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.

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6 thoughts on “The Children of Hurin, God, and Pride

  1. Just wanted to let you know that the Barrow Downs forum is no longer defunct but back in action. I always found your posts there stimulating, would be nice to see you posting again.- Thomas aka Pitchwife

  2. Hey thanks for dropping by. Sadly, I found many of the older members there were completely hostile, so I’m not sure if I’d want to go back. I usually post on ForumShire if I post at all these days. In general I find message boards to be hotbeds of censorship and group-think. Maybe I’ll come along again though.

  3. Hi Ben – I think your criticisms here are strong and relevant, and this is coming from an admittedly CCR-reader (I’m a lifelong Christian, and an adult convert to Catholicism at that, and Tolkien’s works were a big influence on my decision in that regard). I’d like to share some thoughts of my own.

    1. On Fairy-Stories is where Tolkien most directly lays out his literary and critical views. It’s hard to contend with the notion that, at least there, he makes Christian hope a pretty big deal when it comes to fantasy lit.

    2. That being said, you are 100% correct that Tolkien’s works are not always about Christian hope (or, at least, don’t seem to be, not in the shallow and sometimes sentimental way that many understand it). My argument, the one I am slowly developing in my own work, is that a richer understanding of Tolkien’s own faith (ie Catholicism) is necessary to really get what Tolkien meant by this (and I think his own understanding of it developed over time).

    3. In his Beowulf essay, which came before The Hobbit and On Fairy-Stories, he talks at great length about the ideas of hope and despair in a pre-Christian world.

    4. Even in LOTR, Frodo never seems to realize a fullness of joy, that thing we’d come to expect after considering Tolkien’s own words in OFS. In this, one needs to realize that, in Tolkien’s mind, he was writing a pre-Christian historical epic of a sort. You rightly point to Job.

    5. As a non-Catholic Christian, I had no idea what to make of suffering. It just seemed to be something I had to put up with for the time being. As a Catholic Christian, my sufferings are turned on their head. When Job suffers for having done nothing wrong, we can’t quite understand why. The same can be said of Christ. Christ is, in a way, the answer to all human suffering, the answer even to the story of Job –> God Himself suffering with us. Yet for the Catholic, Christ redeems our sufferings and turns them into opportunities of grace, weapons against evil, misery, and death. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t something to be grasped with our heads and intellects, at least not fully, but rather to be lived and contemplated. In Christ, I die that I might live more fully.

    6. One thing I think Tolkien was trying to do with his works was to look back on the things he loved about pre-Christian virtuous pagans and see them in the light of his own Christianity. Again, I took this away from his Beowulf essay. He was not ready to consign the heroes of yore to the netherworld. In his view (and I think this can be seen in Mythopoeia) all human beings have a certain “hope” within them, a little light that feels we are destined for something greater than death and darkness.

    So these thoughts are all very disorganized, but I wanted to get a response down before I got on with my day. I hope they are illuminating as a response to your thoughts. Would love to hear your own thoughts and criticisms, and I look forward to a rich dialogue and this and other issues.

    BTW – are you the same Ben that commented the other day over at True Myths?

  4. Hi John

    Thanks very much for posting, and do feel welcome to contribute here! Yes I am the same Ben. Having had a look at your website I like it – obviously I don’t exactly agree with your position but it is attractive and well put together. My problem with Olsen is more the personality cult, but unlike that first poster I don’t think you’re inarticulate (I’m not sure why they felt it necessary to be so unfriendly).

    Anyway…

    This is a very nice post. I don’t want this to become a theism v atheism debate, (actually, I have no problem with that, I’m just not sure I have the stamina at the moment!) but Tolkien didn’t bring me to Christianity or something. I remain an atheist.

    I think Tolkien is best approached from a variety of standpoints, and I don’t think it matters if you’re religious or not. If anything, I would argue that having that commitment biases you toward Tolkien’s writing in that it makes some of his narrative choices less ambiguous. To use Olsen as a convenient whipping boy, he will often make definitive moral judgments about characters or their actions (for example the suicide of Turin and Nienor) where no moral judgement is warranted in the text. In the example I post about above, he takes Aragorn’s death as an affirmation of Tolkien’s belief in the afterlife, when it is in fact an extremely sad and ambiguous scene.

    As for On Fairy Stories, I agree it is an important essay but I would caution against its overuse. I don’t think it should be thought of as a literary manifesto. Like Mike Drout I’m less well inclined toward this paper than many seem to be. You mention the whole Christian epilogue. Again like Drout I think it stinks basically – it’s out of sink with the more impartial analysis of the remainder of the essay. Again I don’t think it is a manifesto type of document – Tolkien’s literary works are too complex and in my opinion they contravene OFS in numerous places anyway.

    Please feel free to come and reply whenever, and I hope you feel welcome here ! 🙂

  5. Ben – Thanks for the response.

    >>> I don’t want this to become a theism v atheism debate…

    Nor do I, and that wasn’t my intent in sharing what I did about my own faith. What I was trying to get at is this: though it can be very problematic to process Tolkien through an overtly Christian lens, it is nevertheless an error to seek to divorce this aspect of someone like Tolkien from a critical review of his works. This was why I cited OFS. It was all very connected in his own mind. The Turin example is an interesting one – perhaps I will write more of it at some point in the not too distant future, and explain why I think the story of Turin is completely reconcilable with Tolkien’s Christian views (and is therefore one of the great wonders of his storytelling because, like you rightly point out, it does not seem to be so at first glance). BTW – I stress that Tolkien’s Christian views are not what we commonly associate with Christianity these days.

    Now it’s funny (to me) that you see Olsen as giving a very Christian reading of Tolkien (at least that’s how I understand one of the main threads of your criticism). This Christian thinks that Olsen was too careful of mentioning this aspect of Tolkien, because Tolkien himself, from all of the evidence I can find, tried to make it clear whenever appropriate that his faith had deeply influenced his writings. Of course, I haven’t listened to TTP podcast in a while, so maybe I missed something.

    In regard to OFS, I stand by the term “literary manifesto” though I’d certainly like to hear more about why you or Drout disagree with that assessment. Where can I find his take on it?

    Can I make one constructive suggestion? I think you might have a better chance at being heard if you used your last name on here and elsewhere. Anonymous criticism, even when legitimate and well-expressed, can come off as trolling otherwise.

    Enjoying this exchange, and hope you will return to TrueMyths as I begin to deal with some deeper things (my stuff so far has been kinda introductory, but I will be dealing at great-length over the next few months with the significance and difficulties of Tolkien’s faith).

  6. Well I might do that – I hadn’t thought Of it to be honest. I would be interested in your views on Túrin – I’m sure it can be “reconciled” to Christianity but I believe one has to twist the text to do so and make it into something it is not. Anyway thanks again for stoping by.

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