The Children of Hurin – heimweh and suffering encapsulated.

In his often moving essay ‘The tower and the ruin: the past in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works’ scholar Michael Drout (185) writes that ‘”Sadness that is yet blessed and without bitterness’ is, I believe, the feeling Tolkien was striving to create in much of his work; ‘joy, joy beyond the circles of the world’, from ‘On Fairy-stories’ has been a bit of a red herring.” I share Drout’s reading, and consider my own responses to reading Tolkien’s fiction much in line with his own: the overwhelming sense of sadness, of people, places and cultures passing on, only to be remembered in the permanence of their ruins. “A ruin…because of its permanence in the landscape…is a tangible marker, an absolute insistence on the pastness of the past, the permanence of the separation from the present experience of the person who views it (Drout, 186; italics original). It is this feeling of ‘nostalgia’, or heimweh – ‘home longing’ which is for Drout, as for this reader, at the bedrock of Tolkien’s creation.

In seeking to explain my own approach to The Children of Hurin in particular, a work on which I have written a few posts of late – I can do no better than to argue that it is perhaps the single most ‘concentrated’ dramatic exploration of loss and heimweh that Tolkien produced. The Lord of the Rings is a work of greater scope and imagination, and perhaps, in places, more poignant, but The Children of Hurin more directly links Tolkien’s overarching theme – the loss that time itself renders – to personal loss and mortal tragedy.

As a singular work of literature it leaves the reader with a distinctive sense of catharsis – the tragic undoing of Turin and Nienor as the culmination of a variety of other tragedies almost as overwhelming in scope. This loss is not tempered by any kind of eucatastrophe (indeed, Drout argues that this concept has been overused in Tolkien studies, and I agree with him) but is instead allowed to remain – ‘a pregnant moment of poise’ as Tolkien might have put it. This is why attempts to explain that loss away – to make it something joyful, in the end, or something that accords with god’s plan – fail. They do not take into account this theme as it is developed in The Lord of the Rings itself, where, despite victory and eucastrophe, heimweh – the loss of home, is by the end of the novel the dominant emotion. It is not ‘alienation’, or some other psychologised malady, but a sense of sadness, captured by Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens and later, Arwen’s (actually somewhat bitter) reaction to Aragorn’s death.

In The Children of Hurin the theme is most narrowly and forcefully explored. The reality of human mortality against Elvish mortality is contrasted, while the sufferings of Men admit of no answer within the story (or indeed, without, but that is another post). While intimations or providence are apparent in The Lord of the Rings, they are here almost entirely absent, a point which John Garth found important enough to speak to in his review of the work in 2007. However, the reality of loss and sadness as it is encapsulated within The Children of Hurin shares this with the way the theme is dealt with in Tolkien’s more famous magnum opus: it is without bitterness. It is awful, frightening even, to be born a mortal in this world, but it is almost as if the acknowledgement of suffering, the standing up to it, is beautiful in itself, and bedevils the urge toward despair. In The Children of Hurin, heimweh is transformed by tragedy into a more immediate sense of desperation, but it does not thereby become bitter and resentful. Where, say, Martin’s works show how the reality of mortal life can drive individuals and characters to evil and suicide, Tolkien, even at his most tragic, maintains not so much a sense of hope or joy, but a sense that the ‘ruin’ itself is a thing of beauty and that sadness is not an emotion or a response to be scorned but, actually, one to be cultivated. As Drout (190) writes, the sadness of being human “…in the inexorable flow of time…” is “…preserved, encapsulated and triggered by the physical ruin, the picture, the image, the memory, which itself could not exist without the achievement , fleeting as it may have been, of the tower, wonderful in itself…”


Drout, M. 2013 ‘The tower and the ruin: the past in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work’ in H. Conrad-O’Briain & G. Hynes. Tolkien: The Forest and the City, Four Courts Press.


2 thoughts on “The Children of Hurin – heimweh and suffering encapsulated.

  1. Troelsfo says:

    Interesting, thank you.

    I am not sure, however, that Heimweh in the sence that Drout uses it is the dominant sense of pain in The Children of Húrin. Particularly with Túrin it is, as I read the story, not a pain over the loss of something intimately familiar – the painful longing for the past, but the dominant pain is that of a lost future. It is the the lost possibilities that are the cause of the painful longing – the ache of Túrin (and Nienor) not being able to achieve the greatness that they seemed destined for.

    This appears to me to be distinctly different from the pain that Drout describes as Heimweh – it is, I would say, not really a nostalgic pain at all.

  2. Certainly the characters experience the loss of their imagined futures, but I also think a part of the pain involves the immediate suffering of the world – brought about by war, their bad fortune etc. That is (obviously) and intimate kind of loss.

    Perhaps you’re correct that nostalgia isn’t quite the emotion here – but I certainly think Túrin experiences a sense of Heimweh – loss for his home – throughout the story. For him this seems to be intimately connected with his kin and his desire to rescue them. In that sense he also loses his desired future, yes, but I wouldn’t discount the Heimweh here.

    Sure, it is expressed more fully, more tragically, without emotional reserve, but it is still the loss of all he holds dear that drives Túrin I think. First Lalaith, then his father, then his family through his exile.

    To put it another way, the book is situated on a thematic continuum with Tolkien’s other works. Like LOTR (I would argue) its central theme is loss, the ‘mortal coil’. In LOTR this theme is inheres more diffusely throughout the narrative – it is the loss of Faerie, of the Elves, which is so painful. As Drout argues this is mirrored and emphasised by the construction of the novel itself, which he (brilliantly, I think) points out that it is memetic not of ‘real life’, but of a medieval textual tradition. We are both close to and separate from the culture, languages, peoples and events the book narrates. You’re correct that this more distant sense of loss, that ‘nostalgia’ is lacking in CoH. But as I say I think it partakes in the same overarching theme. As I write is just expressed more directly and forthrightly. Here it is linked to personal loss and suffering, as opposed to the grander, more distant sense of loss which pervades LOTR.

    As I write above, heimweh is transformed in the story. You’re right that nostalgia by itself is not the ‘dominant mode of pain’ but, at least in my own reading, there is still a very intense, concentrated sense of ‘home-loss’ which the story depicts Turin as wanting to restore. That, for me, is where the tragedy arises.

    This is a rambling response, and I think you’re correct in some ways but I think my own reading would still differ from the one you suggest above.

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