I was caught by surprise the other day as, as I finished reading J R R Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin, tears began streaming down my face for several minutes. It surprised me … because I don’t normally cry at movies or while reading books. Yet this tale of a family caught up in tragedy unexpectedly moved me beyond words.
The Children of Húrin is indeed a heartrending tale of the doomed Túrin Turambar, son of Húrin and his hapless sister Nienor. Edited by Christopher Tolkien long after his father’s death, this was one of the three stand alone stories that J R R Tolkien identified from within the larger work of the Silmarillion (the other two being the tales of Beren and Luthien and of the Fall of Gondolin: p10-12). Thus it is embedded within that vast saga that tells of the creation of Arda (“Earth”) by Eru Iluvatar and the Valar , the journey of the Eldar (the high elves) to the Blessed Isles in the West, and the fate of the Noldor exiled to Beleriand (the western portion of Middle Earth) in rebellious pursuit of the stolen Silmarils, their long struggle against the evil spirit Melkor Morgoth, the fall of their magnificent kingdoms, and the final of defeat of Morgoth that sank most of Beleriand beneath the waves. These events occurred in the Elder days long before those related in the more well-known Lord of the Rings.
Caught up in the struggles and dooms of the Elven folk, the story of Húrin’s children is a very human tale of noble purpose, love, pride, deception, betrayal, loss and failure. Húrin is Lord of Dor-lomin, head of one of the three human houses loyal to the Elves. His son Túrin was born 9 years after the devastating Battle of Sudden Flame when the brooding power of Morgoth overwhelmed the Elvish cordon that had hemmed the Dark Lord in for long centuries. When Túrin was but 9 years old, King Maedhros, son of Feanor gathered together the majority of the exiled Noldor, loyal human houses and certain dwarvish clans against Morgoth’s encroaching power but overconfidence, treachery, and Morgoth’s ever devious strategies turned initial victory into devastating defeat. In the midst of this disaster, Húrin and his brother Huor and their forces fought bravely beside Turgon, King of Gondolin, eventually urging the Elvish King to escape back to his hidden realm while they covered his retreat. Fighting fiercely to win their way back to their homes, Huor was killed and, eventually the only man left standing, Húrin was taken alive and brought before Morgoth. Morgoth, a power beyond the making of the world, bent his mighty will to break Húrin. Yet Húrin boldly counted his arguments, denying his claims to Lordship. As punishment for his proud defiance, Morgoth cursed all Húrin’s offspring and then he bound him to a rock to see that doom unfold – through Morgoth’s own ever deceitful vision. The Children of Húrin narrates the working out of this doom.
Thus this dark, grim tale unfolds as the choices of Húrin’s intelligent, strong, proud, pessimistic wife, his noble, generous, proud son and his strong willed, loyal daughter (born after her father failed to return from the Battle of Unnumbered Tears) all weave an inexorable tale that ends in death and sorrow. It draws a number of elements from the Norse story of Sigmund (adapted by Wagner in the Twilight of the Gods). It is a tale that strongly reminds me of the great Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex and Prometheus, or Shakespearean tragedies such as King Lear and Romeo and Juliet in which fate (as with the Greeks) and the character flaws of good people (as with Shakespeare) intertwine to produce a bitter end.
In my mind the tragedy is two-fold. Firstly, in that the brave, selfless, loyal act of Húrin – in protecting his Elvish benefactor and friend and in defying the truly evil and overwhelming power of Morgoth – should be rewarded with the destruction of his family and ultimately the downfall of the Elvish king who had sheltered him as a youth and whom he had loved and served.
And secondly, the inexorable doom – Morgoth’s malice and deceit that entangles the fate of Húrin’s chidren – brings destruction to all Túrin touches and ultimately to all three of the great Elvish realms of Beleriand. The tragedy is heightened, not lessened, by the fact that Túrin is not an evil man. Rather, he is brave, intelligent, a great warrior and leader, capable of loyal friendship, pity for others, magnanimity and love though also prone to act rashly and violently when angered. And while he ever trusts to his own strength and wisdom, often ignoring the counsel of others and underestimating the power and cunning of Morgoth, he does again and again lift the hearts and hopes of men and elves, inspiring them to act boldly, courageously and powerfully against the encroaching evil. Throughout his troubled life, Túrin moves from place to place, taking to himself new names in the attempt to escape his doom but never turning back in humility to the very actions and people that could have saved him. Thus the weight of the past and Túrin’s proud, even arrogant, spirit that fears to submit to the grace of others, as well as the proud, stubborn, and at times fey spirit expressed in reckless acts of love and loyalty of his mother and sister allow the malicious lies of Morgoth and his servants to wreck havoc. And as all the woven threads come together, Túrin’s last brave victorious act against seemingly insurmountable odds is turned to bitterness and ashes.
That such noble, good people and actions should be so rewarded goes against the grain and certainly doesn’t give us the expected Hollywood ending where good ultimately triumphs over evil whatever the odds. Of course, such endings do occur in minor key in the Silmarillion and, in a more major key, in the Lord of the Rings but there is no silver lining for this family, no redeeming fruit that might give some meaning to their sad fate. Standing on its own, this story seems to express an almost nihilistic vision in which humans struggle against the odds to find meaning and happiness in an indifferent or indeed hostile world, pitted against cosmic forces they have no hope of defeating.
Yet I am convinced that this would be a grave misreading both of the story as it stands alone and (as Tolkien wrote it) as a story set within a much larger story. For it does indeed have a strong unshakable sense of good (bravery, loyalty, love, compassion, beauty) and evil (malice, deceit, greed, jealousy, corruption, above all pride). It also acknowledges forces and meanings that transcend existence on Middle Earth both in the explicit, obvious presence and power of the fallen Spirit Morgoth and in the distant, faint echoes of the Valar (in whose company, Melkor Morgoth had once been counted) who indeed sends messengers that Túrin ignores. Moreover, there are hints throughout the story that the futures of Húrin and his children (and wife) could have been different if they had chosen humility over pride or had refused to trust Morgoth’s twisted version of events.
Despite the prevalence of modern and post-modern worldviews that pervade Western society, the feeling that we live in a moral universe indeed seems hard to shake. For Tolkien, influenced by his Catholic Christian faith, this is no accident nor is it the creation of human imagination. Rather it points to a transcendent creator Being who can still be acknowledged by those who live in exile. Even so, it is a world in which good people can suffer through no fault of their own. Life in exile can be full of tragedy in part inherited, in part due to the malice of others and in part due to the paths we choose to take. In acting rashly, in the prideful rejection of the help and counsel of others and (for Túrin especially) in the drive to irrevocably break away from and avoid friends and allies when conflict and difficulties arise, this good and noble family take paths that lead to darkness and despair.
If you are after a light, entertaining read then this is definitely not the book for you. I found it a gripping read, hard going at times, but thought provoking, very moving even disturbing, and surprisingly cathartic. More accessible and immediate than the Silmarillion, I would recommend this book to Tolkien fans who wish to delve deeper into the history of Middle Earth as well as those who love fantasy and enjoy a challenging read that will leave you thinking for days afterwards.
J R R Tolkien, The Children of Húrin; edited by Christopher Tolkien; Illustrated by Alan Lee; HarperCollins: London, 2007