Constructed from the unfinished writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin is a stand-alone story from the First Age of Middle-Earth taking place long before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. While approximately 75 percent of the book previously appeared in various sections of Tolkien’s other writings, his son, Christopher Tolkien, edited the entire tale together into a single book for the first time. It was published in 2007.
The Children of Húrin follows the family of the titular Húrin who is captured by the Dark Lord Morgoth and then refuses to submit to his will. Angered, Morgoth curses Húrin’s family, sentencing darkness and despair to follow them throughout their entire lives.
The early days of Middle-Earth
The Children of Húrin is set thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, but the time difference doesn’t feel as significant as it is. While The Children of Húrin is located in a region to the north of the area in which The Lord of the Rings takes place, Middle-Earth feels very much the same as it does in Tolkien’s more famous work. Hobbits aren’t present in this story, but men, elves, and dwarves all play significant roles, and the antagonism between them is sharp and primal. Instead of Sauron, this story features Morgoth (with Sauron as his lieutenant); his role in The Children of Hurin is virtually identical to Sauron’s in The Lord of the Rings, but he is not the primary antagonist of the story.
The Children of Húrin is much smaller in scale than The Lord of the Rings, focusing primarily on the trials and tribulations of Húrin’s family, and most specifically his son, Túrin. As the entire story takes place within the context of a war with Morgoth and only contains a snippet of this great conflict, I imagine some readers could find it frustrating that the events of this war are never resolved within The Children of Húrin. I, however, appreciated the story’s tight focus, and fortunately, the events of the war with Morgoth are detailed in Tolkien’s other writings; The Children of Húrin can serve as a starting point for delving into the mythology of the First Age, and if it inspires you to dig deeper into the history of Middle-Earth (as it did for me), Tolkien’s writings on this era are readily available.
Not the Tolkien you know
If you’ve read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, you’re familiar with the kind of stories Tolkien tells; be warned, though—content-wise, The Children of Húrin is very, very different from Tolkien’s more famous works. All of Tolkien’s traditional traits are here: the distant viewpoint, the telling of the story as if relating a long-lost legend, the lavish world-building that hints at the vast mythology of Middle-Earth without explicitly revealing it, and of course, the ever-present orcs, elves, and dwarves. However, The Children of Húrin is a much darker story than either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; it plays out more like a Shakespearean tragedy than anything else. I expect that this aspect will be the most divisive amongst readers of the book. Don’t go into The Children of Húrin expecting whimsical hobbits or grand quests: this is the story of a family unraveling under the weight of the curse placed upon them—it’s not a particularly pleasant story, nor is it emotionally fulfilling. This wasn’t a detriment to the book in my case (I love those kinds of stories), but if you don’t enjoy tragic tales, The Children of Húrin may not be the book for you.
Why should you read this book?
If you’re a fan of fantasy, and especially if you’re a fan of Tolkien, The Children of Húrin is a must-read. I’ve made numerous comparisons to Tolkien’s other works, but I do believe that The Children of Húrin must be taken in the context of these other works; if you’re new to Tolkien, The Children of Húrin is not the book to start with—it will be most effective for those who have already enjoyed Tolkien’s other writings and want to delve deeper into the mythology of Middle-Earth. For those who do love exploring this mythology, however, The Children of Húrin has it all: the brevity and quick pace of The Hobbit, the epic storytelling of The Lord of the Rings, the solemnity and pathos of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the detached narrative voice of an ancient myth. Its tone and content are more reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire than Tolkien’s other works, and this won’t appeal to everyone; for me, however, it was a breath of fresh air. I’m a huge fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but The Children of Húrin is far and away my favorite of the three; this is Tolkien at his absolute best. If you do choose to give The Children of Húrin a shot, I recommend reading the illustrated edition (this is only the hardcover version, I believe), as Alan Lee’s artwork is gorgeous and greatly enhances the reading experience.