Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Children of Hurin reviewed...by morons

I would like a review of The Children of Hurin to do two things: explain a little about the book for the uninitiated, and give Tolkien readers some idea of what to expect from the new book compared to his other published works.

Instead, most of the reviews of the book that I've found, both positive and negative, are almost completely uninformative, and most are also quite misleading. To deal with some specific points:

1. The characters are all goodies or baddies.

"The characters are straightforwardly conventional. The wise are wise; the brave, brave; the noble, noble; and the wicked, wicked." And again: "Tolkien's weakness for making his heroes so very, very good and his villains so very, very bad is particularly grating."

Although they throw around some quotes that suggest otherwise, I can't imagine that these people actually read the book. The moral slate of TCOH is all shades of gray. Turin is supposedly the "good guy" but his actions cause much suffering and sorrow and a whole heap of deaths on both sides. Many characters act with good intentions but unwittingly do evil. Even the elves are morally complicated in this book; occasionally they are undone by their pride and one of them is downright evil. Surely the point of the book is that intention, action, and effect can all have different moral valences. The assertion that the book is morally simplistic or that all the characters are black and white is not merely wrong, it's the precise opposite of the truth. It is not true of Tolkien generally*, and it is particularly untrue of this book.

* Did some people not notice that the protagonist of the first published Middle-Earth novel, for children, occasionally acted cowardly, lied, and stole? See also the great zinger about Phillip Pullman here.

2. It's all stultifying prose.

At least two reviews quote this specific passage: “His daughter Gloredhel 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.”

What they don't tell you is that that clearly faux-mythic scene-setting, to which you've already had an introduction in, er, the Introduction, lasts for precisely two pages and does not return. If that's too much for you, go read something else. If it's not enough, you can always use the reference material in the back of the book to shore up your understanding. Finally, see the point again above, about it being two pages.

3. It's repetitive.

"Phrases such as 'the dark lord upon a dark throne' or 'their dark doom’s shadow' recur with wearisome insistence."

Sorry, dumbass. Each of those phrases appears exactly once. (I had the ill fortune to read this review before I read the book, so I was especially alert.) The word "doom" does appear about a zillion times, but this is in the sense of "fate", and it's a book about a curse. What do you expect?

4. It has anything to do with hobbits.

No hobbits in this book. They don't awaken for another Age. So whether you're writing a positive review or a negative one, don't use "hobbit" as a pun for "habit" in your title. It is not only breathtakingly obvious and unoriginal, it also broadcasts your ignorance and crassness to anyone who is familiar with the history of Middle-Earth. You don't have to use the word "hobbit" to clue people in to the fact that this is another book by J.R.R. Tolkien; the part at the top of the review where it says, "The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien" is sufficient for that task.

Even the positive reviews suck, as reviews. Take this one, which at least concludes on a high note: "What is certain is that The Children of Hurin is a worthy addition to one of the most cherished mythologies in English literature." Well, that's great news, but the review itself gives us no reason to believe that it's true; it's all about how Christopher Tolkien labored for 30 years to assemble J.R.R.'s various unfinished but overlapping drafts into a complete manuscript. It says nothing whatsoever about the content of the book. Is this "a worthy addition to one of the most cherished mythologies in English literature" just because of the byline? I'd like to know at least a little about the book before I grant it that lofty status.

The only rational conclusion that one can draw from surveying this veritable sea of excrement is that editors are morons, book reviewers are morons, and consumers of book reviews are probably morons, or else they'd demand better.

Fortunately for you, there's an alternative.

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Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Actually, once you spot this tendency in reviewers -- not just Tolkein reviewers, anything reviewers -- it's distressingly hard to avoid seeing it in every other review you ever read. Not one review in ten tells you anything about the thing reviewed, except in passing; but they are great if you want to learn about the reviewer's favourite rival authors, or what they had for dinner the night before, or what psychoses they think affected the author's work. Anything except what you want to know.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Another giveaway for clueless reviews- especially British ones- is the endlessly repeated charge that Tolkien's work is 'a reworking of' or 'a pastiche of' or 'stolen from' Wagner. The Wagner reference is apparently a required sneer, from Eddy Wilson right down to the present. If any iof these boiz had a clue, they would know that Tollers was of course intimately familiar with Wagner's Norse source-material and didn't think much of ol' Richard's misuse of it. The only explanation I can think of is that Wagner is the closest thing to authentic Northern legend these twits have ever encountered (and, since Shaw, RW is 'respectable'); therefore the misguided putdown.

7:55 AM  

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