Daily Archives: October 22, 2011

The Children of Hurin (part 4): More on the pity of Turin

‘. . . this man is not Beren, even if he be both as fair and as brave. A doom lies on him; a dark doom. . . . Though he be indeed agarwaen son of úmarth [bloodstained son of ill-fate], his right name is Túrin son of Húrin, whom Morgoth holds in Angband, and has cursed all his kin. Doubt not the power of Morgoth Bauglir! Is it not written in me?’   * * * *

[W]hat of your doom and rumours of Angband? What of death and destruction? The Adanedhel [literally “Elf-Man” — one of Túrin’s names] is mighty in the tale of the World, and his stature shall reach yet to Morgoth in some far day to come.’

‘He is proud,’ said Gwindor.

‘But also he is merciful,’ said Finduilas. ‘He is not yet awake, but still pity can ever pierce his heart, and he will never deny it. Pity maybe shall be ever the only entry.’[1]

How does an author show mercy to a character?

Perhaps the most straightforward way is to ensure things turn out well for him.  So, in The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo in the heart of Mount Doom puts on the Ring and claims it for himself, Gollum, of all people, shows up to save the day — Gollum, who was alive only by the mercy of the very Bagginses he hated.  Pity had stayed Bilbo’s hand when he had the chance to kill Gollum.  Faramir the just would have killed Gollum in Ithilien.  Samwise the simple moralist would have had him killed any number of times.  But at every turn Frodo would not suffer that Gollum should be put to death in judgment.  And only thus was Frodo saved, and Sauron destroyed.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

But what if the character is under an inexorable curse, and time will not untie the knots he’s created, and his story cannot but turn out badly?  What if his purpose is to show just how much “the worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt”?[2]  For an author to show that character pity calls for a different kind of subtlety, which I began to explore in my previous post.

I.  The trajectory of Túrin’s story

Túrin’s story follows a trajectory different from any other in Tolkien – in fact, a trajectory quite different from any story I’ve ever read.  After Tolkien alters the beginning of the tale of Kullervo – by giving Túrin good parents and then good foster-parents, and by making Túrin merciful rather than vengeful – both the course and effect of the story are totally altered. The closest parallel to Túrin’s story that I can think of is that of Samson in the Old Testament book of Judges.  As in The Children of Húrin, in Samson you have defeat and victory, valor and vice, intertwined.[3]  But Túrin’s story is less a cautionary tale, and more a lament, than Samson’s.[4]  Tolkien achieves this effect primarily by weaving three threads of pity into Túrin’s story: Túrin’s own pity, the pity of other characters, and the author’s own superintending pity for his creation.

A.  Túrin’s mercy and its effects

First, there is Túrin’s own pity.  It lies dormant for stretches of the story, and his last fall is linked to a failure of it, but it comes to the surface regularly.  And while it does not give Túrin a victory on the order of, say, Frodo’s, it does provide other not insignificant victories.  For example, during Túrin’s years as an outlaw he consistently refuses to abandon his fellows, despite their rough and tumble nature.  The hardest-hearted of the group is a man named Androg, who thoroughly earned his outlaw status by killing a woman in Túrin’s home country of Dor-lomin.  Túrin nevertheless treats Androg well, much better than his deserts.  The change in Androg comes haltingly, but it does come – and so, when the outlaws’ camp is betrayed and routed, and Túrin taken captive, it is Androg who, before he dies, rescues Beleg, who in turn helps rescue Túrin.  Not a resounding deliverance like Gollum’s deliverance of Frodo, perhaps, but Túrin’s pity evidently had a deep impact on Androg, without which Túrin probably would have been made Morgoth’s prisoner.

B.  “He improves on closer acquaintance”: The testimony of the other characters

Second, there is the pity of other characters.  The dialogue at the top of this post is an example.  It’s between Gwindor, a lord of Nargothrond who had been taken and enslaved by Morgoth, and then escaped and returned home, and Finduilas the daughter of Nargothrond’s king, Orodreth.  Here, as elsewhere in The Children of Húrin, it is the character who evidently sees things more clearly, who knows and understands Túrin better, who comes to his defense.[5]

C.  The author’s extended mercy: To slay a dragon

Finally, there is Tolkien’s own superintending pity for Túrin.  This is manifested in part in the pity of the other characters, but there is more to it.  Most especially, there is the fact that Tolkien has Túrin slay Glaurung the dragon.  Glaurung had for years oppressed all the inhabitants of Middle-earth, but had most especially sought out and shadowed Túrin himself.  By the time Túrin slays Glaurung, Túrin is already ensnared in his dreadful doom (though he doesn’t know it yet).  But just as Samson, after being shaved, imprisoned and blinded by the Philistines, was given the mercy that “the hair on his head began to grow,” and was allowed at last a measure of victory over the Philistines, so Túrin, at the end of his short life, was given the mercy of a victory over the very serpent of Morgoth who had been the immediate cause of his greatest agonies.  It isn’t final deliverance for Túrin – but it is a fittingly generous parting gift of mercy to a merciful man.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin 168-69 (2007).

[2] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, in Lewis E. Nicholson ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism 73 (1963).

[3] Judges 13-16.

[4] Both stories are, in my view, both cautionary tales and laments for defeated heroes – but in Samson’s the cautionary element is more in the foreground, and in Túrin’s the lamentation.

[5] Notably, Gwindor, Finduilas and Túrin are the unwitting members of a sad love triangle.  The fact that Finduilas, for whom Túrin had “no love of the kind she wished,” would defend him thus is really quite remarkable.  More on this to follow in a future post on unrequited love in The Children of Húrin.