How does one account for J.R.R. Tolkien’s seeming ability to live inside of mythology? He read it, he translated it, and he absorbed it. After all these grand things, he rewrote it. Yet, no matter how deeply he delved into the profound and pervasive paganisms of pre-Christian cultures, he never lost his ability to baptize and to sanctify what he found there. That is, he made it all, somehow, Christian, but in a masculine way, a way that avoided effete compromises and saccharine pieties. This was no easy feat during the advent of modernity.
When Tolkien began his own mythology—the one that would eventually encompass The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings—during the First World War, he especially focused on three tales as the key tales of his entire mythology: Beren and Lúthien; The Children of Húrin; and The Fall of Gondolin. The first of the three dealt with love and sacrifice, the third with betrayal. The second, written sometime prior to 1919, dealt with fate and tragedy. Based—though somewhat loosely—on the Finnish Kalevala and the pathetic Kullvero, The Children of Húrin examines just how limited or not our free will is.
As the title of the story obviously suggests, The Children of Húrin considers the fate of Húrin, a man whose “fire in him burned steadily, and he had great endurance of will.” Challenging the devil figure of Tolkien’s mythology, Morgoth, Húrin finds himself captive of Gothmog, the demonic head of the Balrogs. Confronting his captor, Morgoth, Húrin mocks him, noting that he is but a diminished being, a fleeting thing of evil. In mischievous fury, Morgoth curses Húrin: “The shadow of my thought shall lie upon them [his children] wherever they go, and my hate shall pursue them to the ends of the earth.” True to his word, Morgoth has indeed poured his malice into the manifestation of Creation itself, though he cannot make, he can mar. Chaining Húrin to a high cliff, Morgoth rages: “Therefore with my eyes you shall see, and with my ears you shall hear, and nothing shall be hidden from you.”
Prior to his capture, imprisonment, and torture, Húrin had three children: Túrin, his eldest; Urwen/Lalaith, a daughter who died young; and, a decade younger than Túrin, Niënor. Because they were hunted, Túrin’s mother sent him away from the family, to live with the grey elves under the leadership of Thingol and Melian. There, he was treated with respect, though a man, and trained in the war arts of the Elves, especially by the great Elven Ranger, Beleg. Through a series of unfortunate insults and ill-feelings, many of the Elves believed Túrin responsible for the death of an ill-tempered Elf, Saeros. Anger consuming him, Túrin renamed himself, “Neithan the Wronged,” and fled the Elvish kingdom, taking up with a band of outlaws. Slowly and with many moral setbacks and one grand betrayal, Túrin reformed the group of outlaws from thieves and plunderers to a small militia hostile to Morgoth’s orcs. Distraught, Thingol and Melian send Beleg out to find Túrin, giving him two gifts, one intentionally and one not: first, the eucharistic bread, Lembas (the first ever given to non-Elves), and, second, Anglachel, a powerful blade made from meteorite but also conscious and filled with dark malice.
With the latter, Túrin accidentally murdered his mentor and closest friend, Beleg.
Beleg drew his sword Anglachel, and with it he cut the fetters that bound Túrin; but fate was that day more strong, for the blade of Eöl the Dark Elf slipped in his hand, and pricked Túrin’s foot. Then Túrin was roused into a sudden wakefulness of rage and fear, and seeing a form bending over him in the gloom with a naked blade in hand he leapt up with a great cry, believing that Orcs were come again to torment him; and grappling with him in the darkness he seized Anglachel, and slew Beleg Cúthalion thinking him a foe. (pp. 154)
Fate, and Morgoth’s curse, it seemed, ruled the life of Túrin.
After a life of sorrows, Túrin finally found some happiness when he met and fell in love with a gorgeous maiden, Niniel. Too late did Túrin discover that Niniel was actually his long, lost sister, Nienor.
Then the people murmured, wondering at his speech, and some said that he was mad; but Brandir cried: ‘Hear me to the end! Níniel too is dead, Níniel the fair whom you loved, whom I loved dearest of all. She leaped from the brink of the Deer’s Leap, and the teeth of Teiglin have taken her. She is gone, hating the light of day. For this she learned before she fled: Húrin’s children were they both, sister and brother. The Mormegil he was called, Turambar he named himself, hiding his past: Túrin son of Húrin. Níniel we named her, not knowing her past: Niënor she was, daughter of Húrin. To Brethil they brought their dark doom’s shadow. Here their doom has fallen, and of grief this land shall never again be free. Call it not Brethil, not the land of the Halethrim, but Sarch nia Chîn Húrin, Grave of the Children of Húrin!’ (pg. 247)
When Túrin discovered not only the death of his wife, but also her true identity, he threw himself upon his sword, a reforged but not reformed Anglachel, committing suicide.
Despite the uncharacteristic darkness found in this tale of Tolkien, there still lingered fundamentally moral themes. First, Tolkien recognized the latent distortions and miseries caused by evil. When one character demands respect for the Holy Powers, the Valar,” Túrin responds with some justice: ” ‘The Valar!’ said Túrin. ‘They have forsaken you, and they hold Men in scorn. What use to look westward across the endless Sea to a dying sunset in the West? There is but one Vala with whom we have to do, and that is Morgoth; and if in the end we cannot overcome him, at least we can hurt him and hinder him” (pg. 161). And, yet, when pushed on how to judge things—perhaps differently for Valar and men, elves or dwarves—Beleg anticipated Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. “How shall an Elf judge of Men,” Túrin asked. “As he judges of all deeds, by whomsoever done,” Beleg rightly replies. Circumstances, cultures, and the accidents of birth can never shape or determine morality, itself being complete and whole as is.
In the end, with the Children of Húrin, Tolkien baptized Finnish mythology, making it something particularly Tolkienian, but universally Christian.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Katuva Kullervo” (1918) by Aksell Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.