A DARKNESS is once again descending on JRR Tolkien’s fabled land of Middle-earth. An unfinished work completed by the writer’s son is such a departure from the world of hobbits that it may merit an X-certificate.
The manuscript for The Children of Hurin, to be published next spring, contains incest, suicide and a multitude of violent deaths. Any film version is likely to have restricted audiences because of the subject matter.
Christopher Tolkien has spent the past 30 years working on the epic tale that his father began in 1918 while on leave from the army. JRR, who was recovering from trench fever contracted during the battle of the Somme, later abandoned the work.
Its publication 90 years on follows the success of The Lord of the Rings, which has sold more than 50m copies and was adapted into a trilogy of Oscar-winning films.
The “new” work does not include characters such as Arwen, played by Liv Tyler in the movies directed by Peter Jackson, and Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom.
It is much darker and is based on the Kalevala, an epic poem from Finland. Tolkien, who died at the age of 81 in 1973, took the tale and weaved his own magical story around it.
The Children of Hurin will tell the story of the family of an elf warrior taken prisoner by Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, held responsible for torturing elves and producing the first orcs, a race of evil goblins.
Hurin, the elf warrior, is given powers by Morgoth to foresee what will happen to his children. “Death you may yet crave from me as a boon,” Morgoth tells him.
One son, Turin, is manoeuvred into having sex with his sister Nienor and becomes a carrier of doom, triggering the death of everyone close to him.
One Tolkien expert, William Ferguson, said this weekend: “Turin makes folks like Othello and Hamlet and Oedipus look like lucky devils.”
A dragon, slain by Turin, causes Nienor to realise that they have committed incest. By then she is carrying his unborn child and commits suicide by throwing herself into a ravine.
Turin finally kills himself with his talking sword. “I will drink thy blood gladly,” says its black blade.
Tolkien touched briefly on the story in The Silmarillion, a compendium of Middle-earth history: “And when all was done, the elves sang a lament for the Children of Hurin.”
His son revisited the story in a chapter of his father’s Unfinished Tales in 1980, but this will be the first time it has been told in detail in one volume.
Christopher Tolkien said this weekend he believed there was a strong case for completing his father’s long version of the legend, “if this could be done without distortion or invention”.
Tolkien experts welcomed its forthcoming publication. Dorothy Heydt, a writer of fantasy and science fiction, said: “Turin had more grief in his life than anybody ought to. The story is based on a Finnish folk tale and is full of incest and suicide and stuff.”
Adam Tolkien, son of Christopher, said: “The book will be the equivalent of a director’s cut of a DVD, except in this case the director is deceased.
“It is a very educated work. My father has been working on these stories for 30 years. What has already been published is a very condensed version of the story.
“The Silmarillion gives a history of Middle-earth mythology. To give you an idea of the scale, the whole story of The Lord of the Rings takes up [only] 15 pages in The Silmarillion.”
Christopher Tolkien is now 81 and The Children of Hurin, which will be published by HarperCollins in Britain, may be the last “new” book to be issued under the JRR Tolkien name.
Writers’ literary estates lose their entitlement to copyright income 70 years after their death.
Next week sees the publication of a sequel to Peter Pan, commissioned by the estate of JM Barrie to raise money for Great Ormond Street hospital before the copyright expires in 2007.
Nicolette Jones, author and children’s books reviewer for The Sunday Times, said: “There is a lot of mileage in reworking books. The Ian Fleming estate asked Charlie Higson to write books about the young Bond, William Horwood wrote sequels to The Wind in the Willows and there have been Winnie the Pooh spin-offs.
“Given the controversy over whether JK Rowling will bump off Harry Potter, where will that leave a sequel? Somebody, some day is going to try to pick up the story again.”