Another “Children of Hurin” Review

I’ve heard The Lord of the Rings described as a defense of Western Civilisation before… and explained as a justification for all kinds of things, including Western shows of military force. But this review of The Children of Hurin takes a different perspective.

J R R Tolkien was the most Christian of 20th-century writers, not because he produced Christian allegory and apologetics like his friend C S Lewis, but because he uniquely portrayed the tragic nature of what Christianity replaced. Thanks to the diligence of his son Christopher, who reconstructed the present volume from several manuscripts, we have before us a treasure that sheds light on the greater purpose of his The Lord of the Rings.In The Children of Hurin, a tragedy set some 6,000 years before the tales recounted in The Lord of the Rings, we see clearly why it was that Tolkien sought to give the English-speaking peoples a new pre-Christian mythology. It is a commonplace of Tolkien scholarship that the writer, the leading Anglo-Saxon scholar of his generation, sought to restore to the English their lost mythology. In this respect the standard critical sources (for example Edmund Wainwright) mistake Tolkien’s profoundly Christian motive. In place of the heroes Siegfried and Beowulf, the exemplars of German and Anglo-Saxon pagan myth, we have the accursed warrior Turin, whose pride of blood and loyalty to tribe leave him vulnerable to manipulation by the forces of evil.

Tolkien’s popular Ring trilogy … sought to undermine and supplant Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle, which had offered so much inspiration for Nazism. [1] With the reconstruction of the young Tolkien’s prehistory of Middle-earth, we discern a far broader purpose: to recast as tragedy the heroic myths of pre-Christian peoples, in which the tragic flaw is the pagan’s tribal identity. Tolkien saw his generation decimated, and his circle of friends exterminated, by the nationalist compulsions of World War I; he saw the cult of Siegfried replace the cult of Christ during World War II. His life’s work was to attack the pagan flaw at the foundation of the West. 

That’s just how it starts.

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  • jasdye

    “the cult of Sigfried”?

    that’s just too easy!

  • Eucharisto

    Actually, Joel, (and I’m even surprising myself a bit here), I for one partially agree with that assertion. Here’s how I would clarify the issue: Tolkien was the most Christian writer of the 20th century, relative to the overarching history of literature in Great Britain, especially in context with the medieval period, starting with Beowulf, and moving through to perhaps Milton. Tolkien revived that strain in a way so brilliant that no other author has approached its consistency and complete understanding of the traditional hero, not even Lewis.

    Lewis was the greatest Christian writer of the 20th century, in relation to his own contemporary 20th century culture. His stories were easily accessed by people with a common knowledge of their own world. He used modernity to his advantage, and produced his finest works in the modern genre of science fiction. Where Lewis approaches Tolkien in his work is the book, “Till We Have Faces”, which also harked back to a classical literature tradition. However, it was a destinctly different historical ideology, or philosophy, that Lewis incorporated into work.

    Each author deserves merit in their own right. But I must partially agree with Spengler, and differentiate in that I think Tolkien deserves a great deal of respect, especially in contemporary culture for a different reason. Nowadays, even in the best universities, the idea of a hero, or a Christ figure, has been all but eliminated from historical literature study. Many courses no longer include Beowulf or Gawain as part of their curriculim for that very reason. Tolkien created a story with the greatest of historical heroes. Granted, I’ve not read The Children of Hurin, but if it reflects any part of Tolkien’s larger body of work, it should contain the same virtues.

  • Joel Buursma

    Really fascinating. Tolkien a better theologian than Lewis? That will stir up some controversy.