I tried to read Children of Húrin, the latest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unpublished works and one so bad that it makes The Silmarillion brilliant by comparison. I’ve mentioned my own affection for Lord of the Rings, and after attempting some of the works Tolkien wisely did not show my chief fear is that someone will inadvertently confuse Lord of the Rings with the lesser works published, if you’re an idealist, for historical interests and reasons, or if you’re a cynic, for money, with dreck like Children of Húrin. The story is confused and has no narrative coherence, yet occasional passages shine sufficiently to make one realize that it could have been at least interesting had Tolkien finished it, but in its current state it could have used more of the editorial guidance Christopher Tolkien decided not to provide.
Milan Kundera writes in The Curtain (a portion of which first appeared in The New Yorker, where I read this section):
I am chatting with a friend, a French writer; I urge him to read Gombrowicz. When I run into him sometime later, he is uncomfortable: “I obeyed you, but, honestly, I couldn’t understand your enthusiasm.” “What did you read?” “The Possessed.” “Damn! Why The Possessed?”
The Possessed: The Secret of Myslotch appeared in book form only after Gombrowicz’s death. It is a popular novel that he published as a young man under a pseudonym, as a serial in a prewar Polish magazine. He never made it a book; he never intended to. Toward the end of his life, a long interview with Dominique de Roux was published in a volume called A Kind of Testament. In it Gombrowicz dicusses all of his work. All of it. One book after another. Not one word does he utter about The Possessed!
I tell the fellow, “You’ve got to read Ferdydurke! Or Pornografia!”
He looks at me sorrowfully. “My friend, the life ahead of me is growing short. The time I could spare your author is used up.”
After reading Children of Húrin, I would not fault anyone for disdaining the rest of Tolkien, and it is clear why Tolkien left it unpublished, and were it not for Lord of the Rings it would be utterly unpublishable and without any merit. The Silmarillion at least provides useful back story and a history of Middle-earth and adds to the richness of Lord of the Rings by clarifying some of its stories; Children of Húrin is deficient as a story and provides no useful history. That it remains on the best-seller lists is a testament to the gullibility of people like me who bought it hoping for some hitherto unseen glimpse or insight, but instead are treated to a vista no more attractive than plains Morgoth burned.
I’m not the first person to have noticed the problems with Tolkien’s later works in particular. Stephen King writes in On Writing:
Even after a thousand pages we don’t want to leave the world the writer has made for us, or the make-believe people who live there. You wouldn’t leave after two thousand pages, if there were two thousand. The Rings trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien is a perfect example of this. A thousand pages of hobbits hasn’t been enough for three generations of post-World War II fantasy fans; even when you add in that clumsy, galumphing dirigible of an epilogue, The Silmarillion, it hasn’t been enough. Hence Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, the questing rabbits of Watership Down, and half a hundred others. The writers of these books are creating the hobbits they still love and pine for; they are trying to bring Frodo and Sam back from the Grey Havens because Tolkien is not around to do it for them.
King doesn’t realize The Silmarillion is mostly prequel, or how truly awful Robert Jordan is, but he gets the essence of the issue: Sam and Frodo are not coming back, and Tolkien was sagacious enough to leave them be and leave the unfinished stories unpublished. If only his son would live and let die, rather than stuffing pictures and introductions and appendices to pad a nominal, quarter-done story that would probably embarrass Tolkien were he alive to see it. Instead, I feel embarrassed for Tolkien, and I realize it has no more artistic relation to Tolkien’s great work than the notes of a great novelist have to the finished product of that novelist.