This is a short review of J.R.R. Tolkein’s posthumous novel, Children of Hurin. It was first published in the Chicago Reader.

Villains in fantasy novels often seem like stage props: all pro forma cackling and black outerwear. Whatever the failings of his imitators, though, genre-founder J.R.R. Tolkein always got evil right. In “Children of Hurin”— a posthumous text sewn together from manuscript sources — there is, of course, a standard-issue fell sorceror. Tolkein, though, knows that mysterious is more menacing; Morgoth appears in person only briefly to cast a curse on the protagonist, Túrin.

It is the curse itself which is the real villain — and that curse seems almost indistinguishable from simple human weakness. Túrin is brave, honorable, and generous — but at the same time he is short-sighted, selfish, and, especially, proud. His failings make him, as Glaurung the Dragon says, “treacherous to foes, faithless to friends, a curse unto his kin….” Even his love — for friends, mother, wife, and sister— leads him to violence and despair.

For Catholics like Tolkein, of course, sin is both an external doom and an internal failing: Turin and his sister are destroyed because Glaurung deceives them, but also because they choose to listen to him. Evil is a real cosmic force, but its power comes from the corruption in the human heart. In “The Lord of the Rings,” that corruption yields to courage, to faith, and to love. “Children of Hurin” is a bleaker book, but not a worse one,