Tolkien’s Children of Hurin

Filed under:Authors,Cool,Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on April 18, 2007 @ 9:15 pm

Christopher Tolkien’s master-stroke of editing and piecing together his father’s fragmentary work was released yesterday to much “fan”fare. TORn covered and assisted the line at a Manhattan Barnes and Noble where fans lined up to buy copies signed by both C. Tolkien and illustrator Alan Lee. Andrew O’Hehir, who’s been covering matters Tolkien for Salon for a long time now, has a thoughtful, in-depth review, focusing largely on the startling difference in tone between this tome and The Lord of the Rings.

“The Children of Húrin” will thrill some readers and dismay others, but will surprise almost everyone. If you’re looking for the accessibility, lyrical sweep and above all the optimism of “Lord of the Rings,” well, you’d better go back and read it again. There are no hobbits here, no Tom Bombadil, no cozy roadside inns and precious little fireside cheer of any variety found here. This is a tale whose hero is guilty of repeated treachery and murder, a story of rape and pillage and incest and greed and famous battles that ought never to have been fought. If “Lord of the Rings” is a story where good conquers evil, this one moves inexorably in the other direction.

Readers of The Silmarillion, which seemed at the time of its publication the end of all things Tolkien but proved to be merely the beginning of Christopher Tolkien’s work of editing his father’s legacy, know that LotR notwithstanding, Tolkien was very occupied with themes of hubris, falls from grace (or characters without grace altogether), and dark, inexorable destinies. The jagged yet constantly descending roads these characters take in their slides toward doom are indeed startling, but though as O’Hehir says the darkness will “surprise almost everyone,” the surprise for those left out by “almost” is more and more coming to be that Tolkien had it in him to write the happy-ending stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at all. He could only do it by omitting utterly one of those occupying themes, hubris, from his three central characters of Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf, thus avoiding for them the dark destiny but reserving for them nevertheless places in grey twilight as their reward. When all’s said and done, Lord of the Rings is not a happy story, but at most grimly optimistic, to use Andrew’s word. In the end the individual matters only insofar as he or she did duty in the larger battle against evil, or failed in that duty.

Judging by the reviews, it looks as if The Children of Hurin will be a stark illustration of how to do your duty and fail miserably in life all at the same time. In a phrase, it’s Tolkien, painfully aware of the human condition, to the core.

21 comments »

  1. Took you long enough… :-)

    I’m only a couple chapters into CoH, so I can’t comment on that specifically. So far I’ve enjoyed it.

    But I’m surprised to see such a dark take on Tolkien’s oeuvre from my favorite commentator.

    (Spoilers follow, for any who haven’t read LotR and the Silmarillion…)

    As for this…

    In the end the individual matters only insofar as he or she did duty in the larger battle against evil, or failed in that duty.

    …I say Tolkien was no Marxist.

    Grim though it was, Frodo and Sam’s trip through Mordor only succeeded because they had each other. In the end, it wasn’t the overarching metaphysical struggle that kept them going, and allowed them to reach their goal, but their loyalty and love for each other, and for the Shire.

    And this is far from the only example. Eowyn mustered the courage to face the Lord of the Nazgul because he threatened one she loved. Merry mastered his fear and stood with her for the same reason. Legolas and Gimli took the Paths of the Dead with Aragorn not because they rationally believed they could swing the coming battle, but because they could not leave him to face it alone. The Rohirrim fulfilled their oaths. Gimli defended the honor of Galadriel. Faramir fought to win his father’s love. Pippin risked death for Faramir. The last straw for Treebeard was the slaughter of his young trees. The Lords of the West marched to certain death at the Black Gate rather than abandon Frodo.

    In the Lord of the Rings, none of the key actors seem to be motivated by confidence in the victory of good over evil – in fact, they believe in their hearts it is impossible. Rather, they are motivated by a determination not to let down those who have earned their love and respect.

    In the Silmarillion, indeed, there is a much less black/white distinction between the good guys and bad guys. But how was Morgoth defeated? Beren seemingly had little thought for good vs. evil when he took up Thingol’s challenge to retrieve a Silmaril. He had a rather different goal – getting the girl. Earendil was no metaphysical crusader, he wanted to prevent the slaughter and enslavement of the defenseless.

    Frodo provides the best counter-example, though. In the final analysis, Frodo failed to achieve moral perfection by completing his quest as planned, and succumbed to the evil he had fought for so long. By your criterion, he failed, utterly, in his duty. So why is he still the hero of the story? No one is impervious to evil, but fortunately, it is not necessary. It is not through some grand metaphysical epiphany that evil is vanquished (for a time), but rather by the cumulative effect of enough seemingly naive and quixotic acts of fidelity, compassion and love between individuals.

    So I might turn your statement around:

    In the end the larger battle against evil matters only insofar as it allows the individual to do his duty to others, or fail in that duty.

    ‘It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’

    ‘As he has ever judged,’ said Aragorn…

    Comment by LagunaDave — April 20, 2007 @ 2:45 am

  2. Darn college kids … too articulate for three in the morning. LagunaDave, you make some compelling points, but I can’t get behind your turnaround of my statement–the battle is still the ultimate end and test of the individual. I wouldn’t say my statement about the individual is wrong, but I would agree it’s incomplete. Of course Tolkien had love for the individual, but he had a certain kind of fatalism for him/her, as well. I’ve argued elsewhere that it was less an outside force of fate and more the very nature of the individual himself (I think that’s the right link; I could’ve sworn my original “fate” essay had something about never asking a Baggins a question because you knew what he’d say, but oh well). As for Frodo, I can both shoot you down and support you in one fell swoop–my colleague Quickbeam argued long ago that the hero of the story is *not* Frodo, but Sam. But if we accept that, then we also accept that his primary motivator was love of the individual (Frodo) and not the cosmic battle.

    The gist of your argument is that the characters weren’t motivated by a desire to do good over evil but by love of individual. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that because the individual matters most in the context of the good/evil struggle that the individual must be *motivated* by concern for that struggle.

    I’ll have a bit more later in the day–Little Bean is calling.

    Comment by Anwyn — April 20, 2007 @ 8:59 am

  3. PS: Of course Tolkien wasn’t a Marxist. Nothing could’ve been farther from my mind than to imply that.

    Comment by Anwyn — April 20, 2007 @ 9:08 am

  4. I have to be quick this time too…

    I too have always thought Sam was the “everyman” hero of LotR: apparently incorruptible, unerringly loyal to his friends, completely selfless. Luckily, by a deus ex machina, Tolkien spared him the final, tragic choice of whether to remain faithful to his fallen master, or the quest. It seems like it would have destroyed him either way.

    The idea that the individual is a mere pawn in some cosmic/social struggle between inexorable moral/historical forces is a key element of the Marxian view of the world. It seemed like you were attributing much the same view to Tolkien.

    Oh, and I’m not a college kid anymore (unfortunately) – I’m a professor… :-)

    Comment by LagunaDave — April 20, 2007 @ 10:07 am

  5. Er. So sorry about that–not sure how I received that erroneous impression. I also have the impression that you’re in engineering–is that one off as well?

    No, I didn’t at all mean individuals were merely pawns–clearly I’ll have to update this post. The individual has free will that is shaped by his/her individual desires. That’s why I don’t accept Gollum as a deus ex machina–even if his desire was corrupted and dominated, it was still his free will once upon a time, and as such he couldn’t do otherwise than to follow his desire.

    My point is more similar to the idea that for Tolkien, whatever the individual does on the personal level in his life, his memory is marked primarily by what he did in the struggle, and that for him personally his reward is typically no greater or less than that of others who did their duty, however unremarkable their particular duty may have turned out to be.

    Hmm. Little more thinking for me before I update. I’m starting to make a pretty little circle of my reasoning. :)

    Comment by Anwyn — April 20, 2007 @ 10:12 am

  6. Er. So sorry about that–not sure how I received that erroneous impression. I also have the impression that you’re in engineering–is that one off as well?

    An even worse dig! I’m a physicist. :-)

    As for the original point, I guess I would summarize Tolkien’s view (as I interpret it) as being that the battle between good and evil is ultimately fought (and won or lost) within the individual, not with reference to the metaphysical “big picture”, but rather in relation to those around him or her.

    Boromir provides a example. Boromir blew it big time, as far as the grand strategy was concerned – he betrayed the trust placed in him as a member of the Fellowship and leader of Gondor, by succumbing to the lure of the ring. But then he redeemed himself by an act of personal bravery and loyalty to his companions, even though he didn’t succeed in saving them.

    I can go along with “grim optimism” if it means that Tolkien painted a world in which individual self-sacrifice is sometimes necessary to avoid defeat by evil. I’m not sure about the primacy of the struggle, though. To Tolkien, the simple, idyllic life of the Shire (working close to the land, caring for ones neighbors and kin, six square meals a day, songs over a mug in the Green Dragon, and the occasional bowl of Longbottom Leaf) seems to have been the highest good or “reward”, rather than Great Deeds and Adventures.

    In the Silmarillion, we see a somewhat similar but more abstract goal – restoration of Arda to the harmony of Illuvatar’s music – contrasted with the baser motives of the Exiles – possessiveness, pride and revenge.

    Comment by LagunaDave — April 20, 2007 @ 5:03 pm

  7. While I agree that “struggle within the individual” is present, I can’t agree that the larger battle is not referenced or even that it’s metaphysical. Sauron and the Nazgul were physical enemies with physical domination of the world as their goal. Also, there’s not that much struggle depicted within the individual characters; their ways are set and their paths formed before we are privileged to watch and follow as they carry out their duty.

    I would add to my original point, or alter your first alteration of it, to say that the battle, very real and vital to survival of the individual, is *only* won or lost by individuals doing their duty against it, or not. And of course the battle is fomented by individuals, such as Sauron. There’s nothing inevitable about any of it, and while the individual can be (and is) motivated by personal concerns, he is at his best when those concerns conflate with and support the battle against evil.

    The opposite of Marxism, in other words. Because if you don’t have anything invested in the system (your personal concerns), you’ve no reason to fight for it. When I said the individual “matters only” as he does his duty, I meant matters to memory, to the world, to that bigger picture. Certainly at many points I feel a futilism, if that’s a word, from Tolkien, regarding the effort that it takes to make a stir even in one’s own corner of the world. Your point about the idyllic nature of the Shire is part of my point–it’s what Frodo said about (paraphrased) “some must give up the world in order to save it” for those who will never know the names or qualities of their saviors. The struggle is paramount, whether the majority of individuals are caught up in it, or even aware of it, or not.

    Comment by Anwyn — April 20, 2007 @ 7:27 pm

  8. While I agree that “struggle within the individual” is present, I can’t agree that the larger battle is not referenced or even that it’s metaphysical. Sauron and the Nazgul were physical enemies with physical domination of the world as their goal. Also, there’s not that much struggle depicted within the individual characters; their ways are set and their paths formed before we are privileged to watch and follow as they carry out their duty.

    I recall Roger Ebert making the same point about the lack of character development in the books. There is some truth to it, and it’s no doubt why Jackson did so much violence to characters like Aragorn, Treebeard and Faramir – making them initially ambivalent so they can later “develop”. Ironically, Jackson gave short shrift to the real heroes, whose development is the heart of the story – the Hobbits – and the real conclusion – The Scouring of the Shire. In some sense, the larger-than-life figures like Gandalf, Aragorn, Sauron, etc are more or less part of the scenery – the landscape through which the hobbits travel and the props with which they interact. In this view we shouldn’t expect Aragorn to be anything but noble, Gandalf anything but wise, Saruman anything but treacherous, etc, because they are intended to be the very embodiment of those values.

    Comment by LagunaDave — April 20, 2007 @ 11:58 pm

  9. Every now and then I think I’m too much of a geek, that I know WAY too much about inconsequential things.

    Reading your conversation takes a lot of that pressure off us regular geeks.

    Comment by Timmer — April 24, 2007 @ 10:32 am

  10. Timmer: Concur. But it is very pleasant to read their conversation. Thanks for the insight Anwyn & L-Dave!

    Comment by Mike S — April 24, 2007 @ 11:32 am

  11. Funny, because I have no idea what you guys are talking about and that makes me feel much better about myself. :-)

    Comment by Allen — April 24, 2007 @ 11:32 am

  12. Dave, I think we’re being disparaged.

    Timmer, I don’t think a discussion of how one of our favorite authors views the nature of the individual is entirely inconsequential. :)

    Comment by Anwyn — April 24, 2007 @ 3:04 pm

  13. The tale of The Children of Hurin is probably my favorite story from the Quenta Silmarillion. It is many ways the antithesis of the more well-known stories. To wit, the hero struggles against Fate, knowing his Destiny….and fails in the end. Too proud, too short-tempered, too few lucky breaks, and the malice of Teh Enemy hounding him like a collections agency. Everything catches up to Turin Turambar eventually, and the self-titled Master of Doom implodes in despair and regret.

    Still, does that mean he truly failed in the end, and was defeated? In TCOH Turin learns his duty as a child to live nobly, do good to others to earn their respect & love, and to always fight for the Right (like White’s Knights of the Round Table) against the Enemy whose only delight is the misery of others. As an adult he keeps to those values, and if he ultimately fails each time, he is still willing-up-to a point- to continue. Being a hero means more than a Sword of Kings and a cool title.

    Was it worth it? Turin did many mighty deeds in his life. Unlike most of Tolkien’s heroes, he didn’t even get to see other people benefit from any of his deeds, let alone get any lasting personal pleasure from them. Still, he did his best, and if he failed, it was because he dared to do more than the average Man or Elf of his time.

    Comment by fallohide — April 24, 2007 @ 4:26 pm

  14. I don’t have the time or energy to get far into this, but two things haven’t been mentioned that I think deserve some thought. The fatalism implicit in many of Tolkien’s themes and stories is tempered by faith. I sometimes think that faith gets the short end of the stick when talking about his works. Many wonder how a story that has so much sorrow, pain and suffering can still lift people up and make them feel so good inside. I personally think that it’s because of the faith of Tolkien is infused in his writings. I know this is a mess, but it’s the best effort I can give at the moment.

    Comment by Attila123 — April 25, 2007 @ 11:46 am

  15. Dave, I think we’re being disparaged.

    Yeah, next time we discuss such matters, we’d better do it in Elvish. I mean, we don’t want to look like geeks or anything… :-)

    Having finished the book, I’m afraid I didn’t find too much uplifting about it. I disagree about Turin being an innocent victim of fate. If you want to talk about hubris, the guy had it in spades.

    Many of the bad guys in Tolkien’s work fall because they refuse to acknowledge or accept the natural limitations of their situation or their selves, and are taken over by pride. Melkor being the first, but not the last, of course.

    Although Turin’s pride didn’t lead him to try dominating others like Melkor, Sauron, Saruman, etc (although he usually succeeded in doing so anyway…) he was unable to master himself, which in Tolkien’s universe is pretty much guaranteed to bring woe and eventually destruction. And the same flaw afflicted his mother and sister.

    Comment by LagunaDave — April 25, 2007 @ 8:49 pm

  16. Oh I find the conversation interesting. I’ve loved Tolkien for years.

    Ummm, they’re books about hobbits and elves. How much consequence can we be talking about?

    Comment by Timmer — April 26, 2007 @ 1:31 pm

  17. Judging by the nature of his comment, Master Timmer has not yet sat down and read The Silmarillion or The Unfinished Tales yet…. ^^;

    One could use Turin Turambar as the example of the Middle Earth hero who didn’t pay attention to the warnings of others, not to mention his own conscience & upbringing. However, Turin acts not only from pride, but from what he considers his proper sense of loyalty & duty. The tragedy of Turin is that he ultimately can’t master Doom, because he carries that Doom inside himself. Still, TCOH is a more inspiring saga, tragic though it may be, than the Volsungs portion of The Rings Cycle, with its various deeds & misdeeds which echo in the Silmarillion. The same could be said for the various Norse sagas where the fierce heroes slay and rule in bleak pagan existentialism before valiantly snuffing it & being placed on the pyre. We end up being drawn to Turin because of his blown opportunities for success, not in spite of them. It’s easy to understand his failings, and to remember that properly becoming the hero (according to Tolkien’s standard), is more than just playing the part.

    I am curious to see how the story tells itself, too. The TCOH is (to me anyway) some of Tolkien’s best writing. He puts a lot of effort into describing the characters and their actions & reactions. It will be interesting to see how Christopher reconciles the Silmrillion text with the Unfinished Tales additions to create a single integrated narrative.

    Comment by fallohide — April 26, 2007 @ 8:58 pm

  18. I’ll play Devil’s Advocate…

    One could use Turin Turambar as the example of the Middle Earth hero who didn’t pay attention to the warnings of others, not to mention his own conscience & upbringing. However, Turin acts not only from pride, but from what he considers his proper sense of loyalty & duty.

    So far you could be talking about the SS or the 9/11 hijackers… If my sense of loyalty and duty causes me to inflict great evil on others (and myself), am I somehow absolved?

    The tragedy of Turin is that he ultimately can’t master Doom, because he carries that Doom inside himself.

    Here is where I see it differently. He never lost his free will, and could, at any point, have avoided doing Morgoth’s bidding. IMO, to the extent he carried anything malign within himself, it was his rashness, pride and stubbornness, not some fatalistic “Doom”.

    As Hurin himself correctly observes in their conversation, Morgoth is not unchallenged, nor is he the mightiest power in Middle Earth. It was Turin’s choice to face Morgoth’s “cloud of Doom” without any allies – many tried to help him, but he scorned them all.

    We end up being drawn to Turin because of his blown opportunities for success, not in spite of them. It’s easy to understand his failings, and to remember that properly becoming the hero (according to Tolkien’s standard), is more than just playing the part.

    I didn’t feel drawn to Turin at all. I pitied him as I might pity any self-destructive person, but I see him as a guy whose stupidity and arrogance caused a lot of unnecessary grief to a lot innocent people. Turin could be a poster-child for the aphorism: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

    And in fact, like many self-destructive personalities in the real world, he seems to have learned nothing in the end – he dies blaming everyone but himself for his misfortunes, and cursing the people who had bent over backwards to try to save him from himself.

    Comment by LagunaDave — April 30, 2007 @ 3:31 am

  19. […] Tolkien threads are popular around here, largely thanks to faithful commenter Professor (not student) of Physics (not engineering) LagunaDave. I’ve taken note. Back to the roots, then: Tolkien exploration and commentary, once a week and shorter (hopefully also a bit pithier) than it used to be at the ol’ Green Books hacienda. I may get into some of JRRT’s contemporaries in future as well, like (of course) Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and others. […]

    Pingback by Anwyn’s Notes in the Margin » Weekly Tolkien: Break Your Heart — May 9, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

  20. LagunaDave,

    I’ve had to work with a bunch of Turins. Watching such highly skilled, highly motivated people can be inspiring when you can detach yourself from it. The reality is much different. You’re right in the sense that one might feel pity when some of them self-destruct. Others are, to put it nicely, not easy to deal with. It tempers one’s sense of pity. I think there’s a direct correlation between their total hubris and the amount of pity you can feel. Pride goeth before the fall, and the schadenfreude rate increases correspondingly with the pride.

    PS, are you handy with MatLab? I’ve got this project I need to work on. . . .

    Comment by Chris — July 4, 2007 @ 11:15 pm

  21. Could you send me a link to chapter summaries on the children of hurin. I cant seem to find anything. Please help me.

    Comment by John Bromberg — September 25, 2008 @ 9:14 am

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