I was eleven when I finished reading The Lord of the Rings. And I remember how sad I was, thinking (since I’d already read The Hobbit) that I’d finished everything that J. R. R. Tolkien had ever published. Life without the prospect of any yet-undiscovered Tolkien seemed unbearably bleak.
But about a year and a half later I found a copy of The Silmarillion at the local newsstand. I was thrilled. And though I found that the style of my $3.95 paperback treasure took some getting used to, I was happy to get fuller accounts of the various old heroes whose names appear in The Lord of the Rings: Eärendil, Beren and Luthien, and Turin (even if Tolkien knocked Beren and Turin down a notch by saying they couldn’t have pierced Shelob’s hide, not even with blades of Elf-steel). And for some reason, in moving from The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion I sensed I had taken a few steps from the outskirts of Tolkien’s literary imagination toward the center. I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time, but I simply found the stories of the Elder Days more awesome than those of Middle-earth’s Third Age.
After finishing The Silmarillion I thought, again, that I was done with Tolkien’s published work. And then, again, I was proved wrong, this time by a visit to the local library. I was looking for a book for a summer vacation to Maine, and I just happened to see a copy of the Unfinished Tales on the shelf. I was thrilled to discover that two familiar stories – Tuor’s coming to Gondolin and the Children of Hurin – were the first two stories of the Unfinished Tales. Here were even more complete accounts of the lives of two of the greatest men of the First Age, Turin Turambar, the son of Hurin and hero of The Children of Hurin, and Tuor the father of Eärendil. As the family car headed northward, so too did these two stories take me ever further North, into the deepest Northern roots of Tolkien’s storytelling. And in reading the lengthier account of the Children of Hurin, I just knew, somehow, that this must be the very core of the imagination of Tolkien the storyteller.
Trusting the intuition of a thirteen-year old is a gamble, and my intuition at that age was, like that of most boys in the first year of their teens, decidedly and often spectacularly fallible. But in this case, I later discovered from Tolkien’s letters that I’d been right on:
The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala. It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion), though as ‘The Children of Hurin’ it is entirely changed except in the tragic ending.
So what is this story that so riveted me for so many hours on that family vacation to Maine?
It is certainly a tragic tale, set in motion by the capture of Hurin the Steadfast by Morgoth – essentially, the Satan of Tolkien’s world – at the end of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. When Hurin refuses to tell Morgoth the location of the hidden Elf-city of Gondolin, Morgoth curses Hurin and his kin:
The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda [the Earth], and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.
What Morgoth purposes for Hurin and his family he in large measure attains. Hope, to the extent it appears in the tale, cheats those who hold to it and ultimately disappears. In this, The Children of Hurin is the most relentlessly Northern of Tolkien’s stories, following the Finnish tale of Kullervo and the tale of Sigurd the Dragon-slayer. And the chief agent Morgoth employs in accomplishing his purposes for Hurin’s family is a decidedly Northern incarnation of evil: Glaurung, the father of dragons.
The fact that The Children of Hurin sets its protagonists against such cruel and powerful villains, though, and forces them to labor under the shadow of Morgoth’s curse, serves to display the great virtue of the North – courage and perseverence in the teeth of hopelessness – more clearly than it is displayed anywhere else in Tolkien’s work. There are, of course, plenty of glimpses of this virtue elsewhere in Tolkien. For example, after the fall of Gandalf in Khazad-dum, Aragorn tells the surviving members of the Fellowship that “we must do without hope. At least we may yet be avenged.” But Gandalf returns to Middle-earth after death. And while that doesn’t nullify this distinctly Northern kind of courage (which Aragorn had in spades), it does outshine it. In The Children of Hurin there is no eucatastrophe, no unexpected deliverance where “everything sad comes untrue”, to outshine the valor and perseverence of the protagonists in the face of inexorable evil and the certainty of ultimate defeat.
In the weeks ahead, then, as the air gets crisper and the shadows lengthen, I’ll be exploring several threads that wind their way through The Children of Hurin, hoping to see more of what Tolkien has to show us about evil and virtue in this, the darkest of his works, and also the one in which the cold gleam of Northern courage comes into sharpest focus.