Beleg had brought with him the Helm of Hador; for he hoped that it might lift Túrin’s thoughts again above his life in the wild as the leader of a petty company. ‘This is your own which I bring back to you,’ he said to Túrin as he took out the helm. ‘It was left in my keeping on the north-marches; but was not forgotten, I think.’
‘Almost,’ said Túrin; ‘but it shell not be so again’; and he fell silent, looking far away with the eyes of his thoughts, until suddenly he caught the gleam of another thing that Beleg had in his hands. It was the gift of Melian; but the silver leaves were red in the firelight, and when Túrin saw the seal his eyes darkened. ‘What have you there?’ he said.
‘The greatest gift that one who loves you still has to give,’ answered Beleg. ‘ Here is lembas in-Elidh, the waybread of the Eldar that no man has yet tasted.’
‘The helm of my fathers I take, with good will for your keeping,’ said Túrin. ‘But I will not receive gifts out of Doriath.’
‘Then send back your sword and your arms,’ said Beleg. ‘Send back also the teaching and fostering of your youth. And let your men, who (you say) have been faithful, die in the desert to please your mood! Nonetheless this waybread was a gift not to you but to me, and I may do with it as I will. Eat it not, if it sticks in your throat; but others may be more hungry and less proud.’
Túrin’s eyes glinted, but as he looked in Beleg’s face the fire in them died, and they went grey, and he said in a voice hardly to be heard: ‘I wonder, friend, that you deign to come back to such a churl. From you I will take whatever you give, even rebuke. Henceforward you shall counsel me in all ways, save the road to Doriath only.’
I’ve noticed something during this extended read of Tolkien’s writings: he created a few characters that readers have a hard time relating to. And I think this is because they are complex minglings of good and evil. Characters who are fundamentally good, but constantly take the wrong decision (on their will or not), and characters who, in spite of the reckless, even despicable things they do, still have good qualities in them. (I should know. I’m a defender of Fëanor. So many readers don’t even understand why I love him so much).
Túrin is one such character. His story is tragic, constantly marred by Morgoth’s curse, which actively works against him (and he perfectly knows it). Everything Túrin does ends in tragedy. He isn’t an easy character, either. With all his qualities (he’s courageous, steadfast, bold, canny, he has a good heart and a great sense of justice) he also has characteristics that readers tend to consider negative (stubbornness, proud, recklessness, he seldom listen to advice), especially when everything he does proves to be catastrophic.
Now, this might be just my personal view, and indeed many readers I talked this out with seem to consider Túrin just too much of a flawed character who won’t take up his responsibilities, but I see it quite differently.
Sure, he doesn’t often listen to counsel other than his own, but he always acts as he considers best. It might be easy to think his unwillingness to take any advice is the cause of all his actions ending in disaster, but we should remember that he’s always up against a mighty curse, which is what defines Túrin as a positive character. He knows he is cursed. He knows Morgoth (who’s a God in Middle-earth) constantly works against him and often wins. Everything Túrin does crashes upon Morgoth’s will to harm him. Still, Túrin rises every single time. He falls to Morgoth’s curse again and again, and every time he rises back up, determined to build a life for himself, a life of happiness in spite of everything which is against that desire.
It takes stamina and will to do that. And yes, it also takes stubbornness.
But in the end, Túrin is just a man. In spite of Morgoth’s fear that his plan may fail, Túrin probably never had a chance, though I don’t think that came from his flaws. The core of Morgoth’s curse is an undercurrent theme throughout all of Tolkien’s work and here, contrary to all others Tolkien’s stories, it never finds a positive solution.
The broken bonds
I exposed in my post about Beren and Lúthien my idea that Tolkien conceived unity, cooperation and sharing – in short, community – as the true residence of power. When people work together, when they care about each other and build those bonds – which are limits, but also the source of caring – that’s where the true power to change the world and life comes alive.
In the story of Túrin, Tolkien explores what happens when the building of these bonds is not allowed. Túrin’s life is a constant destruction of personal relationships, whether family, loyalty or friendship, both for his own will or because of fate (most often for a mingling of the two), where ‘fate’ has to be understood as ‘Morgoth’s will’, because very few things happen without intention in Middle-earth.
His family’s bonds shattered at a very young age, his bonds of loyalty always questions because he’s a Man (when he lives in the Elven realms of Doriath and Nargothrond) or because he’s an outsider (when among the outlaws and then the Men of Brethil), Túrin lives his life mostly isolated, fending for himself, looking for his own path. And his stubbornness sure doesn’t help. He is continuously deprived of a community, even when he painfully needs one and even when he tries to create his own.
I believe this is the great win of Morgoth upon him. Because he’s always isolated, Túrin never has a chance to use that power that comes from the community and must rely on just his own will and strength. This might be enough to go by, but not enough to truly change life and the world.
The one who walks alone, Tolkien seems to say, is a cursed man.
“That tale was told us,’ returned answer
the Lord Orodreth, ‘but belief were rash.
That alone of the lost, whom leagues afar
the Orcs of Andband in evil bonds
have dragged to the deeps, thou darest home,
by grace or valour, from grim thraldom,
what proof dost thou proffer? What plea dost show
that Man, a mortal, on our mansions hidden
should look and live, our league sharing?’
Thus the curse of the kindred for the cruel slaughter
at the Swans’ Haven there swayed his heart,
but Flinding go-Fuilin fiercely answered:
‘Is the son of Húrin, who sits on high
in a deathless doom dreadly chained,
unknown, nameless, in need of plea
to fend from him the fate of foe and spy?
Flinding the faithful, the far wanderer,
though form and face fires of anguish
and bitter bondage, Barlogs’ torment,
have seared and twisted, for a song of welcome
had hoped in his heart at the home-coming
that he dreamed of long in dark labour.
Are these deep places to dungeons turned,
a lesser Angband in the land of the Gnomes?’
There was wrath aroused in Orodreth’s hearth,
and the muttering waxed to many voices,
and this and that that throng shouted;
when sweet and sudden a song awoke,
a voice of music o’er that vast murmur
mounted in melody to the misty domes;
with clear echoes the caverned arches
it filled, and trembled frail and slender,
those words weaving of welcome home
that the wayweary had wooed from care
since the Gnomes first knew need and wandering.
Then hushed was the host; no head was turned,
for long known and loved was that lifted voice,
and Flinding knew it at the feet of the kind
like stone graven standing silent
with heart laden; but Húrin’s son
was waked to wonder and to wistful thought,
and searching the shadows that the seat shrouded,
the kingly throne, there caught he thrice
a gleam, a glimmer, as of garments white.
‘Twas frail Finduilas, fleet and slender,
to woman’s stature, wondrous beauty,
now grown in glory, that glad welcome
there raised in ruth, and wrath was stilled.
Locked fast the love had lain in her heart
that in laughter grew long years agone
when in the meads merrily a maiden played
with fleet-footed Fuilin’s youngling.
No searing scars of sundering years
could blind those eyes bright with welcome.
And wet with tears wistful trembling
at the fried there graven in grim furrows
on the face of Flinding. ‘Father,’ she said,
‘what dream of doubt dreadly binds thee?
‘Tis Flinding go-Fuilin, whose faith of yore
none dared to doubt. This dark, lonely,
mournful-fated Man beside him
if his oath avows the very offspring
of Húrin Thalion, what heart in this throng
shall lack belief or love refuse?’
In this context, women are especially awesome characters. As mothers, sisters and lovers, they are natural creators of meaningful bonds. The love of a mother (even a stubborn and proud one as Morwen), the loyalty of a sister (even one never met like Níenor), the love of a woman (even when not returned, like Finduilas’s) are forces that naturally create community and sharing.
These three characters are strong and meaningful in this story, not just because of their personality, but – I believe – because they are women. You get the sense that they may be the turning point even for a cursed man like Túrin and it’s maybe no wonder that Morgoth places special care in destroying them.
And I wonder if this natural characteristic of women to create bonds and community is what makes them – very often – powerful and wise characters. Women, in Tolkien’s stories, almost always see further and deeper than men and are very often more powerful, even when their role seems to obscure that power.
As The Children of Húrin shows, the twisting of a woman’s role and direction or her killing is the worst of all curses.
The Lay of the Children of Húrin
The Children of Húrin inside the legendarium
Although it is well-known that Tolkien had a particular attachment for the story of Beren and Lúthien, it seems to me that he also had a fascination with Túrin’s story. Before he started working at The Lord of the Rings, this was the single story on which he worked the most. There are several extended synopses and notes, and it was for the presentation of this story to his publisher that Tolkien wrote the first complete synopsis of the Silmarillion, to which The Children of Húrin belongs.
He also wrote a version in verses which reaches up to the coming of Túrin to Nargothrond, more or less half of the entire story.
Tolkien’s legendarium rests on the core idea that everything is inside Ilúvatar’s creation so nothing can even happen against his will. This means that even the most horrible events will eventually lead to something good, something that will please the Creator.
The Children of Húrin seems to be the one exception, at least if bracketed out of the entire legendarium. I wonder whether this is what fascinated Tolkien so much. An evil so great may exist that will utterly destroy the lives of men and women without any hope for deliverance.
It is indeed a frightening thought, but certainly not one so surprising from someone who saw the trenches of WWI.
The relationship between The Children of Húrin and The Fall of Gondolin is particularly significant. Both stories already existed when Tolkien first created what would become the Silmarillion, but only many years after they were created did Túrin and Tuor become cousins.
In later stories, Tolkien wrote a few versions of a similar episode: Túrin and Tuor cross paths, without knowing each other, and take two opposite directions. This is where I see the true meaning of these characters. They are indeed very similar men, they are kindred, in fact, sons of two brothers, but the one had a Vala working against him, the other had a Vala helping him. Their lives were shaped by decisions that were entirely out of their hands and because of who was interested in them, their lives resulted in widely different outcomes. In the relation between these two stories, I believe, Tolkien explored more in-depth the meaning and the power of ‘fate’, and therefore life.
The Children of Húrin
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TOR.con – The Six Degrees of Túrin Turambar
Roland R Clarke
Yet another fascinating post on Tolkien’s amazing writing. Thank you.
Happy you liked it, Roland 🙂
That’s one of the things that Tolkien did so well, Sarah: complex characters. In real life, none of is all good or all bad. We all have strong character traits and faults, too. That Tolkien could show us what we’re like in that sort of ‘larger than life’ way is a real tribute to his storytelling.
I think it’s even more than that. He not only showed the complexity of the human soul, but he had the courage to use ‘difficult’ characters as well. Characters the reader has a really hard time accepting as ‘heroes’. Characters that readers are willing to just cast as ‘villains’ when in fact, if we look a bit closer, there is a lot more to them than that.
Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies
Wow. This is fascinating. I must admit that I haven’t read Tolkien beyond The Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy, and have no idea where to even start. Your post is so detailed and thoughtful — lovely.
Thanks Lisa, happy you liked it 🙂
As much as I love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is so much more in Tolkien’s stories if you read the entire legendarium. Some themes only emerge if you gain a larger look on it. For example, I believe the theme of community is in LotR as well, but you may not see it if you don’t put it in relation with all the other stories. In fact, I’ve only caught it at the fourth or fifth read of Turin’s story 😉
I’m ever more amazed at what depth Tolkien reached with his stories. He was indeed an uncommon man, with an uncommon education and uncommon experiences. He had an analytic mind, the discipline of a scholar and the sensitivity of an artist. It was an explosive mix for sure 😉
That’s a great write-up! I’ve always considered Turin to be a very tragic character whose good intentions always fail because of the curse. It goes to show how powerful Morgoth is in Middle-earth and even good intentions can’t fight it. To me this curse is one of the worst deeds of Morgoth as he managed to ruin so many through one man only.
I totally agree.
And in a way, it isn’t easy to read Turin’s story. At first it seems such a bleak story to read, with not a tiny bit of hope. But as I read it and reread it with my group’s readalong (we read five different versions in as many months last winter) I came to see beyond the tragedy of the story. There are so many profound themes here. In its own way, The Children of Hurin really is a beautiful story.