The Children of Hurin (part 1): Somewhere North

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.”[3]  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.


[1] Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien, eds., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin 2000)(1981).

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin 64 (2007).

[3] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 347 (2d ed., Houghton Mifflin 1967).

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Posted on October 1, 2011, in Authors, David Mitchel, Dragons, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth, Universes, Villains and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Every time I see a new update of this series in my subscription notices, I think “Ah yes, I should read that, because I’ve never heard anyone else’s analysis of The Children of Hurin.” And for once I’m actually going to read and comment, and only a month after you’ve started! Not bad, for me.

    So as to the story. While I probably like the tale of Beren and Luthien better because of its beauty and happy ending (after much pain and darkness), you may be right that the tale of Turin is Tolkien’s most authentic masterpiece. Of all his works it is the most like the Germanic sagas I’ve read, only I find it so much more powerful than they. Deeper than Beowulf, more inspiring than Sigurd, more of a piece yet more varied than Arrow-Odd. He captured all the virtues of that culture and improved on its vices. I had never thought of The Children of Hurin as the heart of Tolkien’s imagination, but you may be on to something there. The one key feature it seems to lack, as you say, is eucatastrophe.

    I’ve called the story a tragedy, but it may not be tragic in the Greek sense. Turin’s character flaws seem more the result of the curse, and were he not cursed by Morgoth he may have triumphed and lived happily. That’s what makes the story so powerful, but also so distressing. Turin never really stood a chance. And, as a Christian, I keep wondering: where is God in this story? It feels like Tolkien let Morgoth win. Is that so? Why does it seem this way?

    • David,
      “He captured all the virtues of that culture and improved on its vices” — exactly. For that reason I too find it more compelling than the works you mentioned.

      As to where Iluvatar is in the story: great question. Tolkien doesn’t make that easy to discern, does he? If I had to point to the two places where the hand of Iluvatar is most evident, I’d say (1) in Beleg’s pursuit of Turin, and (2) in the saving hand of Hunthor, without which Turin would have died on the rocks of the river Teiglin, and Glaurung would have destroyed Brethil.

      As to the related question of Tolkien (and, perhaps, Iluvatar) letting Morgoth win: I think we need more stories like The Children of Hurin to reshape some of our thinking about this. Hurin’s family defied Morgoth faithfully, to the bitter end. A lot of Christians have faithfully and anonymously suffered martyrs’ deaths, presently unknown to the Church militant — and the praise of the angels and the Church victorious isn’t any less for it. Turin had the right idea when he called his father’s defiance of Morgoth a “great deed, and though Morgoth slay the doer, he cannot make the deed not to have been done. . . . is it not written in the history of Arda?”

      As to Turin’s flaws and the curse of Morgoth: The relationship between the two is not simple, and this issue will get its own post in due course. Tolkien deftly walks a tightrope here — and so prevents The Children of Hurin from becoming a cautionary morality tale on the one hand, or a fatalistic tragedy on the other.

      Thank you for reading, and for the helpful comments.
      Cheers,
      David

      • The connection with the accounts of martyrs is an interesting one, and apt enough, I think, even though I don’t recall Turin being much interested in Eru Iluvatar. Even though this one story appears to end with Morgoth and his curse triumphant, we do understand that Eru is always in control and that his victory is never less than assured. Though many real life stories seem to end sadly, evilly, Christ is the final judge, and His victory is already won.

        Yes, I think that is the way to look at Tolkien’s tragedies. And you’re also right that Tolkien maintains a careful balance regarding fatalism. Even in the despair of Turin’s story, there seems to be a lingering feeling of hope, however slight.

    • Speaking of hope for Turin’s story, no there really isn’t abounding amounts of it, but there is one really fascinating glimpse of a future victory (which is eucatastrophe, right?). In one of Tolkien’s texts (I had to look this up on Wikipedia, because I can never remember where I’ve read all these fascinating tidbits among the myriad of Tolkien manuscripts!), it’s said that Turin will return to life at the final battle of Arda and will be the one to deal Morgoth his death blow. I’m no Norse scholar, but isn’t this a sort of Christianization of the Ragnarok idea? Anyway, I’ve always thought it was pretty darn awesome that after all the affliction of Turin’s life, he is permitted justice, not just for himself, but on behalf of all creation!

      • That would be pretty darn awesome. There isn’t any firm evidence that Tolkien settled on that as the ultimate end of the Battle of Battles, or Turin’s ultimate destiny. What is uniform is that Turin (and, in some accounts, Nienor) everywhere has some kind of extraordinary fate after death — slaying Ancalagon the Black, slaying hosts of dragons, or that one, where he slays Morgoth himself. Which underscores Tolkien’s affection both for the story and for Turin himself.

  2. David,
    The extent of Turin’s interest in Eru Iluvatar is a subject I plan to take up in an upcoming post. There isn’t anything direct to go on (there rarely is in Tolkien, though Eru plays in ten thousand places), but there are a few circumstantially revealing exchanges in the story as to the fate of Men: Between the young Turin and Sador, between Hurin and Morgoth, between Turin and Gwindor in the council of Nargothrond, and between Gwindor and Finduilas.

    It’s true that Turin is specifically not interested in the Valar: He tells Gwindor “there is but one Vala with whom we have to do, and that is Morgoth.” But he is keenly interested in judgment — though the judgment is in sort of a deistic key. That may in fact be one of Turin’s fundamental errors — he is a practical deist, in a way his fathers were not.

    Cheers,
    David

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