The Children of Hurin (part 3): The pity of Turin

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.[1]

I.  Pity in The Children of Hurin

In parts one and two of this series, I have examined the deep Northernness of The Children of Hurin.  I turn now to consider a decidedly un-Northern strand that runs through and transfigures the story: pity.  From the beginning of The Children of Hurin pity emerges as one of its dominant themes.  It runs from Turin’s childhood through his years with the outlaws, through his days in Nargothrond, and all the way into his last years in the woods of Brethil, until finally it fails at the very end of his tragic life.  For that reason, and because of exactly how noteworthy it is that Tolkien would place a quintessentially Christian virtue at the heart of what is otherwise his most quintessentially Northern story, this theme merits not a little exploration.

II.  The Children of Hurin, without pity

Given the significance of pity in The Children of Hurin, it’s rather strange that in the condensed account of Turin’s life in The Silmarillion pity is notably absent.  It’s as if Christopher Tolkien, in editing the story, cut off the story at its edge and extracted that one strand from the story’s fabric.  So in the condensed version we do not get an account of Turin’s childhood, and his mercy and its effects in the adult years of his short life are excised at every turn.[2]  These exclusions have a curious effect on the story: While its plot and structure are largely unaffected, its impact changes entirely.  Turin in the condensed account is little more than an unresolved enigma: sometimes – supremely in his slaying Glaurung – carrying out spectacular acts of heroism, often leaving destruction in his wake through rashness and pride.  To the extent a reader of The Silmarillion would have any sympathy for Turin, it’d only be because the reader knew he and his family had been cursed by Morgoth, and because he killed an evil dragon.

The account of Turin’s life, sans pity, thus turns out but little different in effect from the tale of Kullervo in the Finnish KalevalaKullervo’s life is little more than a cautionary tale to parents:

This the end of Kullerwoinen,
Born in sin, and nursed in folly.
Wainamoinen, ancient minstrel,
As he hears the joyful tidings,
Learns the death of fell Kullervo,
Speaks these words of ancient wisdom:

“O, ye many unborn nations,
Never evil nurse your children,
Never give them out to strangers,
Never trust them to the foolish!
If the child is not well nurtured,
Is not rocked and led uprightly,
Though he grow to years of manhood,
Bear a strong and shapely body,
He will never know discretion,
Never eat the bread of honor,
Never drink the cup of wisdom.”[3]

We know from Tolkien’s letters that though Kullervo was the “germ” of the story of Turin, in the author’s own estimation The Children of Hurin was (excepting the tragic ending) “entirely changed.”[4]  Not least, it is entirely changed because its main character is entirely changed, from a thoroughly selfish and vengeful character to a complex and noble (though flawed) one, who is worthy of considerable, if qualified, admiration and sympathy.  And Tolkien’s skill in sanctifying the irredeemably tragic Kullervo to create the sympathetically tragic Turin is evident from the story’s beginning, with his portrait of Turin’s childhood.

III. The portrait of the hero as a young boy

One of the striking features of The Children of Hurin is that it gives us something exceedingly rare in Tolkien: a vivid portrait of the hero’s childhood.  Not only do we get a full account of Turin’s childhood in Dor-lomin, and a sketch of his relationships with his family, we also get a detailed character sketch of Turin as a boy, down to the genealogy of some of his significant character traits.  In character as in appearance (dark hair, fair skin, grey eyes), he was more obviously his mother Morwen’s son: quiet, proud, in mood “not merry.”  But Turin inherited two notable traits from his father Hurin: he was fiery, and “could be sudden and fierce”; and he was “quick to pity, and the hurts or sadness of living things might move him to tears.”[5]

But Tolkien does more than tell the reader about Turin’s pity.  From the beginning of the tale, down to the subtlest details, Turin’s pity completely sets The Children of Hurin apart from the story of Kullervo.

IV.  The heirloom knives

The first notable example of how this works out is in Tolkien’s transformation of Rune XXXIII of the Kalevala, “Kullervo and the Cheat-Cake.”  In the Kalevala the young Kullervo breaks an heirloom knife on a stone, hidden inside an oat cake given to him by the wife of Ilmarinen the smith.  Kullervo responds by casting a spell that causes Ilmarinen’s wife to be promptly mauled by wolves and bears.

The heirloom knife appears also in The Children of Hurin, but in a totally different setting, which involves the young Turin’s best friend: Hurin’s crippled house servant, Sador.  Turin calls Sador “Labadal,” or “Hopafoot” – which does not displease Sador, since Turin calls him this “in pity and not in scorn.”[6]  So, for his eighth birthday, when Turin receives an Elvish knife from his father, he immediately thinks of Sador:

Labadal, it is my birthday, the birthday of the Heir of the House of Hador! And I have brought you a gift to mark the day. Here is a knife, just such as you need; it will cut anything that you wish, as fine as hair.[7]

Turin’s gift to Sador causes a small controversy between his parents.  Morwen chides Turin, and asks him, “do you then scorn your father’s gift?”  To which Turin replies in the negative, adding that he loves Sador, and is sorry for him.  Hearing that, Hurin defends his son: “All three gifts were yours to give, Turin: love, pity, and the knife the least.”[8]

Thus Tolkien begins the transformation of Kullervo into Turin, with pity.  Lord willing, I will look into some further effects of pity on Turin’s story next week.

[1] St Matthew 5:7

[2] One exception: Turin’s pity to Mim the petty-dwarf is noted.

[3] John Martin Crawford trans., Kalevala Rune XXXVI (1888).

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

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin 39 (2007).

[6] Id. at 41.

[7] Id. at 49.

[8] Id.


Posted on October 15, 2011, in David Mitchel, Dragons, Fairytales, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literary Criticism, Middle Earth, Story and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I love the point you’re making, although I’d like to see it fleshed out a bit. *glances at Part 4* Oh, I see you intend to do that. Very good. But still, it might be nice to discuss the nature of pity. What is it, really? Is it identical to compassion, or slightly different? For some people, pity can have the connotation of condescension, although I accept the word as a virtue in most cases. But anyway, to talk too much about that may become tangential to this post. What could be helpful is a short, clear, working definition of pity that could shed more light on the examples from the story.

    This theme of pity for those who suffer due to evil is one that Tolkien thought very important, going by what you say here and by Frodo’s revelation to Sam in that he pities Gollum. I haven’t read the Kalevala yet, but the Germanic value system didn’t seem to have much room for this kind of thing.

    And although the story and your posts focus on Turin, I’m really being reminded of how much I like Hurin!

    • David,

      Your point about being clear about the definition of pity is well-taken. In the main, it’s a virtue — although it has its bad manifestations, especially when it’s infected with condescension. There are many more riches in The Children of Hurin that show the difference between good pity and less good pity that I did not mine, either here or in part 4.

      About the Germanic value system and pity: Agreed. The juxtaposition of Northern courage and Christian pity is one of things that gives Tolkien such a unique flavor.

      About Hurin: I agree. The man amazes me at every turn. The last chapter of his life, after his release from Angband (told in “On the Fall of Doriath” in the Silmarillion), is a sad one, but even at his broken worst there is a remarkable word about his goodness and the pliability (in the best sense) of his heart: After “seeing with [Morgoth’s] eyes” for decades, it takes only one clear word from Melian to recall him totally to his senses.

      Good thoughts, all. Too late now to revise this post (or part 4) substantially here, and it’d be kind of pedantic to publish retractions/clarifications in a later blog post, but if I write on The Children of Hurin again I’ll remember your comments. Cheers.

  2. Having recently read the Kalevala at last, I appreciate Tolkien’s use of pity even more. I was excited going into it; finally, the story that inspired Turin! But, as you point out, Kullervo’s a pretty rotten guy (I hesitate even to call him a man, since he shows no traits of true Manliness) and the story works mostly as a warning for parents to take care in raising their children correctly. I’ve noticed that many of the heroes from Scandinavian and Germanic traditions aren’t particularly likable, though the ones I’ve come across were at least more empathetic than Kullervo. Once again, I’m grateful that Tolkien was able to “redeem” these kinds of stories.

  1. Pingback: The Children of Hurin (part 4): More on the pity of Turin | Lantern Hollow Press

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