, brisk, semi-formal but quite moving book would be entirely wasted on your poop head.

...

Oh, hell, you morons ought to read it, too. Maybe you'll get a taste for some real literature and Terry Goodkind can go back to writing cereal-box copy.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous John Scanlon said...

Well, I guess you told 'em. No fantasy poop-heads tolerated round here!
Thanks for saving me the trouble of reading other reviews. I'm going to enjoy the book.

11:21 PM  

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