Turin and Pridefulness

In the previous post, I listed three reasons various commentators have given in order to absolve God/the Valar of responsibility for the suffering endured by the characters in The Children of Hurin and the Turin tale in general. As I explain there, it has always seemed odd to me that some readers should be so intent on foisting a theological explanation, or overlay, onto the narrative fabric of the story in order to show that it accords with the overall supposed ‘arc of history’ within Tolkien’s universe which is, supposedly, a Christian one. That is, the eucatastrophic element of Tolkien’s fiction is said to be paramount, and any and all events taking place within the historical timeline can be explained, or explained away, only by recourse to this larger, cosmic perspective.

But, as I have previously argued, the eucatastrophe idea functions within Tolkien’s universe as a kind of theodicy. In other words, it is a kind of catch all explanation for suffering which supposedly works on any level. Turin’s life is beset by grief? Well, The Silmarillion ends with a eucatastrophe, and God’s plan is therefore fulfilled. It all works out in the end. Turin’s life is therefore an aberration, or at the very least, a sad and pitiable example of humanity gone wrong. In order to better uphold this explanation, it is necessary, or at the very least desirable, to show that Turin himself is responsible, at least in part, for the maledictions which are brought to bear upon him. One such approach is to argue that Turin is himself a kind of defective character. In particular, the great sin of Pride is often bandied about as an all encompassing  explanation for his bad decision-making. To be sure, this argument would appear to find support in the text, as Turin’s decisions, such as when he deigns to remain at Amon Rudh, are sometimes framed in terms of his prideful nature. This cannot be denied, but as a poster in this thread observes,

Turin’s hopelessness is very much tied in with his own perception of himself as a man of ill fortune. The whole issue of him refusing to return to Doriath, and thus be protected from Morgoth, is related to his pride – but was his pride the result of his ill fortune, or vice versa?

The perception that Turin is prideful is true, but why is he prideful in the first place? In some sense, he is ill fated to be. It is an aspect of his character that he himself cannot appear to escape from. It is not therefore a moral flaw, but merely a flaw in his ‘design’. Moreover, pridefulness is related to a major theme of the Children of Hurin novel (less so the chapter in The Silmarillion): the terrible reality of mortality, especially when contrasted with the immortality of the Eldar. Humans are given to pridefulness because their lives are so short, the novel seems to imply. The Elves can afford to eschew pridefulness (although they often don’t) because their lives work out over millennia. But humans must face a cruel world, somehow, and thrive within it. When the odds are so heinously stacked against you, as they are against Turin, what other response seems reasonable? The Christian reader might object that Turin should have practiced a considered humility, but what would this have gained him? In the world of the Turin saga, there are no answers to the existential question of life after death, even if we as readers “know” the answers contained in The Silmarillion. Our ‘knoweldge’ of the Ainulindale myth, for example, is useless within the space of the Turin story, because the characters themselves are unaware of it (witness the conversation of Sador and Turin. If Sador has heard of it, he doesn’t believe it). The narrative of the Turin story undermines the theodicy of the Ainulindale, which, it must be remembered, is an Elvish myth. It may be objected that this is an example of dramatic irony – if only the characters knew what we do, but that seems unworkable. Presumably, having lived amongst them, the humans of the story would be familiar with the Elvish myths, but even so those stories appear not to have inculcated them with a sense of Christian piety. If the Ainulindale is meant to function as a theodicy (Eru turns evil to his own purpose, etc.) it appears to have garnered only scepticism from Sador and Turin himself.

So, what are we to make of Turin’s pride? Does it absolve Eru, and the Valar? In short, I don’t believe it does, because Turin’s pride is itself a response to the cruelty of the world he inhabits. Interestingly, the book makes no moral judgement upon Turin, and it is this quality that makes his story, for me, so appealing. We are all, like Turin, obliged to face a world which we cannot ourselves exert much control over. What is the correct response this scenario? No one knows, but at the very least assigning blame to Turin because he reacts with pridefulness in the face of his circumstances does not cut it.

Tolkienian Eucatastrophe

Well, it’s been over a year since I last wrote here, probably a rather bad idea if I want to develop a readership. But alas, I am now in a PhD program, and yet paradoxically I will probably have more time to write here. My Honours year is well and truly over, and the strange lull of 2016, filled as it was by a flurry of apparently useless activity, is thankfully over.

In this post, I want to return to a theme I addressed in a previous post: specifically, the notion of eucatastrophe as it is developed by Tolkien in his essay, ‘On Fairy Stories’.

In that post I suggested that the concept of eucatastrophe, or the notion of a sudden joyous turn, as actually inadequate as an explanatory device in the context of Tolkien’s fiction. I want to return to that idea here. Please note, this post assumes a knowledge of the Turin story, and familiarity with Tolkien’s theoretical ideas.

In recent months I’ve been listening to several podcasts which aim to explore Tolkien’s fiction. One of these, the Prancing Pony Podcast, features Alan Sisto and Shawn Marchese, both great podcasts hosts, who are currently (as of April 2017) working their way through The Silmarillion. As of this writing, they are in the midst of the Turin chapter, which as I’ve written before tends to have a clarifying effect on the way that readers approach his work.

Without wishing to disparage the hosts of this podcast, which is really wonderful, I think they exemplify the same kind of reading that I was, in a previous set of posts, so critical about in regards to Corey Olsen (aka the ‘Tolkien Professor’. THE Tolkien Professor!). One way or another, the story of Turin invites, indeed it implores, the reader to ask particular questions about Tolkien’s world which are otherwise tangentially present in Tolkien’s other fiction. Questions like, why is there suffering in the world? Or, alternatively, why does God allow suffering if he is apparently so benevolent? The nature of the Turin narrative forces readers to ask these questions because it clashes so starkly with the (apparently) hopeful and consistently ‘eucatastrophic’ message in the rest of Tolkien’s fiction. There are several responses a reader might have to the Turin saga that attempt to square it with the wider eucatastrophic impulse:

  1. This is the most common, and it is answer that the podcasters at the Prancing Pony seem, at least implicitly, to endorse. This thesis proposes that the suffering of Turin is either entirely his own fault, or is primarily his own fault, and therefore cannot be laid at the feet of God, or the Valar. Corey Olsen more or less explicitly endorses this thesis, when, for example, he refers to Turin’s pride. A character flaw like Pride is said to explain Turin’s rash actions, and thus the suffering of the story can be attributed in a more abstract sense to the sin of human pride – a comfortingly Christian explanation.
  2. The second response to Turin is related to the first, but takes a wider, more cosmological view. Like the first response, it seeks (if implicitly) to denude God or the Valar of culpability within the story, and to show how the workings of fate (understood as Iluvatar’s overall design) are in fact benevolent in outcome. Essentially, God works in mysterious ways. All will be well in the end. Such clichés express this view. In light of the suffering narrated through the story, this response seeks to show that such unfortunate events in the story as the death of Turin’s sister, his random and therefore tragic killing of Beleg, or the graphic demise of Finduilas and other such heart rending events are merely ripples in a cosmic drama that will eventually end in a benevolent victory and the overthrow of Evil.
  3. Another view, which is an even ‘harder’ theological response than the first two, considers the Turin story to be a kind of morality tale. The most well known exponent of this view is probably (again) Corey Olsen, although Christian apologists like Ralph Wood also make this argument (see, for example, Ralph Wood’s essay on Turin in the Ring and the Sword essay collection). In this view, Turin’s story is often paralleled with that of Tuor, who is the god (vala) fearing Man we all wish Turin were, if he were only capable of making the right choices. Turin’s story is thus reduced to a cautionary footnight (despite its status as the most fully developed of the Silmarillion tales) in the cosmic drama.

All of these views are related and they all share certain features in common. To begin with, they are all kinds of theodicy, or explanations of suffering. Rather than take the narrative as it is presented, the action of the story, and the implications which flow from it, are made secondary to a philosophical principle. For example, that God has a plan, or that one particular character flaw is capable of explaining away the events in the characters’ lives. Notice that these explanations closely mirror those offered by religious believers in the real world. Like Turin’s story, the lives of almost all individuals in the real world are riven by sufferings of one sort or another. How to explain this? Such theodicies are often suggested as a means of resolved the Platonic dilemma of omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence. But they are also offered as answers in light of personal suffering. A relative dies? God works in mysterious ways. You lose your job? God has a better plan for you. Perhaps this is a caricature, but such explanations always boil down to a simple idea: you are ignorant. You cannot see the bigger picture.

Regardless of Tolkien’s intent, this Turin story obliges readers to confront these questions. Even if you are a Christian reader, and view Tolkien as a kind of prop for faith, the Turin story cannot help but raise questions about the place of God in Middle-earth, or the reasons for suffering, or the injustices of mortal life.

In a future post I want to address the three theodicies above, and hopefully show why each is wrong in the case of the Turin story – or at the very least, why each is a problematic explanation. I also want to show how the idea of eucatastrophe is inadequate, and the reasons for why I think we need to move away from it when discussing Tolkien’s world.