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Comparing The Children of Hurin and the Greek Epics

Tolkien's tales mirror the tragedies and epics of the ancient Greeks in more ways than one

Among the tales of The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin is one of a few that feature mankind as the central characters. Like the epics of old, it begins with a great battle, one full of both hope and despair. The sons of men and kingdoms of elves suffer great loss of life and land as the battle slowly works against them. Before Húrin is captured by Morgoth, the fallen Valar or Tolkien’s Satan, Húrin’s faith is ever strong:

“Blind are you, Morgoth Bauglir, and blind shall ever be, seeing only the dark. You know not what rules the hearts of Men, and if you knew you could not give it . . . We know who you are because we once escaped your shadow and now know the Light. You did not make the light for you have spent your strength upon yourself and wasted it in your own emptiness.”

The tale now begins to parallel the tragedies and epics of ancient Greece in more ways than one. Rarely does a Greek tragic hero die, and so Húrin is captured and lives. In Greek tragedy, the prolonged suffering of the central character allows the audience to empathically experience his woe and despair, catharsis or not. And so Morgoth assigns Húrin a living death as he is forced to watch Morgoth at work. Most significantly, Húrin’s children are now under the control of Morgoth’s will. In his foreword, Christopher Tolkien is careful to differentiate this means of control. Húrin’s children, Túrin and Niénor, are not pawns of a set fate like the Greek Fates and their prescribed destinies for men. Túrin and Niénor do have free will while at the same time being manipulated by circumstances set in place by Morgoth’s curse: Then Morgoth stretching out his long arm toward Dor-lómin cursed Húrin and Morwen and their offspring, saying ‘Behold, the shadow of my thought shall lie upon them wherever they go, and my hate shall pursue them to the ends of the world.

Though Húrin does not return from The Battle of Unnumbered Tears to protect his family and people, young Túrin must leave his pregnant mother Morwen to live safely with the elves. Morwen would not leave her house for her pride was still high. At nine years old, Túrin is reluctant to depart since the Easterlings have taken more and more of their people and land of Dor-lómin. This leave-taking parallels the journey of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Unsure of himself yet with hope from Athena, Telemachus too had to leave his beleaguered home to learn of his father and even to learn how to lead and be the man-prince he truly was. Once Túrin lives under Thingol’s protection with the elves in Doriath, he learned much lore, hearing eagerly the histories of ancient days and great deeds of old, and he became thoughtful. This term thoughtful is much like the description of both Odysseus who was thoughtful and crafty and his son who was thoughtful and poised.

In the elvish kingdom, Thingol desires Túrin to be a soldier, though he knew Túrin required patience and testing yet. As Túrin grows older and battles alongside the elves against the Orcs and Morgoth’s creatures, he gains strength and experience. In his Dragon helm, Túrin has become a hero to the elves as they battle and later becomes a hero to the outlawed men as the story unfolds. Just as Athena lavished her heroes with splendor—Odysseus with his eyes of fire and russet curls and Telemachus who was handsome as a god—so too, Tolkien lavishes his hero with wonder:

“Tall, dark-haired, and pale-skinned, with grey eyes, and his face more beautiful than any other among mortal men, in the Elder Days. His speech and bearing were those of the ancient kingdom of Doriath . . . So valiant was Túrin, and so exceedingly skilled in arms, especially with sword and shield, that the Elves said that he could not be slain, save by mischance.”

Though scarred and wounded from myriad battles, he cannot seem to die much like Odysseus could not in Troy or the journey home. While Odysseus survived by Zeus’ favor and Athena’s protection, Túrin is different. Tolkien writes that his doom delivered him from death. Tolkien consistently uses the negative term doom rather than fate or destiny. Fate or destiny may end well without necessitating death. But this generational doom and the weight of Morgoth’s words weigh heavily upon Turin and Tolkien’s audience. It’s as if Turin must survive in order to increase his suffering, and it is soon after that his pride begins to show. We wonder if this is in fact the shadow and hate Morgoth spoke over him. Gods, men, or elves—pride remains a bane, a thorn, a tool of doom that neither Turin or his family could overthrow.

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