My recent Tolkien jag ended with me picking up The Children of Húrin, the latest (2007) product of Christopher Tolkien's work with his father's manuscripts. In a way, it's exactly what I wished for while slogging through The Silmarillion: a proper novel-style realization of one of the key incidents, which was told in dry, annalistic fashion in Sil. One wonders if Christopher might be able to come up with a similar synthesized version of some of the other key tales in the legendarium, such as Beren and Luthien...
Here's what happens. Húrin is a Man, and we know what that means in pre-LOTR Middle Earth. He's a loyal student of the Elves, a believer in their lore and more than that in their goals, and so he fights side by side with them when Morgoth invades. Húrin is captured, but despite his human frailty, he refuses to divulge to Morgoth the location of one of the hidden Elven kingdoms, Gondolin. So Morgoth curses Húrin's children, and curses Húrin to have to sit on an iron chair and helplessly behold the sufferings of his children.
The child whose sufferings we most follow is Túrin. I won't go into detail about his life; you can read up on it here. In short, he spends his whole life in exile among the Elves in their various hidden kingdoms; he wants to fight Morgoth - he wants to do good - but everything he does turns to evil. He ends up bringing at least one of those kingdoms, Nargothrond, to ruin, murdering his best friend, marrying and impregnating his sister: Túrin has it rough.
I described this book to Mrs. Sgt. T, and she said: "what a downer!" She's right. This is perhaps the most concentrated dose of Tolkien's grim outlook.
Túrin isn't a perfect man - he has his flaws, including pride and wrath and stubbornness - but he's well-meaning, full of pity and feeling, capable of love, and stalwart in his opposition to evil. But he suffers anyway. His flaws, in other words, aren't of the tragic kind; and yet his story is tragic. He suffers greatly; he suffers for his father's acts; and his father's acts, too, are blameless.
In short, I don't detect any didacticism in this tragedy - no "avoid hubris" moment. It's grimmer than that: all this suffering comes as a result of an unyielding opposition to evil. Evil, in Tolkien, can crush Men. Because they're weak.
I found it a strangely cathartic novel. I mean, it offers absolutely no hope, no redemption. But that's precisely what makes it so moving. Your heart just aches for Túrin, because he goes through so much, and he really doesn't deserve to: you pity him, which is an important emotion in Tolkien. It's a noble one, and a worthy aim for a story of this sort.
I found it interesting that (Christopher?) Tolkien chose to end the tale where he did, with Húrin, finally released, finding Túrin's grave. In The Silmarillion we learn that Morgoth more or less broke Húrin; he never willingly gave up Gondolin, but he unwittingly led Morgoth's servants there, and then managed to inadvertently trigger the fall of the third of the hidden kingdoms, Doriath. It's not hard to see this as the full end of the doom (as Tolkien would phrase it, and in fact does) of Húrin and his children. But it's left out of The Children of Húrin, which only brings the father back at the end of the story to see his son's grave and mourn, sort of a grace note to the tragedy. That may be for the best: seeing how all Húrin's valiant efforts, as well, come to naught might have been just too grim to take.