The Children of Hurin (part 2): The cost of defiance

A time may come soon . . . when none will return.  Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defense of your homes.  Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.[1]

The defiance of Hurin Thalion is a great deed; and though Morgoth slay the doer he cannot make the deed not to have been.  Even the Lords of the West will honour it; and is it not written into the history of Arda, which neither Morgoth nor Manwë can unwrite?[2]

One of the enjoyable things about team-writing a blog is seeing the various places where your co-writers’ series dovetail with your own.  And so I commence this post with two acknowledgments: my thinking on The Children of Hurin has benefited particularly from following Brian’s series on the Christian as author (especially his post on the author’s palette), and Rachel’s series on original myth and True Myth.

I.  Northern Courage in Christian Eucatastrophe

I had concluded Part 1 of this series by noting that, in setting The Children of Hurin’s protagonists against such cruel and powerful villains, and under a relentless dark shadow that allows nary a hint of relief or redemption, Tolkien clearly displays the great virtue of the North: courage and perseverence in the teeth of hopelessness.  The sense of impending doom, and the courageous refusal to despair in the face of that doom, are primary colors in Tolkien’s literary palette.  And their source was the body of myth from the North – the bleak but heroic tales in Norse and Finnish mythology.[3]  Tolkien himself described the virtue of courage and “unyielding will” as “the great contribution of early Northern literature.”[4]  And that wasn’t just a literary judgment, it was a moral one: Tolkien calls courage, unyielding will, a theme that “no Christian need despise.”[5]  For the peculiarly Northern colors of original Northern myth appear also in the True Myth.

For that reason, courage and unyielding will, the true virtues of original Northern myth, remain absolutely intelligible themes in a story like The Lord of the Rings, which clearly echoes the climactic refrain of True Myth – Resurrection.  If they didn’t face the prospect of dark Northern doom with stark Northern courage, the characters wouldn’t be nearly so well suited for their ultimate redemption.  So Aragorn, before leading the armies of the West against Mordor, says of their attack/diversion:

As I have begun, so I will go on. We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin.  To waver is to fall.[6]

If this be jest, then it is too bitter for laughter.  Nay, it is the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game.[7]

By placing Northern courage in the setting of ultimate happy catastrophe – what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe – Tolkien demonstrates that as a virtue it plays perfectly naturally in a Christianized setting of redemption.  But if the virtue plays in the glory of a eucatastrophic setting, would it be less virtuous, a thing a Christian could despise, for being left in the dark original mythical setting of the North?  Is the virtue lessened because the story ends badly?  The Children of Hurin answers resoundingly: no.

II. Northern Defiance in Northern Dyscatastrophe

Hurin the Steadfast is the patriarch of the story, and the character who most clearly sounds the note of Northern courage in the face – literally – of cruel enemies and the cloud of dark doom.

The theme comes out from the beginning of story of the children of Hurin.  The story commences in the realm of Dor-lomin, before Hurin is captured in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears and cursed by Morgoth.  In these years Hurin and Morwen his wife have two children, Turin and Urwen, who is called “Lalaith”, or laughter.  Lalaith is the joy of the house.  But when Turin is five, and Lalaith three, a pestilence from Morgoth sweeps through Dor-lomin.  Turin survives; Lalaith does not.  In a scene that foreshadows what is to come, upon his daughter’s death Hurin cries toward Morgoth’s fortress in the North: “Marrer of Middle-earth, would that I might see you face to face, and mar you as my lord Fingolfin did!”[8]

Hurin gets half his wish three years later.  He sees Morgoth face to face after being taken alive from the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.  The manner of his taking is a pressing “further up and further in” to the virtue of courage.  Hurin finds himself amidst ruin and crushing defeat on the field of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.  He is the last Man standing, guarding the Elf King Turgon’s retreat to the hidden city of Gondolin, holding the rearguard for Turgon so that Gondolin could remain hidden from Morgoth a while yet.  Without any hope of escape or victory, he still stands wielding a great battle axe, crying “Day shall come again!” every time he slays an enemy that would seize him.[9]

Finally, Hurin gets his face-to-face meeting with Morgoth.  He is taken to Morgoth bound, though, so unlike Fingolfin he cannot mar Morgoth.  But he can withhold from Morgoth the one secret he would most like to know: the location of Gondolin.  So he says:

Blind you are, Morgoth Bauglir, and blind shall ever be, seeing only the dark. You know not what rules the hearts of Men, and if you knew you could not give it. But a fool is he who accepts what Morgoth offers. You will take first the price and then withhold the promise; and I should get only death, if I told you what you ask.

Hurin’s defiance provokes Morgoth to curse Hurin and his wife and children. Morgoth’s hate and mercilessness shall follow Hurin’s household all the days of their life, and Hurin shall be made to behold their downfall with Morgoth’s eyes.[10]  Still Hurin does not flinch.  Threatened with the downfall of his entire house, his defiance reaches a glorious, “I know that my redeemer ever liveth”-esque climax:

This last then I will say to you, thrall Morgoth . . . and it comes not from the lore of the Eldar, but is put into my heart in this hour. You are not the Lord of Men, and shall not be, though all Arda [Earth] and Menel [Heaven] fall in your dominion.  Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.[11]

With nothing left to him, no hope left in the world, Hurin hangs all his hope and – more heartrending — the hopes of his family, on this one thing: That even if Morgoth’s mercilessness drives them to despair, their defiance of him will at least earn them the reward of escaping him beyond the Circles of the World.  Defiance will cost them the world, but at least they will gain their souls as a prize of war.  And while that isn’t the True Myth, it does speak of a peculiar virtue without which the True Myth could not be true.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King 57-58 (Houghton Mifflin 1965).

[2] Tolkien, The Children of Hurin 161 (Houghton Mifflin 2007).

[3] That Tolkien started writing The Fall of Gondolin, The Tale of Tinuviel and The Children of Hurin during the years he was in the trenches of the First World War would almost certainly have brought out the Northern colors in these three stories, the wellsprings of his work, all the more.

[4] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, in Lewis E. Nicholson ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism 70 (1963).

[5] Id. at 73.

[6] Tolkien, The Return of the King at 156.

[7] Id. at 158.

[8] Tolkien, The Children of Hurin at 40.

[9] Id. at 62.

[10] Id. at 63-65.  More on seeing with Morgoth’s eyes to follow in a future installment.

[11] Id. at 65.


Posted on October 8, 2011, in Fairytales, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth, Myth and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. You have captured Tolkien’s mind with its peculiar tang and its unique virtue in these passages exactly. Well done!

    Tolkien also speaks of the limits of Northern courage in “The Homecoming of Beorthelm Beortnoth’s Son,” if anyone wants to round out this topic a little more fully.

  2. Thanks, Don. I have not read The Homecoming . . . ; I’ll have to check it out.


  3. I find your Tolkein posts inspiring. I’ve only recently started reading Tolkein’s work outside of the LotR trilogy and The Hobbit. I already knew he was a genius, but my respect for him is growing even more. The only problem is that, having been inspired by his writing, I will inevitably compare mine to his. Could I have picked a higher ideal from which to fail?

    • His work is magnificent — but it isn’t the only way to write, not even for those who are taken with the general Inklings concept of original myth foreshadowing True Myth, and True Myth recapitulating and completing original myths. For example, if you look at Rachel’s recent post on references to pagan gods, you’ll see that C. S. Lewis, who learned a whole lot of crucially important lessons from Tolkien, nevertheless approached his own writing very differently. In short: learn what you can from a master, but don’t set him up as your ideal or standard of measurement.


  4. Good point touching on the idea of this unyielding courage being inspired by a hope in something akin to salvation. You’re really making me want to reread The Children of Hurin. I have the beautifully-illustrated (by Alan Lee) hard back version, and I did read it soon after buying it, but still so many details feel lost to me. I like to read your posts and remember them.

  1. Pingback: The Children of Hurin (part 3): The pity of Turin « While We're Paused

  2. Pingback: The Children of Húrin (part 6A): A representative house | Lantern Hollow Press

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