A Brief Defence of The Children of Húrin
Over on the Tolkien Society Facebook page, someone recently asked the question of which should be read first: The Silmarillion or The Children of Húrin. This is a question I personally have no strong opinions on: it seems to me that either way can potentially work just fine, and the most important considerations will depend on the reader, rather than on general principles. What struck me in the responses was how many people were insisting on The Silmarillion (some as a well-explained personal opinion, but many just as a general rule). One common reason offered in support of this was fuller 'information' to be found in the other book.
While I have no issue with anyone recommending one reading order or the other, this particular reason seems a little misguided to me, partly because it runs precisely counter to Christopher Tolkien's express reason for publishing it, and to his father's probable hopes for the nature of the work. Christopher Tolkien himself explained his reasons for publication in the preface:
'It is undeniable that there are a very great many readers of The Lord of the Rings for whom the legends of the Elder Days (as previously published in varying forms in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-earth) are altogether unknown, unless by their repute as strange and inaccessible in mode and manner. For this reason it has seemed to me for long time that there was a good case for presenting my father's long version of the legend of the Children of Húrin as an independent work, between its own covers, with a minimum of editorial presence, and above all in continuous narrative without gaps or interruptions, if this could be done without distortion or invention, despite the unfinished state in which he lefts some parts of it.' (CoH, p. 7)
The daunting nature of The Silmarillion is thus an express reason why having this as a standalone story might be desirable: insisting too strongly on reading The Silmarillion first undermines this potential advantage. One implication, in fact, is that reading The Children of Húrin first might be a good idea (for some readers) as a sort of gateway to The Silmarillion.
Christopher also notes that his father probably intended the work to be able to be read on its own terms:
'It thus seems unquestionable, from my father's own words, that if he could achieve final and finished narratives on the scale he desired, he saw the three 'Great Tales' of the Elder Days (Beren and Lúthien, the Children of Húrin, and the Fall of Gondolin) as works sufficiently complete in themselves as not to demand knowledge of the great body of legend known as The Silmarillion.' (CoH, p. 10
There is, I think, a real artistic point in all this. While it's absolutely true that The Children of Húrin has a real place in the wider Legendarium, and things in it can be the more significant for know the broader context, such 'information' isn't really the point. The Silmarillion isn't (just) a dry book of lore, but meant to be a work of art in itself. So is The Children of Húrin. It's a dramatic and tragic tale, with an immediacy of emotion, action, and significance that doesn't depend on the reader having any particular legendary or historical context.
Last edited by Lord of the Rings; 19/Feb/2017 at 09:18 PM.
It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.