Article: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin - Heroism and Tragedy


July 27th 2007 - by O.S.

A Túrin Turam­bar turún’ ambartanen: mas­ter of doom by doom mastered!”

'The Children of Húrin' first edition cover, illustration by Alan Lee

The Chil­dren of Húrin’ first edi­tion cover, illus­tra­tion by Alan Lee

The annun­ci­ation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘latest’ might have evoked mixed feel­ings for some. I’m prob­ably not the only one who, after liv­ing through the huge busi­ness that sur­roun­ded Peter Jackson’s movie depic­tion of The Lord of the Rings, wondered what this newest work, over 30 years after Tolkien’s death, would con­tain, and if it wouldn’t be the ump­teenth trick up the sleeve of those who are earn­ing money from the good man’s lit­er­ary works. The entire series of The His­tory of Middle-Earth, con­sist­ing of a very extens­ive invent­ory of Tolkien’s manu­scripts and ideas, is fin­ished, and what then is left, one might ask. The Chil­dren of Húrin accord­ingly, is not a work ‘hid­den’ for years that will cast a whole new light on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Moreover, exper­i­enced Tolkien read­ers will have quickly caught on that the book is about the tales of Húrin and (in par­tic­u­lar) his son Túrin, as told in The Sil­maril­lion, and more extens­ively in Unfin­ished Tales. Those same read­ers, though, will also know that the ver­sion of the story in The Sil­maril­lion is rather con­cise (about 30 pages) and the one in Unfin­ished Tales (about 100 pages) rather incom­plete and adap­ted to the style of that book.

This is the reason why Chris­topher Tolkien, editor of most of his father’s posthum­ous work, has chosen this par­tic­u­lar tale for an inde­pend­ent release. As he explains in the notes after The Chil­dren of Húrin:

It thus seems unques­tion­able, from my father’s own words, that if he could achieve final and fin­ished nar­rat­ives on the scale he desired, he saw the three ‘Great Tales’ of the Elder Days (Beren and Lúthien, the Chil­dren of Húrin, and the Fall of Gon­dolin) as works suf­fi­ciently com­plete in them­selves as not to demand know­ledge of the great body of legend known as The Sil­maril­lion. (10) [1]

The goal has been to real­ise such a self-contained ver­sion, which has now been done. By com­par­ing the dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the story to be found in J.R.R.‘s leg­acy, Chris­topher has cre­ated a grand whole, which is mainly faith­ful to the ver­sion in Unfin­ished Tales, but with a con­sist­ency of style, pace, and con­tent that an inde­pend­ent story demands. The res­ult is a fine book of a little over 300 pages, with enough back­ground inform­a­tion to be able to place the story in the frame of Tolkien’s myth­o­logy, without dis­tract­ing from Túrin’s adven­tures. And this is the main forte of the book: for the first time this tra­gic hero (per­haps Tolkien’s most tra­gic) gets a whole book to him­self, without being just another link in the chain of a long his­tory. I will elab­or­ate more on the nature of this epic in the second part of this little art­icle, and that part will also spoil the lar­ger part of the plot. Those who’d rather find out for them­selves are there­fore advised to skip that part until they’ve read The Chil­dren of Húrin them­selves.

That the book is worth the pur­chase is bey­ond doubt for me. Because of the above­men­tioned nature of the story, this book is more like The Hob­bit and The Lord of the Rings, and less of a back­ground book for those who wish to delve deeply into Tolkien’s uni­verse. While the style of the story is rather haughty (like all of Tolkien’s works), the story itself is extens­ively worked out, and there­fore more access­ible than The Sil­maril­lion, which has always remained more for the real Tolkien fan­at­ics. So, even those who’ve always just sticked to The Hob­bit and The Lord of the Rings should give The Chil­dren of Húrin a try.

Besides, the story is so dif­fer­ent in terms of con­tent, because of its essen­tially tra­gic nature, that it def­in­itely shows a new side of Tolkien’s work, a side par­tic­u­larly close to clas­sical, Ger­manic and (as we’ll see) Finnish heroic nar­rat­ives. At the same time, the tale is true to Tolkien’s own cer­a­tion: The Chil­dren of Húrin is firmly rooted in the fant­astic but con­vin­cing Middle-Earth, and read­ers of The Lord of the Rings will recog­nise many ele­ments in this book.

Finally, there are the illus­tra­tions. Alan Lee again has delivered a won­der­ful series of pic­tures, both col­our plates and pen­cil draw­ings between blocks of text. For those who, like me, posess a copy of the illus­trated edi­tion of The Hob­bit, this will be famil­iar. I think these illus­tra­tions add a lot to the atmo­sphere, and it’s a good move to equip even the stand­ard first edi­tion of the book with these. In short, this is a beau­ti­ful work which’ll look great in both the begin­ning and expert Tolkien lib­rary.

* What fol­lows is a brief ana­lysis of the story - includ­ing spoil­ers! *


Above I wrote that I con­sider The Chil­dren of Húrin one of the stor­ies in which Tolkien comes closest to the heroic tra­di­tion of dif­fer­ent European peoples. Even a novice reader of this book will recog­nise that there are many ele­ments in the life of Túrin Turam­bar (Túrin, Mas­ter of Doom) that ‘we’ (as West­ern­ers) asso­ci­ate with ‘hero­ism’; killing a dragon that threatens the land is prob­ably the most obvi­ous one. Tolkien is inspired by more than just famil­iar fairy tale motives, how­ever. Woven into the story, that is set into the back­ground of the long, often hope­less struggles between the Elves and the dark god Mor­goth, we find ele­ments from both the Ger­manic and Finnish heroic tra­di­tion.

But first, a brief sum­mary of the plot. Húrin is the leader of a house of men, that fights along­side the elven people against the armies of the fallen vala Mor­goth. Húrin is mar­ried to Mor­wen, and their son is called Túrin. Dur­ing the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (‘Battle of Unnumbered Tears’) Húrin is cap­tured and brought before Mor­goth, who curses him and makes him watch from a high moun­tain how the dark armies spread across the world. After defeat in the battle, Mor­wen sends Túrin to the elven king Thin­gol, so that Túrin - now the heir of the house - can grow up in safety. Not long after, Túrin’s sis­ter Niënor is born. Túrin is raised by Thin­gol, but quickly turns out to be born for trouble. All grown up, he causes the death of the elf Saeros after a fight, but he flees before he can be judged. He becomes an out­law and the leader of a group of ban­dits. After a meet­ing with his elven friend Beleg, Túrin decides to only hunt Morgoth’s orcs from now on. Fate strikes again, though. After being cap­tured by orcs, Túrin is freed by Beleg, but because he was con­fused from begin cap­tured, he mis­takes Beleg for an orc and slays him by acci­dent. After more wan­der­ings, Túrin ends up in Nar­go­thrond, a fort­ress of the elves. There he becomes the coun­sel­lor of king Orodreth, and the blade of Beleg is reforged. Mor­goth did not sit idly, how­ever, and sends Glaur­ung, greatest of dragons, into the world. Glaur­ung lays waste to Nar­go­thronf, but Túrin escapes and is again alone in the wil­der­ness. There he meets his sis­ter Niënor, who had earlier been bewitched by Glaur­ung, and had lost all of her memor­ies. The two don’t recog­nise each other (he had never seen his sis­ter before) and fall in love and marry. Glaur­ung is still scour­ging the land, how­ever, and Túrin sets out to defeat him. He suc­ceeds in slay­ing the dragon, but is smit­ten by the dragon’s pois­on­ous blood, and falls in a death-like trance. Every­one thinks he has died, and Niënor is stricken with grief at the sight. At that moment, the dying Glaur­ung lifts the bewitch­ment. Niënor has regained all her memor­ies, and she real­ises she has had an inces­tu­ous rela­tion­ship. A broken woman, she casts her­self off a cliff. When Túrin wakes up, he is told all that had come to pass, and he too, is broken. He takes his own life by throw­ing him­self onto his sword.[2]

Besides writer, Tolkien was also a philo­lo­gist, and as a scholar of Old Eng­lish and other Old Ger­manic lan­guages, hij was surely famil­iar with the tales sur­round­ing the hero Sig­urd (Ger­man: Siegfried). Sig­urd was the slayer of the dragon Fafnir, as is told, among other places, in the Völsunga saga and the Poetic Edda. Like Túrin, Sig­urd kills the dragon from below, but the sim­il­ar­it­ies don’t stop there. Another motive, for example, is the magical power of the dragon’s blood. Glaurung’s blood is pois­on­ous, while Fafnir’s grants impen­et­rable skin. But per­haps most import­ant is the sword. Sig­urd fights with the sword Gram, which he has inher­ited from his father Sig­mund. Sigmund’s blade had broken at his death, but he was able to bequeath the two pieces to his wife Hjördis, to keep them safe for Sig­urd. Later, the blade is reforged and it becomes a for­mid­able weapon, cap­able of cleav­ing a flock of wool in two, or as it hap­pens, a dragon’s belly. Túrin’s sword, Gurthang (‘Iron of Death’) has a dif­fer­ent back­ground, but a sim­ilar fate. Túrin’s friend Beleg Strong­bow posessed a blade called Anglachel (‘Iron of the Flam­ing Star’), but when he freed Túrin, he acci­dent­ally pricked him with it. Túrin was still con­fused from being cap­tured, and it was night, so he thought Beleg was an orc come to tor­ture him. When he came loose, he grabbed Anglachel and slew his best friend. The blade he later had reforged to Gurthang. This is a very clear par­al­lel, and one of the first in the book that places The Chil­dren of Húrin clearly in a his­tor­ical lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. But there is more in the Sigurd-cycle that is famil­iar. Sigurd’s father Sig­mund has inad­ver­tedly con­ceived a child (Sin­fjötli) by his own sis­ter Signy, who, magic­ally dis­guised, shares the bed with him one night. [3]

Aleksi Gallen-Kallela's 'Kullervo Cursing' (1899)

Aleksi Gallen-Kallela’s ‘Kullervo Curs­ing’ (1899)

We also find this incest motive in the Finnish songs on Kullervo [4], as col­lec­ted in the Kal­evala. Kullervo is Kalervo’s son, the lat­ter of whom was caught in a feud with his brother Untamo. Kalervo’s fam­ily is exterm­in­ated, but Kullervo’s mother is cap­tured by Untamo, in whose land she gives birth to Kullervo. Untamo tries to kill the boy, but fails, and sends him into slavery instead. Later, Kullervo finds his par­ents again, who turn out to be alive, even though his sis­ter has gone miss­ing. Dur­ing one of his travels, he meets her, but they do not recog­nise each other. He seduces her, and they make love. After­wards, they inquire after each other’s fam­ily, and they dis­cover that they are sib­lings. She is bey­ond grief, and throws her­self in the river ( like Niënor). Kullervo as well is broken, and after aven­ging his rel­at­ives on Untamo, he takes his own live by cast­ing him­self on his own sword. And here we can of course recog­nise Túrin’s final moments. After he dis­cov­ers he mar­ried his own sis­ter, he asks Gurthang if it is will­ing to take his life. The sword speaks:

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.” (256)

These are telling sim­il­ar­it­ies, which show that Tolkien often drew from dif­fer­ent wells in the his­tory of European lit­er­at­ure, also in his other works. He did not keep it a secret, by the way, as he points out the link with Sig­urd and Kullervo him­self in his let­ters. [5] It’s clear that Tolkien con­sidered him­self part of rich tra­di­tion of storytelling. By tak­ing motives from older epics and work­ing them into his books, he emphas­ises that pos­i­tion, and anchors his stor­ies in it. This tra­di­tion is not (only) about ori­gin­al­ity, but also about express­ing cul­tur­ally rel­ev­ant con­cepts like hero­ism and fate. These two in par­tic­u­lar are import­ant in the story of Túrin. After many hard­ships and grief, he starts call­ing him­self Turam­bar, Mas­ter of Doom. His Doom was still to come, how­ever, and this typ­ical act of hybris becomes his down­fall. Whether it’s Morgoth’s curse on Húrin’s blood­line that catches up with Túrin or not isn’t clear, but the end of the book makes it pain­fully clear that even Túrin can­not escape his Doom. How true the words of Niënor, spoken when she last laid eyes on his body:

Farewell, O twice beloved! A Túrin Turam­bar turún’ ambartanen: mas­ter of doom by doom mastered! O happy to be dead! ” (243−244)

Notes:

[1] All quotes are from The Chil­dren of Húrin, see list of sources.
[2] See for a slightly more elab­or­ate sum­mary http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C3%BArin.
[3] The Völsunga saga is read­able online in Eng­lish on http://​omacl​.org/​V​o​l​s​u​n​ga/.
[4] The story of Kullervo can be found in runo 31-36 of the Kal­evala. For a fur­ther com­par­ison of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work and that of Elias Lön­nrot, the col­lector and editor of the Kal­evala, see Petty (2004).
[5] See Car­pen­ter & Tolkien, Let­ters, p. 150.

Ref­er­ences:

  • Car­pen­ter, Humphrey & Tolkien, Chris­topher (eds.) (1981 [1995]). The Let­ters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Lon­don: Har­per­Collins.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. (1980 [2000]). Unfin­ished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth. Lon­don: Har­per­Collins.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. (1977 [1998]). The Sil­maril­lion. Lon­don: Har­per­Collins.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. (2007). The Chil­dren of Húrin. Lon­don: Har­per­Collins.
  • Kal­evala. The Land of the Her­oes. Trans­lated by W.F. Kirby (1907 [1969]). Lon­don, New York: Everyman’s Lib­rary.
  • Petty, Anne C. (2004). “Identi­fy­ing England’s Lön­nrot”. In: Tolkien Stud­ies 1. pp. 69-84.