Saturday, April 28, 2007

BOOK: J. R. R. Tolkien, "The Children of Húrin"

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Children of Húrin. Edited by Christopher Tolkien, with illustrations by Alan Lee. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2007. 315 pp. 9780007246229.


Another book, another guilty pleasure. And for me, the pleasure can hardly be any more pleasant, and any more guilty, than in the case of a book by Tolkien. I enjoy his writings immensely, and at the same time I feel extremely guilty reading them, knowing that in the eyes of most critics they are mere trash.

Literary critics and theorists largely ignored his work, or, if not, turned up their noses at it. Only in more recent years has there been a bit more critical writing about Tolkien; I guess that, seeing his persistent and immense popularity (especially after the extra impetus that this popularity had been given after the LotR movies were made in 2001–3), at least some critics finally decided that this was a phenomenon that they could no longer afford to ignore.

And yet I cannot help agreeing with those who turn up their noses and say that this isn't great literature; it's great fantasy, great mythopoeia, great language construction — but it surely isn't great literature. It cannot be; if it were, I couldn't have found it half as enjoyable as I did. Fortunately, the fact that a particular book is a bit lowbrow and thus a guilty pleasure is rarely sufficient to dissuade me from reading it, and so I ended up reading a considerable amount of Tolkien, and never regretted the time I'd spent reading it.

But now it's been some five years or so since I've read anything by Tolkien. “Enough is enough,” I said to myself back then; “to reread the Lord of the Rings for the fourth time would be ridiculous, when there are so many better, worthier (if less enjoyable) books waiting out there for you to read them” — and so I gave it up.

Several times since then I have been tempted to take him up again. I was tempted — oh, how sorely tempted — a few years ago, circa 2003, when HarperCollins published a series of deluxe editions of Tolkien's major works: the Hobbit, the LotR, the Silmarillion, and even the History of Middle-earth in three extremely thick volumes. Bound in black leather, with slipcases, and thin paper for the LotR and the HoMe volumes, they were absolutely beautiful books. Fortunately they also cost £100 apiece. Even with amazon's 30% discounts, I decided this was too expensive, and thus managed to avoid buying any of them.

A bit later I was also strongly tempted by a very handsome illustrated hardcover edition of the Silmarillion, published in 2004 (my current copy is a dinky yellowing trade paperback), but I somehow managed to resist that as well.

Finally, however, when The Children of Húrin came out, I could resist no longer. A story in the same lofty style that I loved so much in the Silmarillion; set in the late years of the First Age, with everything being suitably grim and portentous, everything suitably pessimistic and going to the dogs as only Tolkien knew how to write it — how could I resist that? And I didn't, and I don't regret that I didn't. I enjoyed this book a lot. But who else will enjoy it, or won't, and why?

Similarities with the Silmarillion; style

If you haven't read the Silmarillion yet, I think you can probably still enjoy The Children of Húrin, but the wider context of the story, the wider history of the fictional world in which it takes place, will probably be a bit unclear to you. I suppose this shouldn't be too problematic; after all, doesn't the same situation appear in the Lord of the Rings? That is a book that most people read without having read the Silmarillion beforehand. I remember that every now and then there was in the LotR some passage where I simply had no idea what it was referring to (even though I had read it carefully); but later, after reading the Silmarillion, I read the LotR again and all those passages now made perfect sense. And yet the fact that they didn't make sense on that first reading didn't prevent me from enjoying the LotR even then.

I suspect it should be similar here with The Children of Húrin, although perhaps the wider historical context is making itself felt a little more keenly here than was the case in the LotR, and so the annoyance for a reader unfamiliar with it (e.g. as not having read the Silmarillion) may be greater than in the case of the LotR. But it's hard for me to judge these things; someone who hasn't read the Silmarillion should try reading The Children of Húrin and let us know his/her opinion :)

If you read and enjoyed (or disliked) the Silmarillion, I think there's a good chance that you will also enjoy (or dislike) the Children of Húrin, and for many of the same reasons. There's the same elevated style and the same grim mood. I found them delightful, but I suspect that many people perhaps wouldn't (but then they wouldn't be likely to pick up a Tolkien book in the first place).

In our modern world, we find it fairly difficult to take anything very seriously; we are awash in irony, postmodernism, relativism, FSM knows what else; we know that there are no heroes in war, just tiny little cogs in a machine; we know that there are no wise and good rulers, only crooked and corrupt ones; if someone happened to be so rash as to take himself seriously and to refuse to consider indulging in self-deprecation, he would be at best laughed at, or at worst he'd be thought a dangerous fool.

All of this, of course, is very good indeed if you're talking about a world that you actually have to live in. We've seen the alternatives, and they tended to be terrible; people taking things (including themselves) too seriously has given us an immense amount of violence, the inquisition, duels, two world wars (and countless smaller ones), etc. It's good that these things can now be to a considerable extent avoided. But as a result our modern world is terribly dull and, for me at least, not at all fun to read about.

But those people who like their books to take place in the everyday modern world, with characters that are ordinary people with ordinary problems and do ordinary things to get on with their dinky little lives — those people will probably be very strongly annoyed by The Children of Húrin, and will do best to avoid this book altogether. Here we have heroes (not mere characters!) that, by and large, take themselves very seriously indeed, and are also taken seriously by everyone else, including the narrator of the book, and when they aren't fighting or morosely wandering in the wilderness, they devote most of their time to hurtling at each other brief grim sentences full of pride and momentous import.

In our ordinary modern world, you couldn't help laughing at such people, or at least thinking that they must be seriously crazy. But if you are willing to do a bit of suspension of disbelief and accept the basic underlying premisses of the book, namely that things (and people) are being taken seriously here, that big and important things are going on in the world, that important and heroic deeds are indeed occasionally being accomplished, etc. — if you can put up with that, the fictional world of this story functions nicely and makes for very pleasant reading. This worked great for me, but it might not work so well for people who prefer books that are more closely attached to the real world.

Character assassination

I must, however, admit that there are also problems with this serious, grim, highfaluting approach to telling a story. I mean, I know there are problems; what I'm saying is that there are some problems that bother even me. In particular, in a book like this it's difficult to find characters you can relate to. Let's face it, Túrin may be a hero, but he's also a major-league asshole, a stubborn and arrogant prick that ends up getting on almost everybody's nerves sooner or later. Admittedly, it's not all his fault; it's due to Morgoth's curse after all; but this doesn't make it any more pleasant to read about a character like that.

With his sister, Niënor, I was most annoyed at the end when she kills herself for no good reason at all. OK, so Glaurung the dragon lifts the spell from her and tells her that Túrin, to whom she recently got married and with whose child she is now pregnant, is her brother; but is that really reason enough to kill herself? The dragon's about to die, things are looking up; what a foolish time for suicide! I don't know if First-Age medicine knew of a way to induce an abortion, but if not, she could still abandon the child after it would have been born. After all, it was neither Túrin's fault not hers; it was due to the dragon's spell, and ultimately to Morgoth's curse. So, no need for hard feelings, they can annul their marriage and be just friends from then on. But no, she has to throw herself in the nearest river. What a waste.

On the other hand, you probably don't want to read something with a sappy and happy end, with people acting in a reasonable and ordinary manner; that really isn't what Tolkien is about. So in a way it's natural that he has his leading characters act the way they do. In fact the author has to be commended for the thoroughness with which he finishes off most of his main characters by the end of the story — in this aspect the Children of Húrin can truly stand its ground against even the most murderous of the Greek tragedies.

Anyway, to return to discussing the characters of the story. I'm not saying that there aren't any positive characters, ones that you can sympathize with, perhaps even admire them, but they are mostly either too distant (e.g. the various elven kings), too ephemeral (e.g. Labadal) or too idealized (e.g. Beleg) for you to really relate to them. But I shouldn't be making so much of a fuss over this. It isn't really a big deal, and the book is perfectly enjoyable anyway.

Fun for the whole family!

Incidentally, it seems that this topic of incest in which the protagonists aren't aware of the fact that they are related is quite a popular thing in literature. Eça de Queiros used this motif in his The Maias and in The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers (complete with suicide). And then, of course, there's the episode in the Kalevala (canto 35), which was probably where Tolkien got the inspiration for this aspect of his story.

It must be said that Tolkien's story is a considerable improvement on the Kalevala episode, which is far more sordid, with Kullervo and his sister getting it on during a sledge-ride after he has seduced her with promises of wealth. The girl then jumps into the nearest river, which is another similarity with The Children of Húrin. Genoveva from The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers, by contrast, jumps from the balcony window and lands not in a river but on the pavement next to her house. But this is still fairly similar. I'm sure there are other examples of this motive in literature; I wonder if somebody has already conducted a survey of them and tallied up the suicide rates (and methods) of the people involved :)

[P.S. Hail, dear wankers sent here by Google. Well met! Unfortunately, there isn't any incest pr0n on this web page, so please click the ‘back’ button and move on to the next search result :)

[P.P.S. But remember, every time you masturbate, god kills a kitten! :))]]


I mentioned a few similarities between the style of Children of Húrin and the Silmarillion, but there's also this important difference: the Silmarillion was in many ways a synopsis; the whole history of the First Age, with its innumerable persons and episodes, squeezed into one book, and not even a very long one at that. The Children of Húrin, on the other hand, takes just one episode from that history and tells it at length. So if, in the Silmarillion, you disliked the fact that it sometimes felt a bit like a somewhat telegraphic historical summary, you may actually like the Children of Húrin better. Here you get something much more like a proper narrative, written by a patient narrator who is willing to take his time and go into the little details that actually distinguish a story from a bare statement of fact.

Also on the subject of style, I think it's great how the author manages to achieve a very lofty and archaic-sounding style (as you would expect in an old myth) without resorting to any really blatant archaisms at all. He manages it all with a careful and somewhat spare choice of words, and with suitable inversions of word order. The result I found delightful; it invites you to read slowly and savour each sentence in turn, and I suspect it would also work well for telling aloud.

Incidentally, if you aren't interested in this story for the sake of enjoying a good story well told, but merely want the bare matters of fact (‘fact’ within Tolkien's imaginary world, of course), you don't necessarily need this book at all. A somewhat shorter version of this story has already been published 27 years ago in the Unfinished Tales, and an even shorter version appears as one of the chapters in the Silmarillion. Here in The Children of Húrin there's an appendix discussing how these various versions relate to one another, and where they differ; for me personally these little details aren't really of interest, but I guess that ardent tolkienologists might find them interesting.

Tolkien worked on the legends of the First Age practically his entire career, from the 1920s on, starting anew several times but always eventually abandoning his current attempt before it was finished. As a result, many legends appear in a number of versions, each slightly different than the others, each more or less unfinished or incomplete (this big jumble of material was then eventually published in the History of Middle-earth series).

The story dealing with the children of Húrin is perhaps more complete than most, and the purpose of this new book is to tell the whole story as a nice complete narrative (not merely as a summary as in the Silmarillion, nor with some parts omitted as was the case in the Unfinished Tales), without burdening the reader with editorial comments and endnotes; and if assembling a complete story meant taking things from several different manuscripts containing several different versions of the story, so be it. I must say that I think it's a very good idea — the resulting book is a good read, it doesn't feel unfinished or incomplete, nor did I notice any inconsistencies within it (I guess that a more careful reader would notice something, but there's nothing of this sort here that would bother a casual reader such as me).

On the subject of complaints about this book, I was suprised to see that it doesn't contain an index — most Tolkien's books do. It contains a helpful list of names of people, places, events etc. related to the story, with a brief explanation of what a name means and what it refers to, but this explanation doesn't list where the name occurs in the book, so it isn't an index.

The book also contains a map of Beleriand (similar to the one you can usually find in the Silmarillion) and a few genealogies (more or less the same as those in The Silmarillion). It also contains a few illustrations by Alan Lee, painted in his usual style (see e.g. examples of his work here): watercolors, often a bit hazy on the details and apparently aiming more to convey the atmosphere of the story rather than a precise visualization of some particular event. They are a bit glum and thus fit the tone of this story well enough.

Here's another complaint, not with the book as such, but with amazon's pricing policy. The RRP of this book is £18.99. Before it was published, was offering a preorder option at the price of £11.38 (i.e. 40% off the RRP); but when it was published, they immediately dropped the price to £8.55 (i.e. 55% off the RRP!). Currently it is £9.96, which is 48% off the RRP. Anyway, I'm extremely annoyed with this fleecing of the people who preordered the book. If I had waited until the day of publication rather than preordering the book, I would have received it more or less at the same time, it would almost certainly still have been the first printing, and I would have saved £2.83. Grrrr.


This is a very pleasant read for those who like this sort of thing. You probably know whether you belong to this category or not. If you like fantasy literature, a bit of escapism, stories involving larger-than-life characters involved in momentous events, then this is probably the right book for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer books with protagonists whose feelings, actions, and characters resemble those of ordinary people in the real world, then you probably find fantasy literature pointless and puerile anyway and you already know that you must avoid it like the plague.

As for me, I'm glad to see that I'm enjoying Tolkien's writing just as much as I did when I put his books aside five years ago. And seeing this, I'm tempted to go back for more. Maybe I'll reread the Silmarillion. Heck, maybe I'll even take up the History of Middle-earth (none of whose volumes I've ever read so far). This next metaphor is really out of place in a discussion of books, but: I think that an old flame is being rekindled. :)

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Farewell, Economy Mail

Alas, bad news: the USPS is going to restructure their products next month. Unsurprisingly, “restructure” means more or less “eliminate the cheap ones and raise the prices on the others”. In particular, they are eliminating all Economy Mail (i.e. surface mail) products — the new products are all airmail. Their prices are a little higher than the current airmail prices — but, of course, a lot higher than the current economy mail prices.

Links: eBay announcement, USPS FAQ, new prices in PDF or HTML format.

[Update: a new version of the International Mail Manual has now been published on the USPS web site. Here's a direct link to the prices for mailing to Slovenia.]

For a person who, like me, likes buying books on eBay, shipping costs are often a very significant part of the total amount I have to pay for a book. Economy mail was a great thing — sure, it took them 6–10 weeks to get here, but it was cheap.

The thing I will miss most is undoubtedly the good old Economy Mail M-bag. M-bags work like this: the sender puts the books, or whatever it is that they're sending, in a stout postal sack and entrusts it to the tender mercies of the postal system. The latter, as far as I understand, simply waits until there happens to be some bit of space on some ship that they can stow the sack into. And in two to three monts, you get your book — plus the sack, so that I now have three or four of these sturdy sacks in the basement — I'm not yet quite sure what to use them for; they aren't quite large enough to be useful for disposing of a human cadaver (unless you care to carve it up and distribute it among two or three sacks), but they would do just fine for a cat or a moderately-sized dog; — but I digress. You get your books, in short, and all for the princely sum of $1 per pound of weight, 11 lbs. minimum charge, until a couple of years ago when they raised the sum to $1.05 per pound of weight.

By comparison, Airmail M-bag to Slovenia currently costs $3.70 per pound. In May, both Economy and Airmail will be replaced by “Priority Mail International”, which doesn't seem to offer M-bags, but there will also be “International Priority Airmail” with M-bags at $4.40 per pound. But plain Priority Mail International seems to be cheaper; just like now, when plain Airmail Parcel Post was cheaper than Airmail M-bags.

It seems there also exists “International Surface Airlift” (= slow airmail to the destination country, surface mail within the destination country) which will offer M-bags at $2.35 per pound in the new pricing scheme. However, although it's available for delivery to many countries, Slovenia doesn't seem to be one of them. Grrr.

Anyway, everything that is going to be available in the new pricing scheme is quite a bit more expensive than Economy Mail was in the old pricing scheme.

Chart of USPS Shipping Rates to Slovenia

On the upside, even under the new pricing scheme, the U$P$ is still cheaper than Roya£ Mai£ / Parce£force from the UK...

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