Turin’s chapter in The Silmarillion has always been my favorite, and I had an orgasm when Christopher Tolkien published the expanded story in the novella The Children of Hurin (2007). Others have a hard time with Turin. His tragedy is bad enough to make Hamlet’s enviable. The whole Silmarillion is a tragedy, to be sure, but Turin’s is off the scales. Ruin follows him wherever he goes; he kills people who don’t deserve it, purposely and accidentally, including his best friend; he marries his sister not knowing who she is, gets her pregnant, and when they learn they are siblings they kill themselves. Their mother dies in grief, and their father rages against the world before killing himself too.
And yet, accepting its heavy-handed tribulations, Turin’s story is really nothing more than a microcosm of the history of the elves. Morgoth’s curse echoes the doom of Mandos, who damned the Noldor for rebelling against the Valar. When Morgoth captures and chains Hurin to the stone chair (see image, below left), he curses the man’s children for refusing to reveal the hidden city of Gondolin. I doubt it’s any accident that Turin was called Adanedhel (“Man-Elf”) by some; Tolkien was probably signalling something beyond a physical likeness, perhaps suggesting that Turin’s miseries amplified the doom of the elves on a more intimate level.
The way I see it, the four stages of Turin’s exile from Doriath mirror the four phases of the Noldor’s hopeless war on Morgoth. (There were five battles of Beleriand, but the first was fought by the Sindar.) After being fostered by Thingol in the relative paradise of Doriath forest, he goes out to make a legend of himself, and is dealt tragedy in all four stages: (1) as an outlaw in the woods south of Brethil, under the name of Neithan (“the Wronged”), killing and preying on innocents; (2) as a scourge on the hill of Amon Rudh, under the name of Gorthol (“Dread-helm”), until he is captured by orcs, rescued by his elf-friend Beleg whom he then kills; (3) as the commander of the armies of Nargothrond, under the name of Mormegil (“Black Sword”), until the forces of Morgoth led by Glaurung the dragon wipe out Nargothrond and bring the kingdom to an end; (4) among the men of Brethil Forest, taking the name Turambar (“Master of Doom”) in an act of bravado, deciding that his curse is now finally over, only to receive the worst of it, as he marries his own sister Nienor (who he never met, and whose own memory was wiped by Glaurung’s enchantments), who becomes pregnant with his child, and then kills herself when Glaurung invades Brethil forest and breaks her spell of forgetfulness; Turin then kills himself in horror after slaying Glaurung.
Even without the curse to drive his misfortunes, Turin is unpleasant by nature. What causes him to flee Doriath is the result of his overreaction to Saeros, who insults him at the royal dinner table, saying, “If the men of Hithlum are so wild and fell, of what sort are the women of that land? Do they run like deer clad only in their hair?” Turin responds by hurling a cup at Saeros’ head, and the next day making him run naked through the forest, which ends in Saeros falling to his death into a chasm (see right image). Despite the fact that King Thingol is willing to forgive him, Turin spurns the elven king’s grace in a pride that recalls Feanor’s rebellion against the Valar: “I will not go back to Menegroth and suffer looks of pity and pardon, as for a wayward boy amended. I should give pardon, not receive it.” This attitude seems his by nature, and independent of the curse which simply accentuates calamity to the worst results possible (like Saeros’ fall). Indeed, departing Doriath, he joins an outlaw band who do more to terrorize their fellow men and women instead of protecting them against orcs, and taking the aggrieved name of Neithan (“the Wronged”), he finds the life of amoral banditry easy enough to embrace: “He did little to restrain their evil deeds and soon became hardened to a mean and often cruel life.”
The text of The Children of Hurin clearly entertains a possibility, however small, that Turin could rise above the curse. As his fame and power increases throughout the four stages of his life, Morgoth begins to fear “that the curse that he had laid upon him would become void, and Turin would escape the doom that had been designed for him”. Turin could evade Morgoth’s wrathful design, but his pride (the oldest adage) guarantees his fall. He is doomed to the warped perception of “seeing with Morgoth’s eyes”, meaning that constant mistrust and fear of treachery makes him unable to receive (or return) good will and wise counsel. Turin alienates his friends in cycles, for example, Gwindor at Nargothrond, whose counsel of secrecy (along with messengers from Cirdan), Turin rejects in favor of immediate open warfare with Morgoth, which causes Nargothrond to fall.
Tolkien said that Turin’s story was derived from elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Kullervo, and Oedipus, but I think Oedipus resonates most deeply of the three, for reasons argued by Soham Ganguly. A lot of the Sigurd and Kullervo parallels are superficial by comparison. For example, although Sigurd and Turin both slay dragons, Glaurung is more like the Sphinx whom Oedipus must defeat in a battle of wits; Glaurung delivers similar conundrums in the form of mental taunts. The lives of Oedipus and Turin are obviously similar: both are separated from their family and end up in royal houses in distant kingdoms; both, also, manage to establish stable kingdoms and bring about peace and prosperity for a time; Oedipus marries his mother, and Turin marries his sister, both ignorant of who these women are.
The incest theme pushes everything to a nihilistic climax in Brethil Forest. Years before Glaurung had given Nienor a complete memory wipe and he now removes the spell of her forgetfulness in a final stroke of malice (see image, below right): “Hail, Nienor, daughter of Hurin. We meet again ere we end. I give you joy that you have found your brother at last.And now you too shall know him: a stabber in the dark, treacherous to foes, faithless to friends and a curse unto his kin, Turin son of Hurin. But the worst of all his deeds you shall feel in yourself.” Glauring then dies from the wound Turin gave him — but so does Nienor. Aghast by the awful truth of what dragon has just said, and flooded with returning memories, she hurls herself off the cliff into the river below, killing herself and her unborn child. Turin, appalled, follows suit by skewering himself on his own blade.
It’s interesting that Glaurung’s first assault in The Silmarillion occurs in the Noldor’s third battle (the fourth Beleriand battle), the Dagor Bragollach (“Battle of Sudden Flame”), just as his first conflict with Turin occurs in Turin’s own third stage, at Nargothrond. The dragon then wreaks even more devastation in the Noldor’s fourth battle (the fifth of Beleriand), the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (“Battle of Unumbered Tears”), just as in Turin’s fourth stage, the dragon causes Turin and Nienor to kill themselves. Tolkien crafted parallels like this deliberately, and I’m increasingly convinced that he was using Turin’s story to amplify the theme of hopelessness that pervades Middle-Earth on account of the elves’ fall and rebellion.
The epilogue chokes me up, where after 28 years of captivity and torment, Hurin is released by Morgoth just so that his heart can be broken even more in the wake of his children’s suicides. Hurin finds his wife Morwen, who grieving dies in his arms (see left image). He is so bitter that he blames King Thingol for not watching over his family closely enough. He goes to Menegroth and throws the Nauglamir at Thingol’s feet: “Receive thou thy fee for thy fair keeping of my children and my wife!” To which Melian replies, “Hurin, Morgoth hath bewitched thee; for he that seeth through Morgoth’s eyes, willing or unwilling, seeth all things crooked. Long was Turin thy son fostered in the halls of Menegroth, and shown love and honour as the son of the King. With the voice of Morgoth thou dost now upbraid thy friends.” To which Hurin replies by bowing his head, walking out of Doriath, and killing himself.
Needless to say, many readers don’t care for this bleak and suffocating story, preferring Beren’s quest for the Silmaril, or Tuor fighting in the fall of Gondolin — which are tragedies, to be sure, like all the Silmarillion tales, but tempered by bittersweet moments and small reprieves. From the lines of Beren and Luthien, and of Tuor and Idril, will come Aragorn and Arwen, and temporary holding actions that postpone the inevitable day when evil has the final say. From Turin comes nothing positive at all. But for my money, Turin’s story is best precisely for the reasons people hate it. It’s literature at its finest, tragedy as it deserves to be told, and its nihilism aligns with the worldview of Middle-Earth more than most people realize.