reviews Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin.

While debating whether to break up the chair for winter firewood, Sador talks to Túrin, the young son of Húrin who will soon be sent into exile and become the wandering, accursed hero of this gloomy, gory and highly compelling tale. “I wasted my time,” Sador says of his long labors, “though the hours seemed pleasant. But all such things are short-lived; and the joy in the making is their only true end, I guess.”

It’s impossible not to hear John Ronald Reuel Tolkien reproaching or consoling himself with these words. On his death in 1973, Tolkien left behind the unpublishable ruins of a vast body of legendary literature, encompassing an entire imaginary history of the world from its creation nearly until modern times. That history’s grand heroic episodes — the elements he believed were most important — he wrote only in summary or in fragments, despite numerous attempts to craft them into prose narrative or epic poetry. He had significant academic success as an Oxford linguist and philologist, but most of his literary career was spent frittering away his energies on projects he never completed. He was plagued by writer’s block, black moods and numerous changes of direction. He thrust many chairs unfinished into the corner.

Tolkien might still be remembered that way, by some tiny cadre of admirers, if it weren’t for the one piece of his history — in his mind a relatively inconsequential one, drawn from the latter stages of his “legendarium,” but one that had a uniquely intimate and personal focus — that he did expand into a full-scale narrative. He was 62 when he published the first volume of his genre-defining fantasy masterpiece Lord of the Rings,