The Children of Húrin (part 6C): “That stone, though all hell should endeavor to shake . . .”

Last week I set forth at some length the importance of house, offspring, and lands in The Children of Húrin – an importance stated by the story’s title, announced by the fact that it commences with a genealogy, expressed in the aspirations of Húrin for his house and his son, and thence running through the balance of the story like a subterranean river.  Yet The Children of Húrin is ultimately about the awful end of a family.  Given that a calamity of that order befell them, how did the House of Húrin – and all its members – come to such honor?

Now The Children of Húrin presents two sides of the bad things-good people question.  First, given that the House of Húrin comprises five good people,[1] why do bad things happen to them?  Second, given that such bad things happened to them, how could they have been good?  Or to put these questions another way: Why does Tolkien allow an honorable family to be taken down so mercilessly, have its lands confiscated and its posterity cut off, and then shower its members with posthumous accolades?

As I have touched on elsewhere,[2] this is, in significant part, a shoot from the Northern roots of the story: That the “worth of defeated valour is deeply felt.” [3]   But, as usual with Tolkien, there is much more to it.  For though he withholds from the House of Húrin the longed-for eucatastrophe, he — quite unforgettably — displays the full measure of their faithfulness by what they faithfully suffer.

I. Running against the (ill) wind

First, as Tolkien makes abundantly clear in the backstory to The Children of Húrin, and hints at within the story itself, the House of Húrin never had Eden, or the Promised Land, to lose.  Their inheritance was lordship of Dor-lómin, a land which, as Húrin ominously noted, was uncomfortably near to Morgoth’s stronghold of Angband.[4]

Importantly, this inheritance was granted them by the Noldor, the House of the Elves that had been banished from the Blessed Realm by the Valar, the Lords of the West, and lived as exiles in Middle-earth.  While the Noldor’s sentence of banishment isn’t detailed in The Children of Húrin, it is mentioned more than once, appearing first even before Húrin goes to fight alongside the Noldor in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears:

His heart was high with hope, and he had little fear for the outcome of the battle; for it did not seem to him that any strength in Middle-earth could overthrow the might and splendor of the Eldar. ‘They have seen the Light in the West,’ he said, ‘and in the end Darkness must flee from their faces.’  Morwen did not gainsay him; for in Húrin’s company the hopeful ever seemed more likely. But there was knowledge of Elven-lore in her kindred also, and to herself she said: ‘And yet did they not leave the Light, and are they not now shut out from it? It may be that the Lords of the West have put them out of their thought; and how then can even the Elder Children overcome one of the Powers?’[5]

In making alliance with the Noldor, then, the House of Húrin, like all the Elf-friends of Middle-earth, bound themselves to fight the evil Power of the North.  They also knowingly[6] bound themselves to fight alongside a people under a (just) sentence of exile[7] – a wind blowing out of the Blessed West to keep the exiles from regaining the paradise they’d forsaken.

In addition to running into the stiff breeze from the West, the House of Húrin had also an ill wind pulling them backward from the East – from the dark history of the first Men of Middle-earth.  Of this, Tolkien says little, but Christopher Tolkien tells us in his Introduction to The Children of Húrin that

. . . when Morgoth learned of the arising of Men he left Angband for the last time and went into the East; and that the first Men to enter Beleriand ‘had repented and rebelled against the Dark Power, and were cruelly hunted and oppressed by those that worshipped it, and its servants.[8]

Túrin, in childhood, learned much the same from his friend, the lame house-servant Sador:

‘Then Lalaith will not come back? said Túrin. ‘Where has she gone?’

‘She will not come back,’ said Sador. ‘But where she has gone no man knows; or I do not.’

‘Has it always been so? Or do we suffer some curse of the wicked King, perhaps, like the Evil Breath?’

I do not know. A darkness lies behind us, and out of it few tales have come. . . . It may be that we fled from the fear of the Dark, only to find it here before us, and nowhere else to fly but the Sea.[9]

In short, the Houses of the Elf-friends had a stiff breeze in their faces, and a vacuum pulling from behind.  The downfall of Húrin’s house, then, was not a judgment upon them, but a consequence of two corporate judgments upon Elves and Men, at the intersection of which the House of Húrin stood.

II. Reaping the whirlwind: The fidelity of the representative house and the perfect storm

And at that intersection, the House of Húrin received the worst of those judgments.  For the house fell both for its friendship with the Elves, and for its courageous humanity, when Morgoth pressed them to renounce both.

When Húrin defied Morgoth, he faithfully discharged two offices: one, the office of a faithful Elf-friend; two, the office of a true Man.  His friendship with the Elves is seen is his refusal to disclose to Morgoth the location of the hidden Elf-city of Gondolin, for which Morgoth threatened to break all Húrin’s house, “though you all were made of steel.”[10]  Even more compelling, though, is Húrin’s defiance of Morgoth simply as a Man:

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]

Húrin’s words proved true, but not until Morgoth’s enormous malediction – “They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death”[12] – had been fulfilled.  But those who survived them knew that the measure of suffering Morgoth meted out upon Húrin’s House was the measure of its faithfulness.

III. “The Stone of the Hapless”

As Húrin began, so his wife and children followed.  “She was not conquered” was Morwen’s epitaph,[13] though all hell endeavored to do so.  Like their father, Túrin and  Niënor both stood alone in defiance of Morgoth – Morgoth incognito in the character of Glaurung the Dragon.[14]

I had noted earlier that the House of Húrin’s heroic defiance of Morgoth until the bitter end was written into the history, and indeed the geography, of Arda.  Thus, though Morgoth conquered their lands, and cut off their offspring, their names were not cut off from the earth.  Their mark on Middle-earth’s history was noted by Túrin himself:

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?[15]

Their mark on the geography of Arda is maybe the most notably indestructable little wrinkle of Middle-earth.  It speaks volumes about Tolkien’s own judgment of the stature of Húrin’s house that they were given this little island property in perpetuity.  This mark was prophecied by the bard Glirhuin, who wrote a song that the monument of Húrin’s family – “The Stone of the Hapless” – would never be

defiled by Morgoth nor ever thrown down, not though the sea should drown all the land; as after indeed befell, and still Tol Morwen stands alone in the water beyond the new coasts that were made in the days of the wrath of the Valar.[16]

[1] This number includes Urwen, who died in childhood.  J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin 40 (2007).

[2] Parts 1, 2, and 4 of this series.

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

[4]The Children of Húrin at 46.

[5]The Children of Húrin at 45.

[6] The source of Morwen’s question – “did they not leave the Light, and are they not now shut out from it?” – was the body of knowledge passed down to her through the House of Bëor, whose source was

[7] See here.

[8]The Children of Húrin at 26.

[9]Id. at 43.

[10]Id. at 63.

[11]Id. at 65.

[12]Id. at 64.

[13] The words were spoken by Húrin at Morwen’s grave. Tolkien, The Silmarillion 275 (Random House 1999)(1977).

[14]See, e.g., The Children of Húrin at 208-09, 237-39.

[15]Id. at 161.

[16] The Silmarillion at 275-76.

Posted on January 21, 2012, in David Mitchel, J.R.R. Tolkien and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Sayer of sooth I name thee, David of Mitchell. May your words never die, but live to quicken the hearts of all those who live with knees unbowed to the Enemy.

  1. Pingback: The Children of Húrin (part 8): Be careful, little eyes, what you see | Lantern Hollow Press

  2. Pingback: The Children of Húrin (part 9C): Concluding Unscientific Postscript | Lantern Hollow Press

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: