The Children of Húrin (part 5D): “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick”

[SPOILER ALERT: This post is loaded with spoilers.  So if you intend to read The Children of Húrin, and suspense is important to your enjoyment of the story, read no further — DPM.]

In my last post in this series I’d left Túrin for dead on the mound under which the longsuffering Elf-maid Finduilas was buried.  Now I continue the story in Brethil, the setting of the second, and final, disastrous love triangle in The Children of Húrin.

I. Kept alive for torment and the crushing of naïve hopes

Túrin, predictably, did not die. Morgoth’s curse could not bring him to such a gentle end.  The men of the people of Haleth, the last of the houses of the Elf-friends, bore Túrin back to Brandir, the Lord of Brethil.

In the introduction of Brandir into the story Tolkien again displays his marvelous thrift with themes in The Children of Húrin.  Brandir, like Sador and Gwindor, was crippled, having grievously injured his leg in childhood.  But Tolkien doesn’t just keep recycling themes, he develops them.  And so we see a pattern: Sador, house-servant in a house of which Túrin was the heir, was Túrin’s servant; Gwindor, as a lord of Nargothrond and member of King Orodreth’s council, was Túrin’s peer; Brandir, as lord of the forest in which Túrin took refuge, was Túrin’s master.  And while the mighty Túrin formerly would have borne submission to a crippled sovereign very ill, we see that he had not failed to learn from the hard lessons life had taught him:

. . . when at last Túrin shook off the darkness, spring was returning; and he awoke and saw sun on the green buds.  Then the courage of the House of Hador awoke in him also, and he arose and said in this heart: ‘All my deeds and past days were dark and full of evil.  But a new day is come.  Here I will stay at peace, and renounce name and kin; and so I will put my shadow behind me, or at the least not lay it upon those that I love.’[1]

To signify this change Túrin named himself anew: Turambar, master of doom.  The context indicates he took the name in naïveté rather than pride; the “mastery” signified escape from the shadow, rather than conquest of it.

II. Brandir, the superior mild intellectual

Brandir, though, knew better about Túrin’s shadow – it was of such massive size, and so relentless, that from it there could be no flight.  So, when he first looked on Túrin’s face, he said to the men who had brought him into Brethil, “[w]ith great labour you have brought hither the last bane of our people.”[2]

Nevertheless, being at root a gentle and kind man, Brandir healed Túrin; indeed, Tolkien notes Brandir’s wisdom and skill in healing repeatedly.  But there was something darker in him.  Tolkien never names it, but the story bears it out: crippled as he was, and therefore backward in battle perforce, he scorned battle and warriors in very much the same way as the mild intellectuals of our time.  He looked upon them with a cultivated sense of superiority, but his attitude was born of envy.  And blinded by this envy, Brandir failed to recognize that there are some evils that cannot be treated with or even hidden from, but can only be fought.  He could not see or acknowledge his debt to those who would go defend Brethil’s borders against the Orcs, including Túrin himself.  By this his rule of Brethil was blighted, and the relationship between himself and Túrin already strained even before they became rivals for the affections of one woman.

III. Meanwhile, in Doriath . . .

The woman for whose affections they would vie, though, did not yet reside in Brethil.  At the time Túrin arrived in Brethil, she lived in Doriath, under the protection of Queen Melian, with her mother Morwen.  And she was none other than Túrin’s sister Niënor – the sister Túrin had never met.

I will not describe in detail here how Niënor ended up in Brethil.  In a sentence: Following her mother and seeking Túrin, she went forth, unwillingly, from Doriath to Nargothrond, and there encountered Glaurung the Dragon, who cast a dreadful spell of forgetfulness on her, and then she fled to Brethil.[3]

Now a few more comments on this chapter of The Children of Húrin before I proceed further.  First, apart from the story’s hideous denouement and, maybe, the slaying of Beleg, the tale of Niënor’s going forth from Doriath, and her encounter with Glaurung, is, in my view, the most tragic part of the story.  This is the first time we meet Niënor, and the impression of her that Tolkien leaves us with is entirely favorable.  For unlike her headstrong mother and brother, Niënor, courageous as she was, was also wise enough to heed good counsel.  She went forth from Doriath only because her mother did so, and she wisely sought to dissuade her mother from that course.  In short, Niënor was, in character as well as appearance, her father’s daughter.  Tolkien thus sets apart Húrin and Niënor as the story’s sacrificial animals – Húrin the ox, Niënor the lamb – and contrasts them with Morwen and Túrin, in whose pride and stubbornness Morgoth’s curse repeatedly found opportunity to work.

Second, in his description of Niënor’s flight into Brethil, Tolkien again displays his thrift with motifs in the story.  He says “a strange change had come upon Niënor” as she outran both Orcs and Elves, “flying like a deer among the trees with her hair streaming in the wind of her speed,” and “casting away her garments one by one as she fled.”[4]  The description clearly echoes the Elf-counselor Saeros’s taunting of Túrin in Doriath in Túrin’s youth:

If the Men of Hithlum are so wild and fell, of what sort are the women of that land?  Do they run like the deer clad only in their hair?[5]

Tolkien’s economy with motifs like this displays Morgoth’s ruthless efficiency with them. The great Enemy never met a slander he didn’t like, or which he couldn’t use – and it’s a terrifying thought that somehow, what he spoke through Saeros,[6] he brought to pass in the flight of Niënor.

When Niënor arrived in Brethil, she remembered nothing – not her name, not her kin, no words.  Túrin and some of the other woodmen found her, and, since she couldn’t speak, Túrin gave her a name: Niniel, the maid of tears.  And Brandir healed her, after which the people of Brethil taught her, as a child, to speak again – and she took a particular delight in the learning.   ‘What is the name of this thing?’ was her constant refrain. ‘For in my darkness I lost it.’[7]

IV. “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick”[8]

Frasier: Maris may have temporarily succumbed to Gunnar’s Teutonic charms, but I’m sure that in the end she’ll choose the man who’s intelligent and sensitive.

Niles: Oh, Frasier – that’s just something we used to tell ourselves in Chess Club. The truth is, women don’t want men like us, men of intellect. They want men of action.[9]

Amid the joys of the rebirths of the two children of Húrin in Brethil, though, one seed of unknown horror and one root of bitterness were planted:

Brandir grew to love [Niniel]; and when she grew strong she would lend him her arm for his lameness, and she called him her brother. But to Turambar her heart was given, and only at his coming would she smile, and only when he spoke gaily would she laugh.[10]

In short, Niniel unwittingly fell in love with her brother, and called “brother” the one who was in love with her and not her brother.  And this time, Túrin was not oblivious to the affections of the one that loved him, and before long came to return them.  Thus, the love triangle of Brethil differed from that of Nargothrond.  In Nargothrond there was no “inside,” and so also there was no one on the outside looking in.  Here, Brandir was left on the outside, looking in with a mixture of legitimate misgiving and bitter resentment.  So Brandir, not quite knowingly, counseled Niniel not to marry Turambar – counsel she heeded for about a year.  Ultimately, though, they did marry, and “dwelt in happiness” on the hill of Amon Obel, while “Brandir was troubled, and the shadow on his heart grew deeper.”[11]

The newlyweds’ honeymoon was interrupted by the coming of Orcs to Brethil, and, finally, by the coming of Glaurung himself to seek Túrin.  After Túrin and his two companions went forth to meet Glaurung, scouts returned to the camp of the people of Brethil with (false) bad news: that Turambar had “surely” died, and Glaurung had crossed into Brethil.  At this the roots of bitterness in Brandir’s heart suddenly put forth all kinds of noxious fruit.

Then Brandir stood by Niniel, and guessed her misery, and he yearned to her; but he thought nonetheless: ‘The Black Sword is dead, and Niniel lives.’[12]

Tolkien adds that Brandir then thought that ‘surely Glaurung has gone and passed into Brethil,’ but that Brandir himself “pitied his people no more, fools that had flouted his counsel.”[13]  At this point, he had eyes only for Niniel – not in a good way.

So Brandir offered to lead Niniel away from Brethil, and she, mistakenly thinking he intended to lead her to Turambar, set off with him.  But when she realized they weren’t going in the right direction, she said to Brandir,

Did you not offer to lead me to him?  Or would you deceive me? The Black Sword was my beloved and my husband, and only to find him do I go.  What else could you think?[14]

What Niniel found when she arrived at the place where her husband lay – apparently dead, but actually alive in a swoon – I reserve for fuller treatment in a future post.  But here, it shall suffice to note that Niënor committed suicide, and her death embittered Brandir all the more.  When he returned to deliver the news to the people of Brethil, he said

The Dragon is dead, but dead also is Turambar at his side. And those are good tidings: yes, both are good indeed.[15]

But of course Túrin was not dead – Morgoth still wouldn’t let him off that easily – and upon his return he was ill-pleased to learn that Brandir had called his death “good tidings.”  Then arose an argument, which began with Túrin calling Brandir “Club-foot,” and in which Brandir finally vented all his bitterness – and which ended, predictably, with Brandir’s death.[16]

V. The end curse of unrequited love in The Children of Húrin: The blotting out of names

I conclude this rather lengthy study of unrequited love in The Children of Húrin with a few observations.  The full significance of this theme cannot be grasped by looking at it through contemporary romantic spectacles – the unrequited loves in the story aren’t just a series of sad cases of Eros frustrated, of hearts broken or embittered.  They are that, as we have seen, but they are far more.  They are about the downfall of houses – Húrin’s house in particular, but also the houses of Gwindor and Orodreth of Nargothrond, and the house of Haleth (of which Brandir was heir).  And with the downfall of houses, names are cut off, blotted out.  In ancient Israel this was, as Barry Danylak says in his fine book Redeeming Singleness, “the capstone of personal disasters.”[17]  Without family, land, and a surviving house/name, “all was lost, and one lived under the weight of personally embodying the full gravity of the [Sinaitic] covenant curses.”[18]  And while the House of Hador obviously wasn’t under the Sinai covenant, the significance of house, name, and land was scarcely less great in the eyes of the Elf-friends of Middle-earth.[19]

In the end, though, the significance of Tolkien’s denying to Húrin and his house any unexpected deliverance, and letting the curse of Morgoth have its full effect on them, is not that Ilúvatar the Creator of Middle-earth had cursed them by blotting out their names from the earth.  For the names of Húrin and Túrin were praised by Elrond in his famous Council, convened two ages of Middle-earth later.  This shows, among other things, that the values of the Eldar and the Elf-friends among the men of Middle-earth were, in this way at least, more consonant with those of the North, where, as Tolkien himself said, “the worth of defeated valour is deeply felt,” and also with those of the New Covenant, under which (as Isaiah prophesied) the faithful barren woman and eunuch might have legacies better than sons and daughters,[20] than those of the Sinai covenant.

More, though, on the downfall and legacy of the House of Húrin in the next post.


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin 196 (2007).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 198-213.

[4] See The Children of Húrin, at 212-13, for the full account.

[5] Id. at 87.

[6] Id. at 88.  Mablung, the mighty hunter of Doriath, noted this: ‘Indeed I feel that some shadow of the North has reached out to touch us tonight. Take heed, Saeros, lest you do the will of Morgoth in your pride, and remember that you are of the Eldar.’

[7] Id. at 217.

[8] Proverbs 13:12.

[9] Frasier, Season 2 episode 21.

[10] The Children of Húrin at 217 (emphasis added).

[11] Id. at 219-20.

[12] Id. at 240.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 241.

[15] Id. at 246.

[16] Id. at 251. In his childhood, Túrin had called his lame friend Sador “hopafoot,” in pity rather than scorn; now, in his final hours, he sinks to scornfully calling the lame lord of his adopted people “Club-foot” and slaying him in his helplessness. Thus the greatest of his deeds – the slaying of Glaurung – was followed by his worst.

[17] Barry Danylak, Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life 69 (2010).

[18] Id.

[19] Cf. the dialogue between Húrin and Morwen about their son’s significance as heir both of the House of Hador and, through Morwen, the House of Bëor in The Children of Húrin at 45-48.

[20] See Isa. 54, 56.

Posted on December 3, 2011, in David Mitchel, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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