The Children of Húrin (part 7): The Dark Cloud, the Serpent’s Face, and Everyenemy

Within the last three months, Kelly Hamren has posted two excellent essays here on the value of horror as a genre.[1]  I mention this because her posts – all the way down to the second post’s discussion of Oedipus Rex – dovetail quite nicely with what I’m going to say in this installment, on The Children of Húrin as a horror story.

We know from Tolkien’s correspondence that Oedipus was one of the influences of The Children of Húrin — which the story itself bears out in quite obvious ways.[2]  He probably didn’t so consciously intend that the story fit into the horror genre.  But it does.  The suspense, the brooding disquiet, the uncleanness, all mark it as a horror story.[3]  Ditto for how evil pervades the story – “evil around me, evil before me, evil within me.”  And, perhaps most horrifying, throughout The Children of Húrin the barriers between the evil around and before, and the evil within, prove all too thin.

I.             The Dark Cloud

The evil around the House of Húrin is of course the curse set upon it by Morgoth.  I titled this first section “the dark cloud,” not to inspire the kind of crass literalism that might cause future filmmakers to do to The Children of Húrin what a few recent ones did to C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but because that the best image for how Morgoth’s curse hangs over the entire story.  Indeed Morgoth says to Húrin that

upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair.[4]

To make the point more explicit, Tolkien writes one of the story’s most revolting scenes such that Morgoth’s figurative cloud does take a literal form.  When Glaurung the Dragon looks to cast Morgoth’s net about Húrin’s daughter Niënor, he begins by raising “a vast hissing and huge vapours, and [those] that lurked near were engulfed in a blinding steam and foul stench . . .”[5]

The full horror of the threat and uncleanness of the dark cloud of doom is not only that that Húrin and his family will be surrounded by its uncleanness, but that they will be infected by it.  The infection will spread to their tongues: “Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel,” says Morgoth[6] – and so it proves, over and over.  And particularly it will darken the lamp of their bodies: their eyes.  So, when Glaurung catches Niënor and casts his dreadful spell upon her, it seems “to her that . . . slowly a great darkness drew down on her . . .”[7]  And, finally, in Túrin’s penultimate speech, he says in despair, “I am blind! . . . Blind, blind, groping since childhood in a dark mist of Morgoth!”[8]

II.            The Face of the Serpent

The evil in The Children of Húrin doesn’t just hang about the title characters like a cloud, though.  It has faces.  Húrin, per his express wish, sees the face of Morgoth himself.[9]  Later, his children see the face of Morgoth in the face of Glaurung.

Now since I am posting this on a blog whose regular authors include several dragon lovers, a few words on Tolkien’s development of Glaurung as a character are very much in order.  In my view, Tolkien gets more out of Glaurung than he does even out of Smaug; for Glaurung very obviously represents uncleanness and impurity in a way that Smaug does not.  Smaug is a dragon perfectly suited to an adventure, a there-and-back-again story.  Glaurung is a dragon for a horror story: he is slithering defilement personified.  He stirs up foul vapors.  His spells can sicken even sunlight.[10]  He defiles the Eithel Ivrin, the lake of the Vala Ulmo and the source of the River Narog.[11]  His belly is “dank with a grey slime, to which clung all manner of dropping filth; and it stank of death.”[12]  It is Glaurung’s malice that brings to pass the deepest horror in The Children of Húrin: the incest of Húrin’s children.

As the dark cloud of evil doom does more than rest upon Húrin’s family, so the face of Glaurung does more than just confront Húrin’s children.  Glaurung’s words, and, especially, his eyes, get into them like fish-hooks, and by turns draw their wills into his own.  So at the fall of Nargothrond, when Túrin meets Glaurung for the first time, he looks into Glaurung’s serpent-eyes and “straightway [falls] under the dreadful spell of the dragon.”  Glaurung then delivers a twisted indictment of Túrin – a false indictment, but with just enough truth to make it plausible – and Túrin “being under the spell of Glaurung hearken[s] to his words,” and sees himself “as in a mirror misshapen by malice.”[13]  Similarly, at Glaurung’s encounter with Niënor, we read that

he drew her eyes into his, and her will swooned. And it seemed to her that the sun sickened and all became dim about her; and slowly a great darkness drew down on her and in the darkness there was emptiness; she knew nothing, and heard nothing, and remembered nothing.

III.           Conclusion: Fighting Everyenemy

One of the petitions in the Litany[14] reads:

From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,

Good Lord, deliver us.

One of the great virtues of The Children of Húrin is that it removes scales from our eyes that we might see the seriousness of that petition.

Thus far, I have covered, roughly, how Tolkien’s tragic masterpiece reveals something of the horrors that accompany the deceits of the world and the devil.  In so doing, I’ve also said a little about how the mists of the world and the face of the devil affect the flesh.  On the flesh itself, though, there is much more to be said: one of the most pervasive themes of The Children of Húrin is how the misguided wills of the heroes – especially of Morwen and Túrin – advance Morgoth’s designs, and play right into Glaurung’s claws.  In the stubbornness and pride of Morwen and Túrin, we see the deceit of that most lethal Everyenemy, the self.  So to that subject (Lord willing) I shall turn next week.

[1] See here and here.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 150 (Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien, eds., 1981).

[3] See Douglas Jones, Playing With Knives, 16.3 Credenda/Agenda 4, 5: “We normally count a story as a horror story if it involves two things: threat and impurity. Serious threats alone would just be an adventure or war or cop story. Horror needs impurity. Monsters are impure; sometimes they are animal-human blends, sometimes walking dead, with flesh dropping off—unclean threats.”

[4] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin 64 (2007).

[5] Id. at 206.

[6] Id. at 64.

[7] Id. at 209.

[8] Id. at 255.

[9] Id. at 40, 62-65.

[10] Id. at 209.

[11] Id. at 176.

[12] Id. at 237.

[13] Id. at 178-79.

[14] 1928 Book of Common Prayer at 54.


Posted on January 28, 2012, in Authors, David Mitchel, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Very interesting! I’ve never had the chance to read The Children of Hurin, but I will endeavor to do so soon. Your reference to The Book of Common Prayer, with the accompanying implication that the three great threats from which we pray for deliverance cannot be neatly or easily separated, is particularly apt.

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

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