Tonight I am proud, happy, and a little sad. Grady and I turned the last page on a novel we’ve been reading together by J.R.R. Tolkien: The Children of Hurin. As novels go, it’s short — 257 pages — but it is a novel, written in language that is not “kid friendly” nor even that adult friendly (very formal and often Elizabethan language), and while there are some very artistic illustrations by Alan Lee, it’s certainly not a picture book or even close. It’s a novel. And Grady clung to every word.
We started reading the novel on his 3rd birthday, as I had promised him leading up to his birthday, and in keeping with family tradition: my father started reading Tolkien to me when I was three. I was nervous at first, and had no idea whether his attention span would hold, or whether he would understand any of what was going on. It did hold, though, and he understood (he wasn’t at all shy about asking a million questions in the process, too). We read every night for the past month, about an hour each night. Sometimes I thought he was asleep, but when I stopped, or closed the book, he would sit bolt upright and say, “that’s not enough, Daddy!” And when I asked him what was happening…he told me. In vivid detail.
As for the story, it was only recently published (posthumously, of course) in this format, although the story appears in abridged form in The Lays of Beleriand. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, edited the story and wove in some related fragments from other stories to make it stand on its own. Its debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list speaks to the power Tolkien’s stories still hold for us today, and this story is certainly worthy of it’s author.
I had never read it before, and so wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, especially reading it for the first time together with my impressionable child. In some ways, it was the perfect “starter Tolkien” story for a sword-happy young boy: There were little boys flying on eagles, a hidden kingdom, a band of forested outlaws, a cave-fortress on/in a hill, a fire-breathing dragon, Orcs, Elvish Kings, Queens, and even a princess. The hero, Turin Turambar, had a magical helmet, a black enchanted sword named Gurthang, and performed mythic feats of bravery and strength.
From a literary standpoint, Tolkien throws in a reference to every great story from mythology and the kitchen sink, too. There are parallels to the legend of Robin Hood, the biblical story of Ruth, and the Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex.
On the other hand, of all Tolkien’s stories, this most recent work is also his great (and successful) attempt at tragedy. Not only did Turin die at the end (on the point of his own sword, by his own hand), he left a path of misery and death at the end of almost every chapter. He kills his best friend by accident, scorns the advice of all his elders, allows (by neglect) his true love to be killed, marries his sister (unknowingly), and then indirectly causes her death, and that of the man who truly loved her. Then he kills himself. Oh, yeah, and all the while, Turin’s father (Hurin) is being held captive by the villain, who forces him to watch (magically, of course) his son and daughter self-destruct. Now try explaining that to your toddler.
Nevertheless, it has been good for us, and we’ve talked a lot about anger, consequences, being nice to our friends, and being a good listener. And we’ve talked a lot about death, dying, killing, and violence. I really do think it’s better to face tough issues head on instead of sheltering them from it. I also believe that with the printed word — unlike television or film — a child’s imagination is not capable of conjuring up images he can’t deal with.
All in all, I wasn’t expecting it to be over so quickly. This will forever be the first novel I read with my son. The first novel he “experienced” at all, for that matter. We’re already planning for the next one: I’m thinking maybe Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham or maybe even something by Isaac Asimov or Shakespeare. Of course, he’s already asking me to read Beowulf to him. I’m just glad I’ve found one more common love to share with my son in this life.
Thanks, Dad. I didn’t forget.