Corey Olsen and the notion of death as an “escape” in Tolkien

Following on from my previous post, I wanted to address an argument made by Corey Olsen and one of his students in this podcast. Olsen argues that the Turin story can be understood as an ultimately triumphant story of human escape. In committing suicide and/or dying of exhaustion, Olsen argues that Morwen, Nienor, Turin and Hurin all manage to defy Morgoth’s taunt that he should pursue them by dying and therefore returning to Illuvatar (god). Furthermore, Olsen argues that, given ‘death’ is understood to be a ‘gift’ from god, the death of these characters should somehow be understood as a victory.

In support of this position, Olsen cites the death of Aragorn, which Olsen argues demonstrates the “correct” way for human beings to interact with the idea of death in Tolkien’s story. To begin with, this example highlights a major problem I have with Olsen’s commentary: his tendency to reduce incidence in Tolkien’s stories to either one or another moral dimension and to ignore narrative ambiguity. For example, in the Aragorn example, Aragorn does indeed plead with Arwen, his wife, to await their reunification some time after death. Yet Olsen completely ignores the tragic element of tale which asserts itself at the end of the story. Arwen is not comforted by Aragorn’s words. Instead she despairs and eventually dies, forgotten. Contra Olsen, the story of Aragorn and Arwen is infused with an ambiguous attitude toward death. I would argue that like the tale of the Children of Hurin, the story of Aragorn and Arwen ultimately complicates the neat ‘schema’ Tolkien sets up whereby death can be seen as a gift, an idea which reeks of philosophical special pleading in any case.

As with the Aragorn and Arwen material, Olsen’s treatment of the Turin material overlooks the affects of the narrative and programmatically applies some external idea, thereby “rescuing” the story from ambiguity (and maintaining a sense of Christian hope, which Olsen apparently finds essential, even to the point of twisting Tolkien’s story and thoroughly ignoring its ambiguity). The notion that death is a “gift” does nothing to allay the tragedy of the story. No matter to what extent Olsen may wish to philosophize about Tolkien’s own beliefs, the affect of the narrative is to instantiate pathos and catharsis, not a sense of Christian hope.

The Children of Hurin, God, and Pride

As an initial new post I’d like to write about a book that has been a favorite of mine since it was first released – The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien. Quite why it has become one of my favorites has been a question I’ve been thinking about lately and I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer it in one post, but I’d like to start by saying that I’m not going to be considering it in relation to Tolkien’s other works – not even the Silmarillion. I’d like to be able to consider it as a work of fiction on its own terms, as though it were singular piece of writing unencumbered by the myriad other novels and romances composed by the same author. Only by considering the Children of Hurin in this way do I believe we can actually come to appreciate it. Too often the theological visions encompassed by the Silmarillion, and especially the Lord of the Rings, are considered at the expense of this narrative. Long ago, a poster at the (apparently now defunct) Barrow Downs discussion forum made the cogent point that the novel will inevitably be relegated to second-class status, its moral vision shrouded in the giant shadow cast by better known works of Tolkien. I believe that this has already, sadly occurred. In this post I’d not only like to present a case for reevaluating the Children of Hurin, I’m also interested in exploring the reasons behind its (relatively  speaking) limited appeal to some Tolkien fans.

In his lectures on Tolkien, the literature professor Corey Olsen has often expressed dismay toward the content of the Turin saga, repeatedly emphasizing its “depressing” nature (see, for example, his Silmarillion Seminar discussion series on the Turin story).  Although hardly any reader would contend with this general observation, Olsen’s reasons for expressing his dismay go to the heart of the (as I see it) difference between readers who are inclined to see Tolkien as a ‘Christian’ writer, concerned with expressing that peculiarly Christian concept of joy, in which God unexpectedly intervenes and condescends himself to humanity in spite of their sinful nature, and those who, like Verlyn Flieger in her Splintered Light, see him as a writer of abiding, and indeed unresolved, contradiction. In Olsen’s view, the Turin story, while often enjoyable and not without pathos, fails to engage reader empathy because the character of Turin is unlikable, and therefore unrelatable (once again, see Olsen’s Seminar discussions on Turin). The primary reason for the unlikableness of the character stems, according to Olsen, from the character’s overbearing Pride (that most dreadful of Christian sins). In a discussion during the recent ‘Mythgard’ seminar focused on the Book of Lost Tales II, Olsen argues that the earlier prose iteration of the Turin story (written when Tolkien was about 25) engenders sympathy far more readily because it portrays Turin as a less prideful, far more introspective character. Olsen cites the Doriath episode in Turin’s life as evidence. In the later version, Turin flees after he unwittingly commits manslaughter. Maglung, an Elf of Doriath, confronts him and attempts to reason Turin out of it. “…come back with us, Turin for the King must judge these deeds.” Turin replies haughtily: “‘If the King were just, he would judge me guiltless. But was this one of his counsellors? Why should a just king choose a heart of malice for his friends? I abjure his law and his judgement.” (CoH, 91) Mabling then accuses Turin of pridefulness and and bids Turin learn “wisdom”.  Turin’s character is indeed implicated in this scene, but the scene should not be understood solely in isolation, as Olsen seems to take it. If we have read The Children of Hurin diligently up to this moment, we should be aware that Turin’s character is composed of a rather complex array of temperaments. Already as a child, several traumatic events (all of which are out of his control) disturb his youth and augment his naturally caring nature with a fierce protectiveness toward kin. Not only does his sister die of a disease early in childhood, his father goes to battle and fails to return and his grieving mother copes with her distress through abject silence. It is a hard world, and Morwen knows it. She does not try to comfort Turin.  It is therefore the desire to save his kin, born out of suffering, that is the driving force behind Turin’s character. To call Turin’s actions merely prideful misses the point, but it serves a comforting purpose for the likes of Olsen and the other, as I shall name them, ‘Christian-centric Readers’.

In the CCR view of Tolkien’s work, the moral universe of Middle-earth exhibits Christian, specifically Augustinian, characteristics. There is the Good and the Bad is a perversion of the Good. The Good is that which the ‘good’ characters strive for and Evil consists in the domination of wills by other minds, but God does not create that Evil. While these categories may occasionally be fuzzy, they are never completely opaque. In this worldview, human beings are essentially Fallen by dint of their own imperfect nature. So far, so Lord of the Rings friendly. The problem, however, arises when this worldview is transplanted into a story which depicts such abject suffering. As a child, we see Turin and his family suffer through no fault of their own. Before Morgoth even curses them, we witness a world of material scarcity, disease, and war, and the suffering that these forces cause is consistently emphasised. Like most human beings throughout history, these characters have not chosen the times or places of their births; they are merely surviving and striving in the time that they find themselves inhabiting. This observation is afforded even keener poignancy by the explicit and frequent comparison between the immortal Elves and the moral Men. At one point early in the story, Turin asks his servant-friend if his dead sister will return. The servant replies “She will not come back.”

The CCR/Olsen point of view finds the Turin story distressing not because it exhibits suffering, but because within the confines of that story the suffering is not, and cannot be explained. There could be some higher answer, but for the characters ‘experiencing’ the narrative, it makes no difference. Thus the tension between Tolkien’s expressed theology and the poignancy of his portrayal of suffering is the element that affords the book such power. In my view, the book comes firmly down on the side of the ‘human’ point of view, eschewing cosmic explanations and, like Job, it laments the wretchedness of mortal life. That is why pride is so important to Olsen and CCR’s: by citing Turin’s pride they can blame him for his transgressions and therefore ‘absolving’ God and maintaining their view that human beings are at fault for their own suffering. The problem with this view is that, as The Children of Hurin clearly and heartrendingly shows, human beings are not always responsible for the suffering that they experience.

I shall have more to say about this in later posts. In the meantime, I would welcome feedback.