Tolkien is both fundamental to the fantasy genre and instrumental in my childhood love of it.
The Peter Jackson movie adaptations of The Lord of Rings came out when I was 9-years-old. My mother was not convinced that I should be allowed to see the films, worrying I think that 9-year-old me would find it a little scarier than I expected. Her cunning plan was to tell me that I could only watch the films if I read the books, including The Hobbit, hoping no doubt this would prove too much work.
Her plan was unsuccessful.
After I read through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, she had to take me to see the films and by this point I was deep into Tolkien and lost to the fantasy genre.
Many years later, I picked up The Children of Hurin.
The tone of the book is darker and bleaker than his more well-known work. It reads more in line with a classical tragedy.
The main character of Turin is not immensely likeable, not in the way one rooted for the simple braver of the hobbits, and his decisions are often monstrously questionable. I found his ability to make the decision most likely to have dire consequences later in every situation did begin to rankle as it happened repeatedly.
The supporting cast carry the story a lot more. Although all largely archetypes, they all have an integral part to play and do so perfectly. The sense that they are more remote than the earthy characters in later novels does fit with the fact this story is from times past, long before the Wars of the Ring, set in the legendary great country beyond the Grey Havens.
The character of Glaurung, the father of Dragons, is my personal favourite. His gleeful evil and sense of power is immense. He works well to counter the slightly shapeless and at times pitiful evil of Morgoth, the main antagonist.
I am constantly amazed by how much Tolkien can express in few words. I can lose myself completely in his lyrical dialogue. His style will never be my favourite as it sometimes consists of overly long descriptions in that dry scholarly tone. At times it is difficult to keep up with the tide of events – like trying to take in the events of the Bible in one sitting.
In sum, this story is not my favourite of his. The characters are too remote, too fabled, too doomed, to be easy to interact with.
Yet ultimately I am pleased that I read the novel, even if simply for the chance to get back into Middle Earth.
I still measure my fantasy fiction by Tolkien. I understand why some people find his writing style difficult and the loftiness of the fantasy a bit too far-flung. Yet while I can appreciate grittier more ‘realistic’ takes on the genre, I prefer my fantasy as improbable and romanticised as possible.
The real world can be gritty and unpleasant and the escapism of a well-crafted fantasy is like nothing else.
Nobody does it as thoroughly as Tolkien.