Conquered literally. That book is hard.
Every time we went to our local library, they had all of four Tolkien books on the shelf--the three LOTRs, and a beautiful, hard-backed The Children of Hurin with Alan Lee illustrations. I would pull out the latter book, and hold it, and imagine the perfect time when I could finally check it out and bring it home with me. Last Friday, I realized that the perfect moment would never come, so I picked it up for an enjoyable Sunday read.
Maybe enjoyable was a bit of a stretch, but I was spot-on-right that there is no perfect time to read The Children of Hurin. It's just one of those legends that you'll never really be ready for.
In a time of Middle Earth long before Hobbits, there lived the three people groups of Eru Iluvatar (God)--Elves, Men, and Dwarves. And of one of the houses of Men came Hurin.
Hurin was a great warrior, and married a proud woman, Morwen, who bore him three children. Turin, their only son, a daughter Lalaith who died as a young girl, and a daughter Nienor. Hurin never saw his third child, for when the forces of Elves and Men gathered for one great strike against the evil Morgoth (Satan-figure), Hurin set out with them and fought in the legendary battle Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Heaps of Elves and Men were stuck down, until Hurin and his men held the retreat of the last troop of elves. Hurin's guard was killed around him, but Hurin himself was captured and taken alive to Morgoth's stronghold. There, because he scorned Morgoth and mocked him to his face, Morgoth set Hurin upon a great chair overlooking the land of his people, and bade him sit there to watch its destruction. Morgoth also threatened Hurin that because of his scorn, his whole house and descendants would be brought low. And Morgoth cursed Hurin and all of his descendants.
When Hurin does not return, Morwen sends her only son far away from his homeland to the forest kingdom of Thingol, king of the Elves. There Thingol adopts Turin as his foster-son, and Turin grows up stern and proud, and brooding over the time when he will be able to avenge his father's supposed death. Brilliant with the sword, with a powerful ability to lead men, Turin helps the Elves hold Orcs out of the forest of Thingol until a tragic duel forces him away from Thingol's kingdom and brands him as an outlaw.
Or rather, Turin does not trust himself to Thingol's grace and brands himself as an outlaw, which is even worse.
In the wilds he takes up with a group of rough men; they raid and kill tomake a living for themselves. Turin can't stay with any one group for long, though; Morgoth pursues him relentlessly, and wherever he goes, darkness and death seem to follow. Morgoth's servant, the dragon Glaurung, seeks him and his sister Nienor throughout Middle Earth to kill them, and as the years pass, Turin goes into hiding, so that neither Morgoth nor Glaurung can find him.
Just as Turin thinks that he has overcome his fate, when he is married and his first child is on its way, he betrays himself in an act of pride and ill-judgement, and Glaurung knows exactly where to find him.
Turin does not quail at the news that the dragon approaches. For he has determined that he will face his final doom and conquer it, or die in the attempt.
|Turin Turambar |
artwork copyright by Jenny Dolfen
My Thoughts (contains general spoilers)
I couldn't even cry when I finished. Just sort of shivered with the sadness of it and went to bed and told Junior B that I had just finished reading something heartbreaking.
Junior B sighed in a poor-Sister-will-never-learn kind of way, and then made sure I was okay. She's nice like that. :)
The Children of Hurin is not a book I would recommend to everyone. I'll laud Lord of the Rings to the skies, and passionately recommend the Silmarillion to everyone I meet--but with The Children of Hurin, I will probably put some pretty careful thought into the type of person I recommended it to before I bring it out. If you're struggling with some depression, or are going on a happy and relaxing vacation, this may not be the book for you. You can be a Tolkien fan and not read the Children of Hurin. Don't be in a hurry to pick it up; it's tragic, and dark, and just as you read "This is the end of the story of the children of Hurin" you turn the page to find one last tragic post-script like a sock in the gut.
For those of you who have never read Tolkien, it's best to start with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Then read the Silmarillion. The Children of Hurin doesn't stop to explain regions, rulers, or history, and the Sil's background is essential for understanding the tale. Christopher Tolkien includes a map in the back of the 2007 edition that is somewhat helpful to find out where all the characters are going, but there were a few places that the map didn't mark, which made a few portions especially difficult.
Another reason to wait is that, while Tolkien is appropriate with the amount of detail he gives, The Children of Hurin contains adult thematic elements and should not be given to a young Tolkien reader.
When I finished this book, it begged the question, is there a place in literature for a story that has not one shred of happiness to it? Is the darkness really useful? In considering the question, it's easy to say "Oh, it's Tolkien! Of course it's good!" But Tolkien is prone to human error just like the rest of us, and if I ever got to the point where I took him with the same confidence I took Holy Writ, I would be seriously concerned.
I thought quite a bit on the usefulness of it. When I finished this book last night I thought it really wasn't up to par with Tolkien's other works, along with being pretty dark. I still think it's dark. But in writing this article, I no longer see it as sub-par. Oh, no, its themes run to the deepest conflict between man and God, and between God and Satan.
Word has it that Tolkien adapted this tale from a Finnish folktale, giving his own twist to the story. While I know nothing about the original folktale, this story has a strong sense of both predestination and man's freewill. Turin faces his 'fate', his 'doom', again and again. But in the end, it's not the ambiguous 'doom' that ultimately destructs things he holds dear. It's his own rashness, his own pride, and his own choice.
I used the term predestination loosely. This is not meant to be the Reformed terminology of God predestining someone's eternal fate. In Tolkien's work, Morgoth (probably a correlation for Satan, if Tolkein's work was an allegory) curses Hurin's family and children to doom. That's the predestination/doom we're talking about here.
So let's take it a step further (though this section might make better sense to people who are Tolkien-literate). If Morgoth cursed, or doomed, Hurin's house to destruction, where was Eru, the God-figure, in all this sadness?
At first in writing this article, I was at a loss where to find him. But then, it came to me. Eru may seem nonexistent in the pages of The Children of Hurin, but he's there. And though the tale itself is tragic, the glimpses of Eru's offered grace are beautiful to search out. Time and again Turin is offered the choice of blessing, even of happiness, through friends like Thingol, Mablung, Beleg, Gwindor, and Brandir. They warn him like the verse in Proverbs that says "faithful are the wounds of a friend", and they tell him that if he will humble himself and accept advice, he can find grace and redemption, and conquer the destruction that Morgoth wants to bring upon him.
Time and again, like the Israelites with the prophets, Turin rejects them in pride and goes his own way. And this is where Tolkien strikes a brilliant balance between predestination and man's freewill.
Man does not have to self-destruct. Man does not have to take the choice of sin and death. Eru's (God's) grace is there for him to choose if he will only believe it and humble himself.
"The doom lies in yourself, not in your name." ~The Children of Hurin, Chapter 10
Useful lesson? Surely. Is there a better way you can learn it than reading this book? Perhaps.
Here's what, in my humble opinion, would have made this book better. I like to see books with parallel characters that have parallel lives who make opposite choices. Here we have Turin, a man who is cursed, who is offered grace time and time again, and each time rejects it. I think this story would have been more triumphant, more redemptive, and more grand in its scale if Tolkien had had a parallel character to Turin that chose to humble himself and accept the offered grace, and overcome the curse of Morgoth.
That's just my opinion. Take it for what it's worth.
The Final Battle (heavy spoilers below)
Believe it or not, in spite of The Children of Hurin's darkness, the ultimate healing and redemption comes long after Turin's death, when the land of Middle-Earth meets its final end:
In that day Tulkas shall strive with Morgoth, and on his right hand shall be Fionwë, and on his left Túrin Turambar, son of Húrin, coming from the halls of Mandos; and the black sword of Túrin shall deal unto Morgoth his death and final end; and so shall the children of Húrin and all Men be avenged.
~ The Lost Road: The conclusion of the Quenta Silmarillion.
What a glorious ending. It makes you weep with the fitting rightness, the final healing, the triumph of Eru's light over Morgoth's darkness, and all through a man, faulty yes, but hounded and wronged as well, who will overcome his own past and Morgoth's evil in one final death-blow.
It's so glorious that it hurts.
(end of major spoilers)
And though I love you, son of Hurin, yet I rue the day that I took you from the Orcs. But for your prowess and your pride, still I should have love and life, and Nargothrond should yet stand a while. ~The Children of Hurin, Chapter 11
For most people I would recommend an acquaintance of Turin Turambar through Tolkien's shorter version of it in the Silmarillion. It's much more emotionally manageable. But if you feel that you absolutely must read The Children of Hurin, take time to reflect on its themes: man's pride, Satan's darkness, and Eru's grace. And be sure to have your emotions well in hand to control the dark side of the story.
And when you've finished, don't forget to go to Wikipedia, to read of Turin's ultimate fate and triumph. It soothes the soul.
Unfinished Tales is next on my Tolkien list; but as with all his works, it takes a while to recover from one before you can move on to the next one. But I'll be back with more Tolkien, Lord-willing, in the months to come. :)