Tolkien’s Darkest Middle-earth Story Isn’t From The Lord of the Rings

Even the darkest moments in The Lord of the Rings won't prepare you for the horrors of Tolkien's The Children of Hurin...

Sauron in Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Photo: Amazon Studios

It is fairly well known that J.R.R. Tolkien produced a huge amount of work set in Middle-earth and other parts of Arda (the name for his imaginary world as a whole), most of which was not published in his lifetime. His son Christopher devoted much of his own life to collecting and publishing the many, many stories of Arda that J.R.R. did not manage to get published himself in various collections, and that work continues even after Christopher’s own death in new collections edited by others.

There is a lot of variety in all that work, but one thing that is noticeable is that Tolkien found it much easier to get publishers interested in his lighter stories during his lifetime, with much of the darker material left to be edited and published by Christopher. If only J.R.R. had lived to the 1990s and the appearance of books like A Game of Thrones (1996) and The Winter King (1995), he would probably have found more enthusiasm for a lot of his other work, as his tales of the earlier ages of Arda tend to be quite a bit grimmer than Farmer Giles of Ham or The Hobbit, or even The Lord of the Rings. And the grimmest of all is the story of Húrin and his children, a very dark Tolkien tale you won’t find in the movies or TV series…

The Story of Húrin, Morwen, Túrin, and Niënor

The story begins with Húrin, a human from the First Age of Middle-earth and a friend of the Elves. He is captured and tortured by Morgoth (Sauron’s master, and basically the Devil) during the War of Wrath because Húrin knows the secret location of the Elven city Gondolin and evil Morgoth wants to destroy it. When Húrin refuses to give up Gondolin, Morgoth curses his children, and a curse from the Devil unsurprisingly turns out to be pretty powerful.

The tragedy that befalls Túrin and Niënor, Húrin’s children, as a result of this curse was first published in The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien’s edited version of his father’s great unfinished work, which came out in 1977. More sections of the story appeared in Unfinished Tales, a collection of drafts and unpublished stories edited by Christopher and published in 1980. Even more drafts and different versions of the story were included in Christopher’s huge 12-volume History of Middle-earth (in Volumes 2 and 3), which collects variations and discarded drafts from just about all of Tolkien’s works, published and unpublished. Christopher later edited together a novel version of the tale, published under the title The Children of Húrin in 2007. In an Appendix, he went through his decision-making process in putting together a complete prose version of the tale, and talked about how he thought he had taken a bit too much editorial freedom in Unfinished Tales, and how he aimed to correct that in the new version.

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A brief summary of the lives of Húrin’s children will show you just how grim this story is. Húrin’s middle child, Urwen, died first at the age of five, killed by a plague. In an attempt to protect her eldest son Túrin from Morgoth’s curse, Húrin’s wife Morwen sent the boy away to the Elven realm of Doriath. Túrin was long gone by the time his little sister, Niënor, was born, which will be a very important detail later in the story!

Túrin nearly died on the journey to Doriath, but was rescued by an Elf called Beleg. He was taken in by Elven King Thingol, but accidentally killed one of Thingol’s counselors and was forced to flee. He became the leader of a gang of outlaws and convinced them to kill only Orcs, not Men. His friend Beleg eventually joined him and rescued him from Mîm the Petty-Dwarf, only for Túrin to accidentally kill Beleg with his own sword.

Túrin then ended up living in the Elven city of Nargothrond where he built a bridge and the Elf Finduilas fell in love with him, though he tried to avoid her. Confronted by the dragon Glaurung during the Sacking of Nargothrond, Túrin was tricked into thinking his mother Morwen and sister Niënor – who he had never met – were suffering back home, so he abandoned Finduilas as she was captured and dragged away by Orcs, calling for help. Finding home empty, he killed an Easterling lord – whose wife burned herself to death in response – and went back for Finduilas, but she was already dead.

After that, Túrin went to live in the forest of Brethil, where he found a young woman lying sick and unable to speak on the grave of Finduilas, so naturally, he married her. He even managed, eventually, to kill Glaurung – but while Túrin was unconscious, with his dying breath, the dragon told his wife her true identity: she was Niënor, Túrin’s sister, who had been given a bad dose of amnesia by Glaurung himself. Upon realizing she’d married her brother, Niënor killed herself, and when Túrin eventually learned the truth, he killed himself too, and was buried near Finduilas.

Húrin was finally released by Morgoth, found his wife Morwen dying, and having outlived his whole family, threw himself into the sea.

The Myths and Legends Behind The Children of Húrin

There are a couple of probable reasons why The Children of Húrin is so depressing. For one, consider the myths that inspired Tolkien’s story. Writing to his publisher Milton Waldman (who was hoping to publish The Silmarillion as well as The Lord of the Rings), Tolkien identified three myths that influenced it – the Norse/Germanic story of Sigurd the Volsung, the Greek myth of Oedipus, and the story of Kullervo from the Finnish epic the Kalevala.

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There are many different versions of the story of Sigurd the Volsung, but the main aspect of his myth that seems to be echoed in the story of Túrin is his killing the dragon Fafnir, and his conversation with the dying dragon. Oedipus and Kullervo are both partial inspiration for the tragic deaths by suicide of several characters. Although Tolkien does not mention Arthurian legend in his letter, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur may have been at the back of his mind as well. All three of these latter stories also feature accidental incest with dire consequences.

In the Greek myth, Oedipus learns of a prophecy that says he will one day kill his father and sleep with his mother, so he leaves his adoptive home, only to kill a man who turns out to be his biological father and marry his biological mother. His mother Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus puts out his own eyes in horror. In the Kalevala, Kullervo is raised by the people who murdered his entire tribe, sold into slavery, then seduces a girl who turns out to be his long-lost sister, at which point she commits suicide, as does Kullervo after taking vengeance on the people who killed his tribe in the first place. In Malory’s story, King Arthur and his half-sister Morgause sleep together without realizing they are related and conceive a son named Mordred, who eventually rebels against Arthur in a battle that kills them both. Túrin’s accidental killing of his great friend Beleg also echoes Malory’s text about Sir Balin and his brother Balan, who tragically kill each other in a duel because they weren’t wearing their usual armor and didn’t recognize one another.

Although Tolkien didn’t mention it to Waldman, he was also clearly influenced by the Old English poem Beowulf, with which he was extremely familiar, after translating the epic and giving a lecture on it (“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”). The earliest versions of the story of “Túrin son of Húrin and Glórund [later Glaurung] the Dragon,” written from 1918 into the 1920s at least as far as 1924, were not prose, but poems, two drafts of which were published in The Lays of Beleriand (History of Middle-earth, Volume 3). The poem used the same structure as typical Old English poetry, including Beowulf. These drafts do not rhyme, but are written in half-lines that heavily feature alliteration, for example, “Then a fierce fury, like a fire blazing / was born of bitterness in his bruiséd heart.” The hero Beowulf’s fight with a great dragon happens at the end of his life and is what kills him, so the strong influence of Beowulf on Tolkien’s poem likely shaped the gloomy end of Húrin and his line.

Húrin’s final fate, throwing himself into the sea, also echoes another famous bit of Greek mythology. The hero Theseus forgets to put up a white sail to show he is safe during his triumphant return home to his father Aegeus, and instead flies a black sail, making Aegeus think he has died. So Aegeus decides to throw himself into the Aegean Sea, giving that body of water its name.

Tolkien’s Life and Influences

But perhaps more important than the myths that inspired it, the other possible reason this story is so dark is that Tolkien was dealing with severe trauma when he wrote it. This is one of the earliest Middle-earth stories Tolkien wrote, and he started it around 1918. Tolkien served on the front line in the First World War from June to October in 1916, fighting in the months-long battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest battles in history. When Christopher was serving with the RAF in the Second World War in 1944, his father wrote to him offering his sympathies on the various problems of military life, and telling him about how he relieved his own suffering in 1916 though writing, creating Morgoth and writing “in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.”

Tolkien caught trench fever, a disease spread by lice that frequently caused long-term or relapsing illness, and returned to Britain, serving in camps at home for the rest of the war due to his recurring bouts of illness. It was during the last year of the war that he started the story of Túrin. And so it is hardly surprising, given that he was still in active service at the time he started it, still suffering physically from his time in the trenches, and the memories of the war were fresh in his mind and would haunt him for the rest of his life, that the resulting story is a wee tad on the gloomy side.

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On Fairy Stories

Even more famous than Tolkien’s lecture on Beowulf is his lecture “On Fairy-Stories.” In this talk, Tolkien talked about the early 20th-century literary perception of “fairy-stories” and fantasy as forms of literature most suited to children and children’s stories. In the lecture, he challenged the assumptions of Victorian scholars like Andrew Lang that children like fairy-tales because in their youth, they reflect the tastes of their “naked ancestors.” Tolkien quite rightly pointed out that we know little about these supposed ancestors, and that a taste for fairy-tales has nothing to do with childhood or immaturity, explaining that his own love of the fantastical came from a combination of a love of poetry, and the need for art to get through the First World War.

Tolkien was, of course, absolutely right. Most of human literature throughout history has embraced the fantastic, from myths about gods and heroes across the world, to Shakespeare writing plays about witches. Partly thanks to Tolkien himself and to Christopher, in the years following the publication of the rather grim Silmarillion, a wave of grown-up fantasies dealing with war and sex and death in a serious fashion came out, culminating in “grimdark” fantasy that got so grim “cozy fantasy” had to come along to course correct a bit. But Tolkien was unlucky to be writing his darker tales in the strange in-between period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which he could only get publishers to go for his children’s book The Hobbit, later sneaking in his epic The Lord of the Rings as a sequel to The Hobbit.

Of course, not all of Tolkien’s stories are as dark as The Children of Húrin, and Tolkien was very emphatic about the importance of “escape and consolation” as reasons for writing and reading fantasy. “Dark” does not automatically mean “good.” But, between The Rings of Power, Amazon’s TV adaptation of his stories of the Second Age, and the publication of more readable editions of stories like Beren and Lúthien (Tolkien’s great romance inspired by his own wife), The Fall of Gondolin, and The Fall of Númenor, hopefully we are seeing a new interest in the darker, more adult stories that he could not get published in his own lifetime, but which are likely to be much better appreciated now.