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Part IV – Mood

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



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Project Outline

Part I – Introduction

Part II – Plot

Part III – Character

Part V – Conclusion & Sources





Evil Embodied


As shown in the above section, Part III – Character, Tolkien’s use of the Völsungasaga in the formation of his characters is part of his complex approach to the issue of light and dark, good and evil, triumph and defeat within The Children of Húrin. “[The Norse] have a capacity for ‘malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life).’ For all their glory in deeds, they have a dragon and ‘bestial’ potentiality.” (Burns, 173) Consistently, Tolkien takes the dark Norse characters (Grimhild) and makes them good (Melian), he takes dull characters (Gunnar) and makes them vivid (Beleg), and he takes corrupt characters (Brynhild) and makes them innocent (Niënor). Yet this creates a paradox within his work, a paradox that is a powerful statement of Tolkien’s treatment of fate and of good and evil, and how it differs from the Norse tradition. In spite of how Tolkien has infused it with goodness, it is Tolkien’s story that is darker, more ominous, more evil, more fraught with horror and doom. The Children of Húrin is as tragic as the Völsungasaga, and perhaps the tragedy is keener because it befalls pure, undeserving characters despite all their beauty; it is hard to pity Brynhild. 

Billet Painting: Uppsalahovet 

Tolkien composed the body of his myths, The Book of Lost Tales which contains the first draft of the Túrin story, when he was a young man in the trenches of World War I, amid filth and death, despair and the smell of decay; the battle of the Nirnaeth was written by a man who had seen some of the ugliest warfare in modern history. This mood of utter gloom, of Ragnarokian fate, pervades both the Norse myth and Tolkien's story. The heroes die, and the tales continue to wind down into further deaths even after the heroes are gone; there is no victory, and no hope. Yet they are not the same story, and the subtle differences Tolkien works into The Children of Húrin give it a meaning of its own. 


I propose that Tolkien’s chief tool in separating his own story from the Völsungasaga is concentrating the sense of darkness into one central source of evil, namely, the figure of Morgoth. The Norse world is not godless; far from it, the divine is present and even active within the Völsungasaga – Odin fathers the beginning of the Volsung family, and sets events in motion by plunging the sword Gram into the tree, causing strife between Siggeir and the Volsungs before the festivities of his marriage with Signy are even complete. In fact, there are parallels between the pantheon of Norse gods and the angelic rulers of Middle-Earth; the name “Valar” even sounds like the Norse title “Vanir.” Tulkas the wrestler corresponds with Thor; Mandos, lord of the halls of the dead, and Manwë the wise both share traits with Odin the All-Father; Melkor, who later becomes Morgoth, sows discord among the “gods” in the beginning, much like Loki the troublemaker. Yet here the concept of the divine divides. The Valar are all subject to Eru, the One, but the Old Norse gods have neither laws nor sovereign ruler; they are amoral, and thus distant. Tolkien gives goodness substance by embodying evil. The full impact of this will be shown in further detail below. 

The Punishment of Loki 

It cannot be said of the Völsungasaga that evil prevails, because evil – beyond the vengeful deeds of men vengeance that their culture justifies and even demands– does not exist. There is no such thing as ultimate evil; everything is meaningless and devoid of reason. By naming evil, and isolating the blame upon a powerful character empty of all but cruel intentions, Tolkien both redeems his characters – the guilt is Morgoth’s, not theirs – and by contrast, darkens the skies above them. Tolkien has, in effect, imposed his moral philosophy upon an amoral Norse world where heroism wipes out the “good and bad” of deeds. In giving fate, even cruel fate, a purpose – making it the will of a tyrannical god rather than the pointless flailing of mortals – Tolkien causes us to ponder whether intentionality in a world full of evil is somehow softer than the kind of meaningless suffering that plagues the fatalistic Norse world. Shreds of Tolkien’s unyieldingly rooted Christianity still shimmer underneath the thick twilight of “Northernness.”



The Absence of Eucatastrophe 


                In classic essay, “On Fairy-Story,” Tolkien lays out the reasons, intentions, and passions behind his writing of fantasy, from the exercise of his right as a creature made in the image of a Creator and thus destined to create, to the soul-deep need human beings have for Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. By “recovery” he means a recovering of our sense of reality and beauty: “We need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses – and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. … Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view.” (Fairy, 77) By “escape” he means in part a way out of a broken world – a world in which young men die in the trenches, as Tolkien saw – even if the escape temporary and by means of imagination. But this, too, is a restoration of reality rather than mere Escapism. “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.” (Fairy, 79) And finally, when he speaks of “consolation,” he means “the Consolation of the Happy Ending.” (Fairy, 85)


                He contrasts “the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe” (Fairy, 86) in fairy-tales with the tragedy common to drama, and he says that, in the same way that Hamlet or Oedipus Rex ends in death, the happy ending is the necessary component of fairy-tales, of fantasy. This concept, which he calls “Eucatastrophe,” is the crux of his essay, and it is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings. A hint of Eucatastrophe runs through The Silmarillion as well, although it is harder to see and the scope of The Silmarillion is so broad that it overreaches every happy ending: Luthien and Beren are allowed to return to Middle-Earth after death for a brief time of happiness together, but eventually they fade again; Morgoth is defeated, but Sauron rises to take his place. Yet in The Children of Húrin, no such mercy exists and there is not a trace of even a momentary happy ending; it is all woe from the death of Túrin’s little sister to Morwen breathing her last in Húrin’s arms, beside the graves of her children.Michelangelo: Christ with Cross


                For Tolkien, Eucatastrophe is inseparable from Christianity – it is the theme of Christianity, and the resurrection of the Christ is the greatest Eucatastrophe, the origin of all others. “In the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision… it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” (Fairy, 88) The influence of Christianity is evident in his characters: in Túrin’s chastity and chivalry towards women compared with his outlaw companions, in the faithfulness of Morwen, in Thingol’s willingness to forgive Túrin. Yet the absence of Eucatastrophe points to Christianity’s failure to heal the curse of Morgoth or provide any kind of salvation for Túrin. The tragedy is uninterrupted; the doom is



                In The Children of Húrin, Tolkien strays from his own formula, from the kind of fantasy to which he was drawn throughout his life, and instead crafts a tale of aching sorrow. The influence of the Völsungasaga was so strong over Tolkien that he chose to stay true to his world’s Old Norse sources, abandoning the Christian theme of redemption in favor of “the theory of courage, which is the great contribution of early Northern literature. This is not military judgment. It is the creed of unyielding will.” (Beowulf, 70) The right side is not the side that wins, but winning and losing does not determine what is right. This is “an ancient theme…a theme no Christian need despise. …The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt.” (Beowulf, 73)


                But there may also be another reason besides the Norse roots. Eucatastrophe is, in Tolkien’s own words, “a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (Fairy, 86) For Eucatastrophe to be true in any world, Middle-Earth or our own, there must be “evidence,” there must be the “existence…of sorrow and failure,” and there must be the threat of “universal final defeat.” Without that, Eucatastrophe will mean nothing. Perhaps the eucatastrophic success of other moments in the history of Middle-Earth – such as The Lord of the Rings – depends on the memory of stories such as Túrin’s, stories where defeat, grief, and nightmarish, inevitable doom rules.



The Dragon: Victory & Redemption

 A Green Great Dragon

          “Beowulf’s dragon, if one wishes really to criticize, is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough, plain pure fairy-story dragon. …a real worm, with a bestial life and thought of its own…” (Beowulf, 65) Tolkien was a dragon-lover throughout his entire life. His first encounter with Norse mythology – with the “Northernness” he came to love – was the story of the dragon Fafnir and Sigurd, his slayer; he was only six or seven years old at the time, reading stories out of fairy-tale books. It was, he said, the best story he ever read, and it was about this time that “Tolkien began to write a story about a ‘green great dragon,’ a phrase his mother inexplicably corrected to ‘a great green dragon.’” (Shippey, 194)

Knight and Dragon 

His obsession with dragons never left him; "I desired dragons with a profound desire," he said in his essay "On Fairy-Stories." Monsters, the focus of his 1936 essay on Beowulf, fascinated him. In that essay, he states that “real dragons” are rare – “as rare as they are dire,” (Beowulf, 60) – since only two, Beowulf’s dragon and Sigurd’s dragon, exist in Northern literature. Given the rarity and mythic potency of dragons, it is no surprise that Tolkien makes the dragon Glaurung a central character in The Children of Húrin. “The dragon, and the slaying of him [is] the chief deed of the greatest of heroes….A dragon is no idle fancy.” (Beowulf, 64) By “no idle fancy,” he means not only that a dragon is a beast of more terrible might than any of us realize, but that a dragon is also more than tooth and scale and flame. Wrapped up in the physical presence of a dragon is something more significant than a plot device within a tale.


“The large symbolism,” of dragons, he says, “is near the surface, but it does not break through, nor become allegory.” (Beowulf, 66) Glaurung is not merely a beast to be opposed and destroyed, he is evil incarnate; in the same way that Tolkien took the Norse idea of doom and consolidated it into one character, thus making it evil, he takes this evil and consolidates it into a single physical entity. Glaurung is Morgoth himself, or all of Morgoth that Túrin is ever allowed to face. “Evil have been all your ways, son of Húrin,” says Glaurung, with Morgoth’s knowledge, Morgoth’s malice, Morgoth’s voice, “Thankless fosterling, outlaw, slayer of your friend, thief of love, usurper of Nargothrond, captain foolhardy, and deserter of your kin.” (Húrin, 179)


Rackham: Sigurd kills FafnirTolkien demonstrates the superior sophistication of The Children of Húrin by how he makes use of his dragon. In the Völsungasaga, the slaying of the dragon is Sigurd’s greatest accomplishment, the deed by which he gets his name and renown; but that is all it is. Once the dragon is dead, the story shifts abruptly from myth to romance and never returns to glorious heroism against fantastic forces. Tolkien’s dragon, however, is no accidental insertion. Glaurung appears in the battle of the Nirnaeth and again in the fall of Nargothrond before resurfacing for the final conflict; Tolkien weaves the dragon in and out of the story, never letting us forget him, and therefore never letting us forget Morgoth’s hand in every fateful twist of plot. The dragon is Morgoth, and the dragon is also fate, inescapable, ever present, a symbol of the Norse “paradox of defeat inevitable yet unacknowledged.” (Beowulf, 67) It is important that Glaurung is a dragon and not a man; because he is no mortal enemy, Túrin is, just as much as his father, “a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm,” (Beowulf, 66) and the dragon is symbolic of that strong element of the world that opposes all men.


The greatest difference between The Children of Húrin and the Völsungasaga is the position of the dragon within the story. It is of utmost significance that while Sigurd’s life begins with his great victory over Fafnir, Tolkien chooses to end Túrin’s life – like Beowulf’s – with his great victory. Sigurd reaches the climax of his heroism in the beginning of his life; Túrin, while he struggles against a strangling fate, rises to fight and win his greatest battle at the end of his life. The Völsungasaga begins with victory and ends with long, merciless, drawn-out defeat; The Children of Húrin begins as a long, merciless, drawn-out defeat, but it ends in victory.


This is Tolkien’s statement: even where there is no Eucatastrophe, there can still be redemption. And that redemption is in itself a form of Eucatastrophe, an unexpected grace given at the end of Túrin’s strength. Morgoth’s evil will may have ruled his life and riddled it with pain, he may have been helpless to resist Morgoth, but he can still defy him by killing his dragon and in this small way gain a bit of victory over his relentless enemy; Túrin does not win everything, but at the end of everything, he does win. 


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