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.