Monday, 11 January 2016

Tolkien's Epic Fail - the tale of Turin Turambar

I have again been listening to The Silmarillion on audiobook - this time in the order as published, and have just finished listening to the Turin Turambar section.

I have written before about my dislike of this part of Tolkien's oeuvre

and I found that this was confirmed on the latest reading.

Those who especially like this story are advised to read no further! I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

Indeed, I think it could be shown that there are objective flaws in this part of the Silmarillion when regarded in the context of the whole - it is essentially a failure when considered a part of the epic.

Turin simply does not have enough good qualities to be a hero - indeed he is overall a thoroughly wicked person, a villain. But not a hero corrupted into wickedness like Feanor, or others of Tolkien's traitors and turncoats - Turin seem bad, dislikeable, dangerous from the get go.

Turin is apparently handsome, and a superhumanly effective fighter - but his courage, while great, seems fuelled almost wholly by negative emotions such as hatred and resentment; and therefore hardly counts as a virtue.

At best he seems more like a berserker, a deadly weapon that can be turned against anybody or anything, rather than a true hero.

Therefore, Turin's character simply cannot bear the weight of his assigned role in the legendarium - in particular, his prophesied role of being the person that finally kills Morgoth in the final battle.

Furthermore, the device (in the children of Hurin sections) of having the plot driven by Morgoth's curse does not fit into Tolkien's universe, it is alien to a world created by and ruled by Eru, The One - and comes into it from the nihilistic world of the Norse (or rather Finnish) pagan stories.

In sum, I regard the Children of Hurin in general, and the Turin Turambarstory specifically, as a jarring and dis-harmonious intrusion into Tolkien's mature world.

My personal feeling is that Tolkien had a sentimental attachment to the Turin story, as having been one of the very earliest of his developed stories developed from his first linguistic love of Finnish; and he just could not bring himself to do what he ought to have done according to the dictates of artistic integrity: deleted Turin from the Silmarillion; and consigned his tale to a separate universe.


Anonymous said...

I've read this, your earlier posts linked, and the comments (with their discussiona), with interest.

Have you run into my paper, "The Centrality of Sex in Middle-earth", in Lembas-extra 1993/1994? A lot of it's about Turin. I haven't reread it recently, myself, and may even sloppily contradict it, here, but...

I think part of the interest in Turin is seeing it as a putative 'true' original history behind such human stories (or versions of it) as those in the Volsunga sage, Nibelungenlied, and Kullervo (and maybe Oedipus, in part - one of the commenters mentions it). I would contend that, in writing it, Tolkien is also especially tackling and countering Wagner's rewriting of much of the material in his Ring cycle.

As a part of a larger Hurin-and-his-children 'matter', I think Hurin is doing something similar with respect to Prometheus: tackling a lot of modern Prometheanism (such as Karl Marx's), and reaffirming in some ways the Aeschylean Prometheus (the madness of opposing Just Divine order) but also working in keeping with what he says in 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics' about the compromised nature of Greek (or Greco-Roman) mythology, and so giving an analogue or source to part of modern Prometheanism (Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, in part?). Hurin does not improperly oppose Iluvatar, or the Jupiter-like Manwe (Iluvatar's representative in good part), but Morgoth (a depraved demiurge).

Hurin and Turin (and his sister) are basically fighting the good fight against the properly-recognized truly invidious enemy. But they are also doing it in all sorts of flawed and culpably compromised ways. As, ultimately, even Frodo is. But, if they had done it as well as Earendil, or Frodo, or Gandalf versus the Balrog, or even better, the mere-creaturely-best is still limited and insufficiently radical. In that way, in themselves distinctly as well as in the context of the whole Middle-earth legendarium, the tales of his children and Hurin are preparatory, typological, looking to the Incarnation, whether that is clearly speculated about as in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, or not.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - It is possible that Tolkien was doing some or all of those things - my my points still stand that Tolkien doesn't make Turin 'good' enough - indeed, he hardly seems good at all; plus that the moral universe, with the heavy influence of curse and fate, is alien to the rest of the Silmarillion.

Tolkien was certainly fasinated by the philological idea of reconstructing the original story behind the later distortions. In Vol 9 of the History of Middle Earth, there is a version of the Numenor legend which he wrote as if it had been 'garbled' by later men - he was apparently trying to show the kind of way that things being garbled.

Have you read Tom Shippey's Roots and Branches? He mentions that Grimm tried but failed to do for mythology what he tried and succeeded in doing with philology - and draws parallels with Tolkien's methods.

Anonymous said...

Having studied The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, and (I hope) most if not all of the relevant History of Middle Earth 'stuff' for my Lembas-extra 1993/1994 paper, and read the separate Children of Húrin volume in 2010, I'm still not sure, off the top of my head, whether I'm confident Tolkien doesn't, or does, make Turin 'good' enough, or the heavy influence of curse and fate, is, or isn't, alien to the rest of the Silmarillion, but I'm inclined to think the scope for Morgoth 'engineering' what are, in effect, 'curse' and 'fate', is consistent with the rest of the Silmarillion, and that Turin's being so impressively better than Kullervo and Wagner's Siegmund and Siegfried, is an important consideration.

It seems to me that Tolkien's attention to the spiritual dangers involved in the need to be war-like, of which I think his treatment of Rohan first made me aware, is emphatically at work, here.

David Llewellyn Dodds