THE CHILDREN OF HURIN. By J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin. 313 pages. $26.
Six thousand years before the "Fellowship of the Ring," long before anyone had even seen a Hobbit, the elves and men of Middle-earth quaked at the power of the dark lord, Morgoth. Hunted by easterlings and orcs, they fled to the fastness of Nargothrond and to the deep forests of Brethil and Doriath. Among them, a hero emerged. Strong and courageous he was, but foolhardy and impetuous. His name was Turin, son of Hurin.
His story is a publishing event: It is the first new book by the creator of "The Lord of the Rings" in 30 years. The publisher calls it the culmination of an effort to bring to the public the vast body of work J.R.R. Tolkien had left unpublished, and largely unfinished, when he died in 1973.
Tolkien began writing "The Children of Hurin" 99 years ago, abandoning it and taking it up again repeatedly throughout his life. Versions of the tale already have appeared in "The Silmarillion," "Unfinished Tales" and as narrative poems or prose sections of the "History of Middle-earth" series.
But they were truncated and contradictory. Outside of Tolkien scholars and Middle-earth fanatics, few read them.
These works were, after all, largely unreadable: dense, hard-to-follow histories and legends of Tolkien's vast, imaginary world, crammed with complicated genealogies, unfamiliar geography and hard-to-pronounce names. Readers who took up such books hoping for another "Rings" saga or charming yarn such as "The Hobbit" abandoned them after a few pages.
"The Children of Hurin" is the book for which these readers have been longing. It is the fruit of 30 years' labor by Christopher Tolkien, the author's son, who has devoted much of his life to editing and publishing the work his father left behind. By meticulously combining and editing the many published and unpublished versions of the tale, he has produced at last a coherent, vivid and readable narrative.
The story unfolds in a region far to the west of where Frodo and Samwise later would roam, in a land destined to be swallowed by the sea in the cataclysm that would end the first age of Middle-earth. But even then, it was an ancient land filled with legends and half-remembered histories.
Don't expect an uplifting ending like the one in "The Lord of the Rings," however. This is a gloomy tale, Hurin's children are doomed to failure by Turin's hubris and, of course, the curse. The story is told in the archaic style to which Tolkien fans are accustomed, from a man who admired old Anglo-Saxon and Norse sagas.
Christopher Tolkien says that in reconciling the various versions of his father's story, he added no new material, save for an occasional transition. The words, he says, are virtually all his father's.