Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Children of Hurin

So I conquered The Children of Hurin last night.

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.

The Book
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. :)
 
Blessings,
Lady Bibliophile

10 comments:

  1. Are you sure you really want to attempt Unfinished Tales? You need to learn your lesson from Children of Hurin like Turin should have and not try to read another book that may be just as tragic. :P
    Just joking...I'm glad you finally had a chance to read it even if it was a heart-wrenching tale. :) And I'll always have a shoulder for you to cry on if you need it. ;)
    Love,
    Sister

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    1. Yes, yes, I do! There are so many beautiful tales there that cannot be missed. You will read them too, someday, Sister, and then I hope you will be able to love them just as much as I do now. :)

      I love your shoulder. It is a most comfortable and safe place. <3 I shall always need it close at hand for moments of sheer ecstasy and sadness. :)

      Much Love,
      Sister

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  2. I'm in the middle of reading this right now!
    I almost laughed a bitter, Turin-like laugh when you said you wouldn't recommend it for anyone struggling with depression or going on a happy vacation. (I did, I must confess, take it with me to Hawaii last week.)
    But thank you for your deep, thoughtful review. I love how you put my thoughts into words. A scene I liked that you didn't mention was Húrin's verbal wrangling with Morgoth; it contains some of the most explicit truth in the whole story, and provides a good foundation upon which to view all the ensuing struggles of sin and choice and fate.
    What I know of the Finnish Kalevala is not great, but it has some crucial plot-points in common with this story. The more I delve into myth the more I realize that the things I found most strange or disturbing in The Silmarillion are borrowed from other places. Tolkien took elements of myths as he knew them (and he really knew them) and rebirthed them into his own myth-world, in submission to his own worldview. A fascinating thing to study.
    Thanks again!

    In Christ,
    the Philologist

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    1. Oh my. Well, each bibliophile is entitled to choose what they would most like to have with them when travelling far from home. :) I tend to go back to the good old Gene Stratton-Porters and Robert Louis Stevensons, and L.M. Montgomerys when I am travelling, but that is just me. I like to be incandescently happy on vacations. :)

      Must go re-read Hurin's words with Morgoth. I still can't warm up to Hurin. Only in the one moment when he says 'day shall come again' and strikes seventy times do I almost like him.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the article! I almost told you yesterday, and then I decided to save it for a surprise. :)

      Love,
      Schuyler

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  3. 'Only in the one moment...do I almost like him.'
    Oh, Schuyler. How can you not love Hurin, the greatest warrior among Men in the First Age of the world? He's such a warm, earnest, affectionate person! I've loved him ever since The Silmarillion. He reminds me of Daithi. The last stand of the Men of Dor-lomin moved me deeply when I first read it, and has every time after; and his cry of 'Aure entuluva!' brings me to tears.

    Sorrowfully,
    the Philologist

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    1. The few people I liked in Turin's story were Gwindor, Mablung, Beleg, and Barahir. And Thingol and his wife. There might be others if I went through the cast of characters, but Hurin somehow does not connect with me. It's like we're two different pieces of music, and the closer we play together, the more in disharmony we sound....

      That's the only way I can figure out how to describe it. I have no real reason to back it up. Just instinct. But if it is a malady, you may give me all the quotes and persuasion you like, and I shall probably come around to your point of view. :D

      Plus, I love Daithi, So If Hurin is anything like Daithi then I shall try to like him for Daithi's sake. :)

      Most penitently,
      Schuyler

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  4. Oh, yes, it's a depressing book, isn't it? But Turin does have a sort of foil, just not in the book--his cousin Tuor gets the happy story Turin never did. But his is a very different story :)

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    1. Oh, wonderful! I'm glad someone in that poor family got a happy life. I look forward to discovering what it is! :)

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  5. "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." Ach! I want to cuddle onto someone's shoulder and CRY! *sniff sniff* I so very much find an empathy for your handling of 'The Children of Hurin', Schuyler, as I basically went through the same thought and emotional processes like you, though thankfully I did not read it during vacation (I read it during in between school hours, which made my day pretty depressed ;'( ). I even had to slam down the book, and I declared I would not finish it when I came to the bit when Turin *SPOILER* married Nienor. Actually, Tolkien's writing style was too beautiful and breathtakingly gut-wrenching that I had little recourse but to pick it up on a brighter/cheerier sort of day, and I am glad I made the decision to read through it. In fact, it has become a sort of strange favourite for me, though like you I refrain from recommending it to anyone who has not read much of Tolkien. I even wrote a review which I have not yet published as I did not want to give the wrong introduction to my readers on my thoughts of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings (I still must write a LOTR, Hobbit and Silmarrillion review one of these days...). Anyway, I too at first thought Tolkien missed the element of God's Providence and felt the stark absence of any hope. I imagined the story quite fatalistic and Turin and his poor family driven solely by Morgoth's curse. Where was Divine Providence or redemptive hope in that utter darkness?.... But as you pointed out then, when you read the story again, you see that the curse's fulfillment was not on account of Morgoth's will alone, but Turin's pride and bitter choices. That his pride and stubbornness, in choosing his own path against wise advice and counsel, turned to be his true downfall. How often he had the chance of setting his feet on the right path, of repenting and seeking the light, as a clearly offered heaven;y grace ... but he allowed the curse to be his doom. The Children of Hurin, I think, can be compared in a fictional/allegorical sense with a book such as Judges or Ecclesiastes in the Bible, filled with warning and grief, and an important lesson on choices of life, sin, destiny, etc. A grim, legend tale, but worth reading at least once I think...

    Oooh, but, if anything else, I loved the writing style Tolkien implemented in the book - it was so beautiful, understated and wrangled at my emotions painfully and wonderfully. And the characters were stirringly three-diminsional. Turin was always a little hard to love, though I dearly pitied him and Nienor... but I loved Beleg and cried bitterly over his death "Why, Tolkien, why?" Some other favourite characters were Thingol and his wife... and a few others, though I have started to forget now. As for Hurin, I honestly loved him in this book!! I felt for him a lot, he had the thing of legend about him and I thought it was he who suffered the most perhaps... but having read The Silmarillion after The Children of Hurin I was quite grieved to learn how he became so embittered and actually aided the Enemy unintentionally later on. :'(

    Morwen was interesting, if only because she was so proud! Anyway, I enjoyed this review, Schuyler, and I am glad you were able to find the gems in the rough to the book. I have to be honest, The Children of Hurin has given birth to an inspiration to a story idea still in the planning, namely 'Taurus Elnath' (but believe me, It will NOT be so tragic ;).

    God bless!

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  6. We should have a Children of Hurin recovery group. ;) I felt like throwing that book too--when I finished it, I just wanted to slam it somewhere. Not that I was angry with it, but it cut so deep that I think it was a battle instinct--you feel like if only you could do battle with Turin's pride and his foes that perhaps you could get it all to turn out differently.

    Beleg was my favorite, too. :'( :'( I loved him, he was such a faithful friend. And then--*spoiler Thus ended Beleg Strongbow, truest of friends, greatest in skill of all that harboured in the woods of Beleriand in the Elder Days, at the hand of him whom he most loved; and that grief was graven on the face of Turin and never faded. end of spoiler

    I'm glad your story isn't so tragic! And I can't wait to read it someday. :D

    Love in Christ,
    Schuyler

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