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Part III - Character

Page history last edited by Kaðlín Quickhand 10 years, 8 months ago

Twilight & Dragon-Fire:

The Children of Húrin  and the Völsungasaga



By K.C. Resch





Jump to:


Project Outline

Part I – Introduction

Part II – Plot

Part IV – Mood

Part V – Conclusion & Sources





Introduction to Comparison


In Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Marjorie Burns suggests that the complexity of Tolkien’s characters, often perceived as morally simple, is a literary rather than a psychological complexity, a linking of characters to other characters both within and without Tolkien’s own works. She gives examples of this character-matching in Frodo’s comparison with Gollum, which hints at Frodo’s dark side and at a possibility for Gollum’s redemption, and again in Gandalf’s shared attributes with the Norse god Odin, stirring an element of ferocity, ambiguity, and grandeur into the comfortably grouchy old man portrayed in The Hobbit.


Tolkien makes use of the Völsungasaga in forming his own characters even more than in forming his plot. Nearly all of the characters in Túrin’s story have a double in the Völsungasaga, and Tolkien has layered many of them with connections to multiple Norse figures. He does this chiefly by means of differences; The Children of Húrin is far from being a rewrite of Norse mythology, and the choices Tolkien made in setting his own characters apart from their Norse prototypes reveals some of Tolkien’s underlying philosophy in the creation of his story. His fascinating alterations, perhaps influenced by his Christianity and his western social sensibilities, with their accompanying moral view of the world, produce characters that are often positive versions of their more negative Norse counterparts. “Tolkien’s most common and most effective means of adding moral complexity is to link ideal characters with specific negative ones, thereby suggesting a darker, undeveloped side. By creating such connections and by having his negative figures shadow – and at times almost stalk – his most admirable individuals, Tolkien establishes character teams whose members, taken together, represent the intricacy and inconsistency that lies within any human being.” (Burns, 94) Tolkien’s characters are kinder, purer, nobler than the Volsungs, Gjukungs, and valkyries, but in spite of the brighter tones of the people who inhabit the story, Tolkien manages to maintain a plot that is just as brooding and pessimistic as the Völsungasaga.

Book Cover 

In The Children of Húrin, characters’ connections with the characters of the Vösungasaga that were difficult to identify in briefer versions of the tale, such as in The Silmarillion, have been greatly enriched. At the same time, the links between characters are not as simple as a mere doubling, but are more like an intricate web; characters within The Children of Húrin contrast, complement, and resemble one another as well (most prominently, the female characters, like Túrin's two mothers, Melian and Morwen, or the two Elf-maidens who love him, Nellas and Finduilas). A study of these characters is further aided by the recent publication of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, a book of two rough, unfinished poems Tolkien wrote based on the Völsungasaga, penned in an imitation of the kind of Norse poetry found in the Elder Edda. Tolkien’s characterization of the Norse heroes again reveals his tendency towards softer Christian virtue; they are more elegant creatures than their ancient versions, more air and less earth, elevated almost to the height of the Elves. They would be at home in The Silmarillion. For example, he leaves Signy pale, fierce, and unweeping, but clears her of inhuman violence by omitting her slaughter of the children unfit for vengeance before the birth of Sinfjotli. Odin himself, in Tolkien's version, sounds like more like a Christian prophet than a Norse god and speaks of Sigurd's life with good promise. “Whom Ódin chooseth / ends not untimely, / though ways of men / he walk briefly. / In wide Valhöll / he may wait feasting – / it is to ages after / that Ódin looks.” (Legend, 71)


Burns states that the only complexity Tolkien’s characters have is that of literary parallels and allusions; I would argue that the characters in The Children of Húrin, besides having a strong literary complexity in connection with the Völsungasaga, also have a level of psychological depth that is uncommon in Tolkien’s works. His story-telling is far more sophisticated than the written record of Volsung’s descendants; while many of the characters of the Völsungasaga have obscure or simplistic motives, or act in ways unjustified by either emotional depth or history, Tolkien’s characters are spectacularly human. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun proves Tolkien’s ability to create fully developed characters: in the Völsungasaga, Signy warns her father Volsung that Siggeir plans to betray him, and Volsung tells his daughter that “each man must at one time die. No man may escape dying that once.” (Volsung, ch. 5); in Tolkien’s poem, “Signý’s wisdom / Signý burdens,” and her father’s response is both spirited and yet entirely Norse. “Woe and evil / are woman’s boding! / Fate none can flee. / Faith man can hold.”  (Legend, 78) By means of both more detailed writing and a keen understanding of the human heart, Tolkien renders the characters of The Children of Húrin more colorfully and attractively than the hard, cold characters of Norse mythology.






Foster-Fathers: Sador & Regin

                Sador, a servant of Húrin’s family, becomes a father-figure for Túrin in the absence of Húrin due to the great battle of the Nirnaeth. Regin the smith, brother of Fafnir, becomes Sigurd’s foster-father when he is born, because Sigurd, like Túrin, is fatherless because of war. Both heroes form deep attachments to their pseudo-fathers, but Sador and Regin are vastly different types of men. Regin teaches Sigurd to fight, to play sports, to speak in many languages, and driven by selfish motives, he eggs Sigurd into fighting Fafnir, hoping that Sigurd will die in the attempt. In contrast, Sador, a crippled carpenter, is kind to the young Túrin, telling him stories and teaching him that a thrall is “a man who was a man but is treated as a beast,” (Húrin, 73) one of the most important lessons Túrin ever learns. The affection between the two is so strong that Túrin gives him both lavish gifts and the nickname Labadal, “hopafoot,” pitying his crippled leg. Sigurd murders Regin to keep his foster-father from murdering him in turn; Túrin meets Sador again years later, and Sador dies at his feet, wishing him well. This is the first example of how Tolkien uses something lovely to increase the tragedy of his tale: Sador is the better man, but because he is the better man, his death is grievous.


Children of Incest

                Sinfjotli is the incestuous son of Sigmund and his sister Signy. Signy bred him as a full-blooded Volsung so that he would have the ferocity to avenge her father and brothers by killing Siggeir, Signy’s husband. Sinfjotli is a berserker, a monster who not only lives as an Drawing of a Werewolfunnecessarily bloodthirsty werewolf, but also kills young children – his half-brothers – without hesitation. His viciousness is inhuman, as if his twisted nature is the result of the unnatural, incestuous union in which he was conceived. In The Children of Húrin, a child is also conceived out of incest, but the child dies with its mother when Niënor commits suicide after learning that she has conceived with her brother. Perhaps this was a gesture of mercy on the part of Tolkien, saving his world from the birth of a monstrous creature as deformed in its humanity as Sinfjotli; perhaps it was just a way to cover up the abomination. “Tolkien explained away all such problems with great care, keeping the major scenes of bereavement, disobedience, rescue, heartbreak, and suicide, but embedding them in a quite different framing narrative.” (Shippey, 159) Tolkien’s framing narrative is still one of heartbreak, and yet one that, by focusing the guilt on an external curse and, as in the case of the incestuous child, removing the evidence, allows for its characters to be forgiven.


Comrades: Beleg & Gunnar

                As previously mentioned, Tolkien uses his Elves to infuse light, beauty, and even femininity into the harsh, masculine Norse world. Gunnar, Sigurd’s comrade and brother-in-law, is a Norse warrior, loyal to Sigurd both because of the marriage ties between them and because Sigurd won Gunnar’s bride for him. Gunnar and Sigurd are bound by oath (“a pact of brotherhood,” Volsung, ch. 28), so in true Viking integrity, Gunnar honors that oath even in plotting Sigurd’s death by convincing his brother Guttorm to deal the death-blow for him. Beleg, however, is bound to Túrin out of love, and he honors that love by pursuing Túrin into his self-inflicted exile. Just as he has inverted the light and dark qualities of many of his characters from their Norse shadows, Tolkien inverts the Gunnar-Sigurd situation by the hero killing the friend, not the friend killing the hero, and instead of a murderous act of forethought, Túrin slays Beleg in a quick, accidental gesture of misguided self-defense. Thus, here again we see Tolkien’s subtle changing of dark to light within his characters resulting in even darker plot twists; the slaying of Beleg is the most poignant moment of dramatic irony in The Children of Húrin.


The Wicked Stepmother & The Fairy GodmotherRackham - Grimhilde

                In perhaps one of his clearest instances of setting moral beauty against moral corruption, Tolkien puts Melian in Grimhild’s place. They are linked by their position as queens and mothers – Grimhild is Gudrun’s mother and thus becomes Sigurd’s mother-in-law, and Melian is the wife of King Thingol, Túrin’s Elvish foster-father in Doriath – and by their association with magic arts. Grimhild, “a woman well versed in magic,” (Volsung, ch. 26) is the one who taught Gunnar and Sigurd how to exchange shapes, as they do when Sigurd rides through the flame to win Brynhild’s hand in marriage, and Grimhild brewed the potion of forgetfulness in order to make Sigurd forget his first love and marry her daughter. Melian is not an Elf – she is a Maia, one of the lesser gods of Middle-Earth, and not only did Thingol fall in love with her through enchantment, but she also wove a border of enchanted protection around their kingdom. Yet the difference between them is as vast as the difference between a wicked stepmother and a fairy godmother – one is conniving, cruel, and self-seeking, while the other is kind, benevolent, and wise. Magic in Norse mythology – and in many systems of myth, works like Shakespeare's Macbeth, and the Old Testament – is connotative of evil, but part of Tolkien’s style (which is now a popular trend in fantastic literature) is positioning good magic against evil, like the three Elven rings against Sauron’s one ring. Once again, he replaces an ugly character with a beautiful one.


Fathers: Húrin & Sigmund

                Both fathers in the corresponding stories are absent from their sons’ lives because of war. Sigmund died before Sigurd was born; Túrin knew his father as a young boy, but after he marched to battle, he never saw him again. Yet while both fathers are absent, they each impart part of their nature on their sons. Sigmund, a strong, brutal warrior with the hot blood of the Volsungs, fathers a warrior just as mighty and daring. Húrin is a friend of Elves; he and his brother are the first Men to glimpse the Elven city of Gondolin, and they fight side by side with Elves in the Nirnaeth. And like his father, Túrin dwells in Elven places – Doriath and Nargothrond – and does battle alongside the Elves. In each case, the father gives the son something valuable that does nothing to preserve the son’s life or improve his fate.


Mothers: Morwen & Signy

                This is a more complex pairing. The tangled strands of motherhood and pride envelop the female characters in both tales – Morwen and Brynhild in their destructive pride, Niënor and Signy in their incest leading to maternity – but my choice of Morwen and Signy is based primarily on the fact that these women are the most clearly depicted maternal figures within their separate tales, regardless of the fact that their positions in the stories are very different. Both Morwen and Signy are also characterized by fey and destructive pride. It is pride in her blood and the blood of her household that drives Signy to incest, pride in her father and brothers that drives her to plot revenge against her husband rather than bend to him, and pride that makes her walk back into the fire and die with him; it is Morwen’s unyielding pride that causes her to remain in Dor-Lómin to wait for her husband’s return when defeat is evident, and it is her pride that keeps her from returning to Doriath at her daughter’s urging – pride, and fear of seeming “as one old and doting.” (Húrin, 203) Both Morwen and Signy are also unmerciful mothers. Signy tortures her own children by sewing their sleeves to their skin and ripping the shirt off to test their courage, and when her sons fail to be brave enough, she says to her brother, “’Then take the boy and kill him. He need not live any longer.” (Volsung, ch. 6) Morwen sends Túrin away from her, inflicting his first great sorrow on him, and she never sees him again; she also tries to leave her daughter behind, alone, in Doriath. Yet unlike Signy, Morwen never stoops to heartless cruelty, and Tolkien shows us the deep, painful emotions she experiences as a result of her hardness towards her children. Túrin calls out to her as he leaves, “but Morwen standing on her threshold heard the echo of that cry in the wooded hills, and she clutched the post of the door so that her fingers were torn.” (Húrin, 75)

                 Rackham - Sigurd and Brynhild

Lovers: Finduilas & Brynhild

                Brynhild, the war-loving valkyrie whose arrogance and anger cause not only Sigurd’s downfall but the terrible end of two households, has only two things in common with the tender, soft-spoken, compassionate Elf-maiden, Finduilas: they are both slightly more than human, and they are both caught between two men and lose the one whom they love. Brynhild is tricked into marrying the wrong man; Finduilas, once engaged to the dishonored and broken captive, Gwindor, finds her love for Túrin unreciprocated – rejected because he never even sees that it exists. It is the influence of Tolkien’s ideals on the Völsungasaga that creates Finduilas out of Brynhild, because Finduilas is everything Tolkien sees as feminine: beautiful, domestic, gentle, submissively quiet, valuing mercy, weeping for the sorrows of others. Following Tolkien's pattern of trading bad characters for good ones, Finduilas is much more to be admired than the haughty, violent Brynhild who wields her grief tyrannically over her entire household before her brutal suicide and whom her own husband calls “a malicious woman.” (Volsung, ch. 31)


Rackham -- Sigurd and GudrunWives: Niënor & Gudrun

                Compared to the deep passion between Sigurd and Brynhild, his love for the woman he marries is pale and watery. During his lengthy stay in her father’s hall, he “noticed that she was a beautiful woman and most courtly in all things,” (Volsung, ch. 28) and they marry. She, however, loves him deeply: “I cared for nothing more than for this hawk [Sigurd], and I would rather have lost all my wealth than him.” (Volsung, ch. 26) She is proud of him and boasts him to Brynhild, and when she wakes up in his arms, drenched in his blood, she wails with “unspeakable grief.” (Volsung, ch. 32) Throughout his life, Túrin shows little love for women, but Tolkien makes Niënor’s affection for her husband-brother clear. "But to [Túrin] Turambar her heart was given, and only at his coming would she smile, and only when he spoke gaily would she laugh." (Húrin, 217) Túrin’s marriage proposal is sudden and concise, yet “she was glad indeed, and…they lived in happiness.” (Húrin, 220) While Gudrun is a thin, dull character in the Völsungasaga, Tolkien draws Niënor as an innocent, sympathetic character, adding a twist to the incestuous marriage he creates; the incest in the Völsungasaga was manufactured by a vengeful, cold-hearted woman, but Túrin and Niënor, who have never met before in their lives, fall into each other’s arms in blissful ignorance – yet rather than make the incest sacred, it makes it all the more doomed. “Brother and sister / in a bed lying, / brief love, bitter, / blent with loathing!” (Legend, 83)


The Heroes

                As mentioned in the previous section, Part II – Plot, Túrin and Sigurd share a common upbringing (foster fathers, heroic exploits at a young age, etc.), both grow to become great warriors, both defeat a dragon, and both possess romantic as well as heroic traits. They are fated men. Morgoth’s curse, “Wherever they go, evil shall arise….Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death,” (Húrin, 64) hangs over the entire story just as Gudrun’s dreams foreshadow the climax of the Völsungasaga. (Volsung, ch. 26-27) They possess the inherent goodness of heroes – courage, honor, faithfulness – and the inherent flaws. Yet Túrin, with his intense and tangled emotions towards females and his obsessive aversion to the idea of thralldom, has a far greater emotional capacity than any rendering of Sigurd, whose anticlimactic love affair with Brynhild brings him to an end long before the saga ends.

Rackham - Sigurd's Death


Sigurd and Túrin are heroes, but it is not their heroic deeds that make them appealing; they have our sympathies because above all else, they are victims of fate, part of "the cult of the ‘naked will’: The hero cannot be defeated, even by fact, if he refuses to give up or yield." (Shippey, 153) In Túrin, Tolkien produced the perfect Norse hero, a steadfast, grim, proud man defying his doom to his last breath even as it closes in around him. Throughout the mythology and the sagas of the Old Norse, their heroes are unanimously characterized by their response to inescapable doom – they are all fatalists. And yet, “it was rather a strange sort of fatalism, for it was anything but resigned. Norse heroes appeared to be quite sure they were doomed, while making violent efforts to avert that doom.” (Shippey, 151)


                The greatest of all Norse heroes, Sigurd is at times reminiscent of the gods; as a direct descendant of Odin, contains a hint of the divine, he has beauty of Balder (see the lengthy description of his appearance, Volsung, ch. 23), and the eyes of Thor, for “Sigurd’s eyes flashed so sharply that few dared to meet their gaze.” (Volsung, ch. 32) Túrin, too, draws upon other heroes of his world. Like his father, Túrin is a friend of Elves; all the great Men of Middle-Earth were beloved of the Elves, and Túrin takes his place among them. Tolkien draws Túrin upward, placing him above the level of other Men so that even Elves honor him and he becomes mythic within his own realm, evidenced by the brief references made to him in The Lord of the Rings, notably, in the moment when Sam Gamgee slays Shelob. By Finduilas’ love for Túrin, and by her hope that he would be like Beren to her – a mortal who loved an Elf – Tolkien also briefly connects him with Beren, Tuor, and Aragorn, the three highest among mortal Men, heroes who married Elven women.

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