Thursday, June 7, 2007

Things Fall Apart

A friend told me yesterday that J. R. R. Tolkien was "over-rated." That may be. But if it is so, then Tolkien is only over-rated in the same way that the Holy Bible is over-rated: widely known and admired, but too often its context and subtlety and true meaning are lost behind a mountain of superficial hype and hackneyed misapprehension.

His remark came on the heels of my announcement that I had finished Tolkien's latest posthumously-published opus The Children of Húrin, a deeply moving and tragic novel. In truth this is one of Tolkien's oldest tales: its outline took shape ninety years ago. The story follows the woes of Húrin and his offspring, most particularly Túrin, his eldest son. It was first published as a part of The Silmarillion, but the amount of material in Tolkien's archives surrounding this narrative gave Christopher Tolkien license to assemble the epic into its own volume.

Húrin was a mighty captain among men, and for his defiance of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, he earned a potent curse: "upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair." This is no mere invocation of malice: Morgoth, being one of the Powers of the World, possessed the ability to bend fate to suit his evil designs.

So began the tale of Túrin's descent. As a boy Túrin was not without wise counsel or love. He befriended an invalid, Sador, one of his father's loyal servants. "Let the unseen days be. Today is more than enough," advised Sador, when Túrin experienced the the first hint of the fate that was to befall him and his kin. His father, a high-spirited, open-hearted man found good and beauty and charity where he looked. But his mother was a proud and harsh realist, and his father was often away, and so his childhood was tainted with sorrow.

It occurred to me that the story of Anakin Skywalker parallels the tale of Túrin: a young hero driven to despair and evil by misfortune. But George Lucas would have done well to consider with more gravity how an innocent may be corrupted, because while his character's fall is clumsy and unsatisfying, my heart ached for Túrin and the ones who loved him. As injustice and unhappy chance follow him, so his frustration and pride grew until he was an unyielding, hateful man. His transformation is powerful and believable and tragic.

There are some terrific scenes in this book, and it has great villians in Morgoth and Glaurung, the dragon. It is also touched with a deep sorrow. Above all, though, I most enjoy Tolkien's portrayal of friendship, heroism, and honor. The love between characters is palpable for me, and it is what makes the torment and loss that the characters experience so poignant.

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