The Children of Húrin (part 9B)(for the Eve of the Feast of the Fall of Mordor): Túrin’s Crowded Bench

[WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Like everywhere.]

This week I finally get around to the penultimate post in this series on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin.  In a way, it represents a pause between part 9A, which concluded with a nod toward Túrin’s eschatological significance in Middle-earth, and the soon-to-come part 9C, which treats that eschatological significance more extensively.  Before getting there, though, a few words must be said about Túrin and his life.  If a man speaks – as Túrin did – of deeds as being written into the history of Earth, we should take a good look at the details of what he wrote.  Tolkien himself did this in The Children of Húrin by appointing a variety of judges to appear within the story.

I. Túrin’s many judges

Indeed it is striking how many judges Túrin had: Mablung, Thingol, and Beleg of Doriath; Gwindor and Finduilas in Nargothrond; Gelmir and Arminas the messengers of Círdan the Shipwright; Morgoth and Glaurung; Brandir Lord of Brethil; and, strangest of all, his talking sword, Gurthang.[1]  It is likewise striking, given how much judgment weighed on his mind, that Túrin was so indifferent to his judges’ verdicts.  Generally, those who best loved him judged him with the clearest discernment.  So Beleg, the best friend Túrin ever had, was also far and away his best judge.  But the judgments of his enemies affected Túrin more than those of his friends; and the judgment of his sword, Gurthang, affected him most of all.

So, then, here are case briefs about the judgments of just a few of Túrin’s many judges, and what followed.

II.  The Solomonic Judge-King: Thingol of Doriath

I begin with the judgment of King Thingol of Doriath in The Children of Húrin’s first courtroom scene.  The King was Túrin’s foster-father; he was charged with judging Túrin for the slaying of his impudent counselor, Saeros.

Thingol heard first the testimony of those who had been witnesses to Saeros’s mocking the women of Túrin’s home country, Dor-lómin, calling them beasts who “run like the deer clad only in their hair”[2]; and who had also seen, the next day, Túrin’s hounding of Saeros and Saeros’s accidental death.  Upon that testimony, Thingol nearly pronounced a judgment of banishment upon Túrin:

This is an ungrateful foster-son, and in truth a man too proud for his state. How can I harbour one who scorns me and my law, or pardon one who will not repent?[3]

But just before he pronounced his judgment, Beleg escorted the Elf-maid Nellas into the hall, who recounted that, on the morning of Saeros’s death, he had attacked Túrin with sword and shield.  Hearing this, Thingol changed his verdict and pardoned Túrin,

holding him wronged and provoked. And since it was . . . one of my council who so misused him, he shall not seek for this pardon, but I will send it to him, wherever he may be found; and I will recall him in honour to my halls.[4]

Accordingly, Thingol sent Beleg to seek Túrin, who had fled Doriath.  And though Beleg found Túrin and faithfully delivered the King’s pardon, the words of Thingol’s initial judgment (interrupted) proved true. Túrin was too proud to accept the King’s summons.  Despite every effort of Beleg to persuade him to do so, Túrin refused, repeatedly, to return to Doriath.

III. Unfaithful wounds from an enemy: The judgment of Glaurung

Having refused the King’s pardon, and the faithful wounds of his friend Beleg, Túrin was strangely receptive to the unfaithful wounds of his great enemy, Glaurung the Dragon.  In part, this was due to his being under one of Glaurung’s potent spells; in part, it was because Glaurung spoke some truth.  Twisted truth, to be sure, selective truth, without proportion or context – but truth nonetheless.  His twisted indictment read as follows:

Evil have been all your ways, son of Húrin. . . . Thankless fosterling, outlaw, slayer of your friend, thief of love, usurper of Nargothrond, captain foolhardy, and deserter of your kin. As thralls your mother and your sister live in Dor-lómin, in misery and want. You are arrayed as a prince, but they go in rags. For you they yearn, but you care not for that. Glad may your father be to learn that he has such a son: as learn he shall.[5]

We can break the charges down into three categories:

(1) True, more or less;

(2) True, but . . . ; and

(3) Lie from the pit of hell.

Only “captain foolhardy” falls squarely in category (1).  “Thankless fosterling,” outlaw, and “usurper of Nargothrond” are almost true enough to fall under (1), but an advocate for Túrin could, at least, raise some mitigating circumstances to give cause for these charges to be amended; accordingly I place them under (2).  “Slayer of your friend [i.e. Beleg]” and “thief of love” are only technically true, and serve only to point up two of the greatest unintended tragedies of Túrin’s life, so I place them under (3).  And there isn’t a pit in hell sulfurous enough for anyone who calls an exile “deserter of your kin.”

Túrin, though, not only hearkened to the Dragon’s words – he acted upon them, in a way he did not act upon Thingol’s pardon, or Beleg’s faithful rebukes.  As a result, the captives of Nargothrond, its children and its Elf-women – including Finduilas the daughter of Orodreth the King – all died.  Túrin, after a disastrous return to Dor-lómin, came to Brethil seeking the captives, but arrived too late to save them.

IV. All who live by the sword: The final judgment of Gurthang

Finally, we come to the most unexpected of Túrin’s judges: His sword, Gurthang (that is, “Iron of Death”).  Túrin’s fame was founded mostly on his prowess and skill in wielding that sword – in most lands he was known simply as the Mormegil – “the Black Sword.”  But the sword came into his hands under the most tragic possible circumstances.  It was his friend Beleg’s sword; and with it, Túrin accidentally slew him.

More positively, and most famously, Gurthang was also the weapon Túrin used to slay his old foe Glaurung the Dragon.  But Túrin followed that, his greatest deed, with his worst: taking up the sword – wrongly – to execute Brandir, the Lord of Brethil, for slanderously saying that Túrin’s wife Níniel was also his sister, Niënor.  He did not know then, but soon discovered, that Brandir’s words were not slander, but the appalling truth.  And Túrin then decided he should no longer darken the doors of anyone in Middle-earth.  Having ignored the pardon of Thingol, the kind pursuit of Beleg, and the last warnings of Brandir, and having justly slain Glaurung, he appealed to the only judge left to him in the world:

Hail, Gurthang, iron of death, you alone now remain! But what lord or loyalty do you know, save the hand that wields you? From no blood will you shrink.  Will you take Túrin Turambar? Will you slay me swiftly?

And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: ‘Yes, I will drink your blood, that I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly.  I will slay you swiftly.’[6]

V. Post-judgment relief: “Written into the history of Arda”

Tolkien did not let Gurthang have the last word, however.  For though Túrin did die, and swiftly, in casting himself upon the iron of death, the sword itself broke in Túrin’s fall.[7]  And Arda itself judged Túrin the hapless kindly.   For his final resting place, which his mother Morwen would afterwards find, and where she too would be buried, 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.[8]

When the Valar came finally to Middle-earth to overthrow Morgoth, all of Beleriand was cast into the sea – except the Stone of the Hapless, final resting place of Morwen and Túrin.  And so the words of Túrin proved true, literally: his family’s defiance of Morgoth was written into the history of Arda, which neither Morgoth the cruel, nor Manwë the merciful, could unwrite.[9] And, as they had done so often in life, Túrin and Morwen stood alone — but they stood.


[1] One of several story elements retained from the Finnish story of Kullervo the Hapless; see Kalevala, Rune 36.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin 87 (2007).

[3] Id. at 93

[4] Id. at 95.  Here I should note that, although Thingol is one of my least favorite characters in The Silmarillion — certainly my least favorite Elf-king of the First Age — he is an extraordinary judge. I find Tolkien’s account of him patiently sorting out Túrin’s case, with judicious balance and Solomonic wisdom, positively thrilling.

[5] The Children of Húrin at 179.

[6] Id. at 256.

[7] Id. at 256-57.

[8] Tolkien, The Silmarillion 275-76 (Random House 1999)(1977).

[9] The Children of Húrin at 161.

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Posted on March 24, 2012, in Authors, David Mitchel, J.R.R. Tolkien and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Pingback: The total-nerd Tolkien reading plan | As You Were

  2. Pingback: Túrin among the Outlaws: TheOneRing.net Children of Húrin Read-through | The Leather Library

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