While it is possible for an author’s unfinished works to be published posthumously, is it necessary? Even with an implicitly trusted editor, can the lWhile it is possible for an author’s unfinished works to be published posthumously, is it necessary? Even with an implicitly trusted editor, can the later works take their place alongside the former? These questions apply particularly to The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee (Houghton Mifflin, $26.00). With The Children of Húrin, Christopher Tolkien presents a stand-alone version of a story already reproduced in the previous posthumous publications Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion. Is a third recounting actually necessary? In all of the languages of Middle-earth, the answer is yes.
Húrin and his wife Morwen have three children: Túrin, Urwen, and Nïenor. Urwen succumbs to a pestilence and dies in childhood; of the three children, she is the most fortunate. Because Húrin, a prisoner of war, resists the will of his captor Morgoth, his children are cursed and he is compelled to watch them suffer. Túrin is sent to live with the elves, but Morwen, who is with child, does not accompany him. Thus Túrin does not meet his sister Nïenor until later in life, under dubious circumstances. Túrin grows into a mighty hero, but he is ill-fated nonetheless and those around him, be they friend or foe, man or elf, male or female, suffer for it. Túrin fails by succeeding. He single-handedly slays the great dragon Glaurung, which has long plagued and pursued him, but his vengeance is merely a Cadmeian victory. When the dragon meets its demise, so does its horde of lies, and the terrible truth that remains destroys both Túrin and Nïenor. Húrin is released by Morgoth in time to find Morwen dying on the same spot.
The Children of Húrin is a great tree of a tale grown from the seed of the story of Kullervo found in The Kalevala, and nourished by the deep soil of Middle-earth. Along with The Tale of Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin, it is one of the ‘Great Tales’ of the Elder Days, tales that are integral to the history of Middle-earth yet sufficiently self-contained to exist independently, as indicated in a letter the author wrote in 1951. Five-and-a-half decades later, Tolkien’s intent has been fulfilled.
Christopher Tolkien has proven himself a dedicated editor of his father’s writings as well as a faithful executor of his father’s wishes. The task of editing Tolkien’s compilations is complicated by the fact that he was his own greatest revisionist, setting aside incomplete manuscripts only to begin new versions years later. After careful consideration of multiple extant but undated versions of the story, Christopher Tolkien has produced this authoritative book, greatly enhanced by the lustrous, grand-yet-subtle illustrations of Alan Lee, which was always meant to stand on the shelf next to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings....more
Regrettably this book will not join Chabon’s extensive list of best sellers and award winners, but what is the point of garnering all of those accoladRegrettably this book will not join Chabon’s extensive list of best sellers and award winners, but what is the point of garnering all of those accolades except to be able to publish a book like this? Maps and Legends is ostensibly a collection of essays on the dual (and sometimes dueling) arts of reading and writing literature, but the overall effect is greater than the sum of its parts. The whimsical cover (I’ll elaborate no further; find a copy and discover the secret on your own) and quirky acknowledgments page are perfectly suited for this marvelous and marveling book.
Unlike Gentlemen of the Road, this is not a book that can be read twice in one week; time must be spent savoring each essay before moving on to the next. I must confess that I skipped ahead to “Ragnarok Boy,” but that is in keeping with the spirit of the book: maps present more than just a singular, undeviating linear route to all destinations. Imagine my delight to find that, like C.S. Lewis, Chabon became devoted to Loki at a young age! That was not my own experience, as my introduction to Thor and Loki came in the pages of Marvel Comics rather than the genuine Norse mythology. I read Myths of the Norsemen by H.A. Guerber while recuperating from the surgical repair of my Achilles tendon. As such, when it came to Ragnarok I identified most not with the predictable Thor or the devious Loki but with Vidar, the silent giant who plants his enormous reinforced boot on the lower jaw of the wolf Fenris and tears asunder the horrible beast that felled Odin. Loki the Trickster is a fitting choice for the admiration of an aspiring author, and all too appropriate for the theme of this book. The gods put their trust in him at their own peril, yet they could not resist the company of one so entertaining. I’ve just now recognized the parallels between Thor and Loki and the title characters in my own book, Orlando and Geoffrey. As Chabon states, “All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.”
I cannot claim Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or M.R. James, authors discussed by Chabon, among my own influences, but I have added Philip Pullman and Cormac McCarthy to my reading list as a result of his thorough examination of their work. I can also relate to Chabon’s treatment of the genre and sub-genre issue. I’ve dealt with this as an author who never intended to write fantasy adventure and science fiction stories. I’ve also dealt with it as a book buyer; there have been books I have bypassed altogether for the sole reason that I could not fit them tidily into the store’s system of classification. That is a shame we are trying to redress. Even the term “Fiction and Literature” seems double-edged and derogatory. Books ought not to be constrained by classifications, and Maps and Legends will challenge any and all classification systems....more
Without the recognizable name of Jonathan Stroud one might overlook Heroes of the Valley. The title and the cover are not especially engaging, which bWithout the recognizable name of Jonathan Stroud one might overlook Heroes of the Valley. The title and the cover are not especially engaging, which belies the story within. This is The Sagas of Icelanders written for young readers looking to escape the confines of typical hero stories, much like the main character. Halli Sveinsson belongs to the House of Svein and believes all of the legends of that great hero, which makes his life as a second son all the more mundane. Halli yearns to be a hero like Svein but doesn’t know where to begin, as the peaceful rule of law in the valley has rendered swords obsolete. In true Norse fashion, Halli occupies his time with pranks instead. When one of his pranks goes terribly awry Halli gets the chance to learn the truth behind the legends and what it means to be a hero. The ho-hum title also takes on more meaning as Halli uncovers the history behind the legends. Readers familiar with Stroud know to expect the unexpected and will still be caught off guard by the hazard Halli braves and the revelation that results!...more
I was impressed by Gaiman's American Gods, so I was curious about how he would handle a more traditional approach to Norse mythology. Odd and the FrosI was impressed by Gaiman's American Gods, so I was curious about how he would handle a more traditional approach to Norse mythology. Odd and the Frost Giants bears little resemblance to American Gods beyond inspiration and authorship, but it was an entertaining afternoon read. After I read it I passed it on to a younger reader, and he also enjoyed it. Any tale that keeps the Northern Lights burning for future generations is admirable!...more
“In a way the Midgard Serpent is the central character in my story,” A.S. Byatt states in her “Thoughts on Myths” postscript to Ragnarök: The End of t“In a way the Midgard Serpent is the central character in my story,” A.S. Byatt states in her “Thoughts on Myths” postscript to Ragnarök: The End of the Gods. That was certainly my impression. It may have something to do with reading it during the course of a weekend in which we visited the Living Planet Aquarium and were introduced to Peaches the anaconda, but Jörmungandr rose up distinctly in this retelling of Ragnarök. A serpent large enough to wrap around the Earth is too vast to comprehend, but Byatt’s chilling account of the snake’s growth in size and malevolence was so thoroughly realized she brought the serpent to the surface. That may as well be her on the cover, rather than Thor!...more
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is an eminent addition to J.R.R. Tolkien’s preeminent body of work. Here we have two marvelous tales from Norse mytholThe Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is an eminent addition to J.R.R. Tolkien’s preeminent body of work. Here we have two marvelous tales from Norse mythology, the Lay of the Völsungs and the Lay of Gudrún, retold by a renowned philologist. These are no mere translations; indeed translation is not possible when the extant sources are piecemeal variants and prose summaries. Tolkien painstakingly recreated these tremendous poems much like Regin reforged Gram, the sword Sigurd used to slay the dragon Fáfnir. Written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza, these lays are illuminating. A hero who was more highly anticipated for his prowess in the after-life than in mortal life, Sigurd is thus descried by a sibyl:
“On his head shall be helm,
in his hand lightning,
afire his spirit,
in his face splendor.
The Serpent shall shiver
and Surt waver,
the Wolf be vanquished
and the world rescued.”
Reading Tolkien’s poetry is like reading him for the first time again. His son and faithful editor Christopher Tolkien once again provides foreword, midword, and afterword. Yet unlike the insightful commentary he provided for The Children of Húrin, here his notes are overly thorough and clutter up the work. These may be the very challenges that his father overcame in writing the lays, but he performed that feat in order to spare others from the ordeal. The exhaustive notes point more to a need to add length to the book than they do to an understanding of the story being told. I read them all and gleaned some gold from the dross, but I wouldn’t do it again. I would gladly read the lays many times over and I’d be a better storyteller for it....more