Where the tale of Beren and Lúthien is the most important story in Tolkien’s Legendarium, this is the story that started it all, the seed that was planted — multiple times, as it turns out — to develop and eventually give rise to the whole of The Silmarillion. What’s interesting, however, is that this story seems to defy Tolkien’s entire modus operandi. In Tolkien’s view, the entire purpose of fantasy is escapism and consolation, and thus the happy ending is essential. That seems a bit weird when we scratch our heads and think of Frodo Baggins and how his story plays out, but the concept of the eucatastrophe is still very much the overarching theme of the Legendarium even when it doesn’t play that way for the individual characters. Thing is, while The Silmarillion does utilize the eucatastrophe in smaller moments, it does have those moments of absolute bleakness, as we saw in the last chapter with the Battle of Unnumbered Tears and the cursing of Húrin and his family by Morgoth. And so this leads us here, to the tale of Túrin Turambar, one of the most tragic tales in the whole of Tolkien’s writings.
Ten years ago, in 2007, we were given the novel length version of this story, The Children of Húrin. When that book hit shelves, I’d already attempted and failed to understand The Silmarillion. Upon reading that novel, I felt like I got the idea, but I really didn’t “get” it. I acquired the audiobook after that, read by the late, great Christopher Lee (all hail!), and I listened while reading along a second time. I still didn’t fully grasp it at the time. It was the kind of experience that made me not only want to understand Tolkien, but great literature in general, that realization that I knew I was missing the best stuff. In the years since, I’ve given it another pass, but connections just simply were not made. That experience is why I’ve not tried The Silmarillion again before this project. I’ve realized two things in that time. The first is that in studying Biblical and Medieval era tales, I’ve been able to train my brain to read something like this. Becoming a medievalist really does help because you start making the same connections that Tolkien had in abundance. The second is that regardless of what’s given in the novel, there’s a lot more of The Silmarillion needed to really appreciate what makes this story tick. That said, the novel is a lot more dense and a lot more fleshed out in regards to this one story. As presented in The Silmarillion, the tale of Túrin is dense and detailed, especially by comparison of all the other stories, but it is still compacted, which is what makes it feel like a story from the Middle Ages rather than a modern novel. In that regard, it feels more “right” to me here in this presentation, being part of the Elven history and mythology of the world. And I ask you: what’s more appropriate to the Middle Ages than a tale of a warrior slaying a dragon? We got that with Bard and Smaug, but… that’s really not quite the same thing, is it? Let’s dive in.
When Húrin was captured and sent to his grisly, tortured existence, Morgoth cursed his entire family and made Húrin to watch over the course of the next 28 years. Being the eldest son, Túrin was the primary target of the curse. His sister Urwen, called Lalaith, died of the plague as a toddler, the first victim of the curse. Húrin’s wife Morwen was pregnant when he was captured, soon giving birth to another daughter, Nienor, who would be caught up in Túrin’s doom. Thingol sent messengers repeatedly asking her to come to Doriath, but Morwen would not leave her home. Instead, she sent the great heirloom of her house: the Dragon-helm of Dor-lómin.
When he was old enough, Túrin went to battle on the marches of Doriath, a companion to Beleg Strongbow. When he returned, he was the very model of having lived life in the wild. An Elf, Saeros, mocked Túrin and his people, resulting in Túrin’s vengeance of injury and Saeros running off a cliff in terror. Túrin, thinking himself an outlaw, skipped out on the judgment of the king and joined a band of ruthless men. Thingol ultimately pardoned Túrin, and Beleg searched for him. Beleg was captured by Túrin’s band and treated as a spy until Túrin had him released. Túrin swore never again to harm any but the servants of Morgoth. But he refused to humble himself to accept Thingol’s pardon, and Beleg returned to Doriath. Thingol, grateful for the attempt, gave Beleg leave to guard and guide Túrin and gifted him with the black star-metal sword Anglachel, despite warnings from Melian that the blade was evil and would not serve Beleg for long. Again, Thingol just keeps ignoring his wife. She’s a Maia, you git! Pay attention to her! I swear, he never learns. Melian gives Beleg some lembas, which we understand can only be gifted by the queen.
Túrin’s outlaws encountered three Petty-dwarves (who were hunted as animals by Elves) and capture one, Mim, who offered to lead them to his halls of Amon Rûdh in exchange for his life. One of Mim’s two sons is discovered to have died of an arrow from one of Túrin’s company, and Túrin offered recompense of gold. When Beleg returns, he gives to Túrin the Dragon-helm heirloom. When the servants of Morgoth attacked, Túrin and Beleg give hope to the people, but Morgoth becomes aware of Túrin and sends spies. Mim is again captured, this time by Morgoth’s minions, and he leads them back to his home. Túrin’s men are slain, and Túrin is captured. Beleg is injured, but not dead, and sets out in pursuit of Túrin’s captors. En route, he meets Gwindor, a survivor and former captive following the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Gwindor joins Beleg in pursuit of the Orcs, and the pair slay the sentinels and drag away the unconscious Túrin while the Orcs sleep. Once a good distance out, Beleg sets Túrin down to cut his bond, but Túrin awakens and, thinking Beleg one of the Enemy, kills him with his own sword, fulfilling Melian’s warning.
Túrin and Gwindor bury Beleg, and Túrin takes Anglachel for himself to continue its service against Morgoth. Gwindor stays with him until Túrin is finally recovered from his grief-driven madness when he drinks the water of the springs of Eithel Ivrin. Heading south, the pair are taken by guards of Nargothrond to that realm. Due to his torments at Angband, the people of Nargothrond did not recognize Gwindor, save one. Finduilas, daughter of Orodreth (king of Nargothrond / brother of Finrod) recognized him, and Túrin was permitted to stay. He would not speak his true name lest the curse follow him. Finduilas grew to love Túrin, though he did not return that sentiment, and her heart turned from Gwindor, who still loved her and gave her leave. He warned her against loving a mortal and revealed Túrin’s true name to her in warning against the curse of Morgoth. Túrin was angry, but when Orodreth learned it, Túrin was even more favored in the realm. Túrin counseled that Nargothrond should go into open battle instead of sneaking around as they’ve done, and that there should be a bridge built across the Narog, the secret entrance, to aid in moving armies. Gwindor spoke against this, but it was done anyway. As a result of open warfare, the servants of Morgoth were cleared from the land. This allowed Morwen and Nienor to escape to Doriath, where they were welcomed, but saddened to learn Túrin was no longer there.
The Elves Gelmir and Arminas came to Nargothrond with Ulmo’s warning of peril, begging Orodreth to cast down the bridge and return to secrecy. Túrin’s pride kept him from heeding the warning, and as predicted, Morgoth attacked, unleashing Glaurung, first of the dragons. Orodreth was slain, and Gwindor mortally wounded, warning before he died that Túrin must return to Nargothrond and save Finduilas or be doomed. The bridge, however, made it easy for the Orcs and Glaurung to invade the caves of Nargothrond. The women were killed or herded to become slaves in Angband. Túrin tried to intervene but was stopped by a spell from Glaurung. The dragon told him of the evil Túrin had become, and he believed it. The captives, including Finduilas, were moved past him. Once they were gone, Túrin was released, and Glaurung lied to him about his mother and sister being tortured and killed in Dor-lómin. In truth, they had fled to Angband, and Túrin abandoned Finduilas in belief of the lies to pursue his mother and sister. He discovered them gone. A kinswoman, Aerin, told they’d gone to Doriath, and Glaurung’s spell wore off, allowing him to know he’d been deceived. He slaughtered the Easterlings who’d taken Aerin into slavery and went searching for Finduilas. Ultimately, she was pinned to a tree with a spear, her final words asking to tell Túrin of her location. She was buried beneath a mound called Haudh-en-Elleth, the Mound of the Elf-maid.
Túrin’s identity was revealed, and he was taken to the People of Haleth, ruled by Brandir, who took him in and healed him. After a string of false identities and new names, Túrin here took the name Turambar, still hoping to evade the curse in his cluelessness of how such things work. It’s kind of a running meme through the story.
The few survivors of Nargothrond went to Thingol, telling him of Glaurung and the belief that Túrin was either dead or under the dragon’s spell. Morwen set out for Doriath against the counsel of Melian (seriously?!); Nienor followed in secret, and Thingol sent Mablung after her. They found no survivors in Nargothrond, but Glaurung found them, sending vapors that blinded them and maddened the horses. Nienor was hit by a spell of forgetfulness when the dragon found her atop Amon Ethir. After an Orc attack, she was separated from Mablung and Morwen, and they from each other. Nienor fled to Brethil where she was found by Túrin. Unable to remember her name, he named her Nienel, and while Brandir loved her, her heart was given to Túrin, not knowing they were siblings. Brandir revealed Túrin’s name, but it meant nothing to her, though a blackness settled upon her thoughts. Túrin insisted they should be married, and she consented when the option was that he’d return to war, which he did anyway. Rumor of him reached Glaurung. The dragon arrived the same spring Nienor conceived a child.
Túrin and a small band set out to deal with Glaurung, and Nienor and Brandir followed in secret. The decision was to sneak up on the dragon (having learned from past mistakes finally), and ultimately it came down to Túrin alone against Glaurung. He pushed the sword through the dragon’s belly (being the weak part, as we know), and when he pulled it out again, the blood burned him. Glaurung opened his eyes, striking Túrin into unconsciousness with only the force of his malice. The dragon’s screams made everyone believe he was dead, and Brandir, thinking Túrin dead, led Nienor into the forest to claim her for his own, but she refused. She went after Túrin, finding him with the dragon, whose last words revealed all and removed the spell. Distraught with the full knowledge of what had transpired, she cast herself off the cliff and into the river.
Brandir returned home with the news, and thinking Túrin dead, revealed the truth. But Túrin returned and was told of Nienor’s death and her relationship to Brandir, and that his own death was “good tidings.” Believing Brandir had betrayed him, Túrin killed him and fled to call upon Finduilas for aid. Mablung came upon him and told of the spell of forgetfulness. Túrin realized he’d slain Brandir unjustly and that Nienor was his sister. And again he fled.
He asked the sword if it would take his life, and it agreed. He fell upon the blade, where Mablung found him, knowing that his tidings had caused the death of a friend. Glaurung was burned and a mound built over Túrin. A stone was inscribed with his name and that of Nienor, though her body was never found.
So basically, Túrin’s curse was a series of bad decisions in an effort to evade the curse, a self-fulfilling prophecy aided by the lies of the dragon. As mentioned, this tale is more in line with Greek tragedy than with Tolkien’s usual eucatastrophe, which gives it a special resonance within the Legendarium. As the kernel that gave rise to the whole of The Silmarillion, for me it colors the entirety of everything now. No doubt it did for Tolkien as well.
If you’re like me, you’re curious about how big Glaurung is compared to our old friend Smaug. After all, when it comes to dragons, size matters. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t keep growing Godzilla. I found this one at the LOTR Wiki page:
Kind of puts that into perspective, doesn’t it?
It also offers an idea of what’s lying in wait as we continue the quest.
From here we’ll return to our weekly schedule, at least for a while.