The Children of Húrin (part 6A): A representative house

In my next two posts on The Children of Húrin I pick up where I ended my last post: on the significance of names, families, and houses among men in the First Age of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

In coming to this theme I’ve arrived right back at the very heart of The Children of Húrin.[1]  For the very title of the story speaks volumes about the significance of name, family, and house.  Though Tolkien isolates all the members of Húrin’s house, and makes all of them fight their battles alone, they ultimately stand and fall together: fall, as Morgoth intended in laying his curse upon them; stand, as they were profoundly united in their heroic defiance of Morgoth until the bitter end, a defiance that is written into the history – indeed, the geography – of Arda.[2]

In this post I start by setting forth some background to show the importance of The Children of Húrin among the tales of Middle-earth’s First Age in general.  In the next one, I will show more specifically how that importance is manifested in and through name and house.

I. The uniqueness of The Children of Húrin among the tales of Middle-earth’s First Age

The significance of this story of Húrin’s family is shown, among other things, by the fact that it is the first of the great stories of Middle-earth to deal extensively with the history and fate of Men.  Most of the First Age’s history is about the Elves, especially the Noldor: the stealing of the Silmarils that Fëanor wrought; the Noldor’s pursuit of Morgoth to Middle-earth, and banishment from the Blessed Realm; and their heroic but hopeless war against Morgoth.  Men are introduced into the story chiefly because of the roles they play in the Noldor’s war against Morgoth.  Those allied with the Elves are called the Edain, the Elf-friends. And the three houses of the Edain – those of Bëor, Haleth, and Hador – won renown among the Elves for their fidelity and heroism in the Elves’ war against Morgoth.

II. The deep history and fate of Men

But of men in and of themselves – their history and their fate – little is said.  Of their history, shortly after their coming into the world, Morgoth attempted, with not inconsiderable success, to corrupt them, and they fell into darkness.  But some of them, those who would become known as the Edain, forsook the darkness, and fled west to Beleriand, though they were cruelly pursued for so doing.[3]

Of their fate even less is said.  What could be seen of it was their frailness, that they were more easily slain than Elves, and grew old, and died.  Of their fate after death the Elves knew virtually nothing, and they speculated that the fate of men was not even in the hands of the Valar, and was not foretold in the Music of the Ainur, but remained in the hand of Ilúvatar the Creator alone.[4]

In the tales of Middle-earth’s First Age, then, the history and fate of men are acknowledged, but mostly unexplored, mysteries.  The Children of Húrin is the almost the only one of great tales from the First Age to really delve into them.[5]

III. Húrin’s family, the representative family

Significantly, Tolkien delves into the matter of men and their fate, neither by writing a general history of men in the First Age on the one hand, nor by writing a biography of one man on the other, but by inserting into a decidedly Elf-centric history the story of one family of men, the family of Húrin.  In The Children of Húrin we see Morgoth’s curse upon the race of men in general amplified upon one family in particular.  In that family’s defiance of, and flight from, the darkness, we see the heroic defiance of the Edain reaching its greatest heights.  And since the fate of Húrin’s household is in no way sundered from, or set apart from, that of other men,[6] through Húrin’s house in particular we get our first real (if admittedly opaque) glimpses into the fate of men in general.

[1] In writing this post, I realized that this installment and the next are pretty much companion pieces to part 2, on the cost of defiance.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin 161 (2007); Tolkien, The Silmarillion 275-76 (Random House 1999)(1977).

[3] The Silmarillion at 165; cf. 116-19.

[4] Id. at 118.

[5] The fates of Beren and Tuor, both of whom married Elf-women and thus fathered Half-elven offspring, afford little insight into the fate of men in general.  Of Tuor Tolkien says that he “was numbered among the elder race, and was joined with the Noldor, whom he loved; and his fate is sundered from the fate of Men.”  The Silmarillion at 294.  Beren’s fate was not sundered from that of men, but what is known of it is so unique that it hardly affords insight into that of men in general.  And significantly in this connection, Beren’s son Dior was not deemed heir either to Beren or, through him, to Bëor, but to Thingol, Elf-king of Doriath.

[6] Thus the importance of Túrin’s failure to reciprocate, or even to notice, the love of Finduilas for him. Had Tolkien brought about in Túrin and Finduilas the second union of Men and Elves, Húrin’s family wouldn’t have been so uniquely representative of men in general.


Posted on December 10, 2011, in David Mitchel, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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