The Children of Húrin (part 8): Be careful, little eyes, what you see

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.[1]

From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,

Good Lord, deliver us.[2]

I concluded my last post, on The Children of Húrin as a horror story, by noting one of the particular horrors of the story: that between the horrors besetting the heroes – chiefly Morgoth’s curse and Glaurung the Dragon’s malice – and the heroes’ perceptions and wills, are only rather porous walls.  So Húrin and Morwen fight battles on two fronts: they battle themselves, and Morgoth.  But there is no sharp line dividing the two fronts.  Húrin’s children have it worse: they fight on three fronts – themselves, Morgoth, and Glaurung – the edges of which are blurry, and bleed liberally into one another.

I.          The windows of the soul

Before I commence with my analysis of this horrible reality in The Children of Húrin, a few preliminary comments are in order.

First, Tolkien works the edges of the battle fronts very subtly, so that the story cannot be reduced to a simple morality tale, on the one hand, or a fatalistic tragedy on the other.  So the keen reader will rush neither to judge the heroes, nor to excuse them.  They labor under Morgoth’s curse, beset with woes, doubts, temptations, and thick darkness we can hardly imagine.  Yet, when they do wrong, you can’t say the devil made them do it.

Second, as I have noted elsewhere, Tolkien rather sharply distinguishes Morwen and Túrin – with their evident pride, stubbornness, and rashness – from Húrin and Niënor, who exude steadfast loyalty but rarely stubbornness or pride.[3]  Therefore, I have called Húrin and Niënor the story’s sacrificial animals: Húrin the ox, slaughtered, an inch at a time, over decades; Niënor the lamb, trapped by the Dragon and later slain by a word from his forked tongue.  Morwen and Túrin are more complex, and have a more obvious hand in making the mazes in which they become lost.  Yet, though they inadvertently act in ways that aid Morgoth’s cause at several turns, they never yield to him.  And, interestingly, it is they, and not Húrin and Niënor, who attain at least a final resting place – the Stone of the Hapless – that endures unshaken for as long as the earth endures.[4]

Third, I have neither the space nor the aim to provide here very thorough study of the question of how Morgoth’s curse infects the wills of the members of the House of Húrin.[5] That question riddles the whole story.  As Flannery O’Connor might have said, really the only way to study it properly is to read the book.  What follows, then, is a brief analysis of just a pair of typically horrifying examples, where the barriers between the perceptions and wills of members of Húrin’s family, and the evils that beset them, wear thinnest.

These examples (among others I might bring forth) have this one significant thing in common: They are the places where Húrin and the members of his family dare to look through, or into, the eyes of Morgoth or Glaurung.[6]

II.         Be careful, little eyes, what you see

I start with the scene that sets the course of the story: Morgoth’s cursing Húrin and all his kin.  At the end of the scene Morgoth said to Húrin

Sit now there . . . and look out upon the lands where evil and despair shall come upon those whom you have delivered to me.  For you have dared to mock me, and have questioned the power of Melkor, Master of the fates of Arda. Therefore with my eyes you shall see, and with my ears you shall hear, and nothing shall be hidden from you.[7]

Now obviously that was a malediction and a threat.  It was also a temptation.  As Morgoth’s prisoner, Húrin had no other source of information about his family.  The question that Morgoth put before Húrin was the extent to which he trusted his own discernment – to separate truth from falsehood in Morgoth’s account, and to correct the distortions wrought by the malice of Morgoth’s eyes.

We get no direct account of what Húrin learned through Morgoth’s eyes.  We do know, however, that he dared to look through them – and, after doing so for close to three decades,[8] emerged with a decidedly twisted view of what befell his family.[9]  And we get a good idea of the kind of view Húrin would have received from Morgoth, by looking at the words of Glaurung to Túrin at the sack of Nargothrond:

Evil have been all your ways, son of Húrin. . . . Thankless fosterling, outlaw, slayer of your friend, thief of love, usurper of Nargothrond, captain foolhardy, and deserter of your kin. As thralls your mother and your sister live in Dor-lómin, in misery and want. You are arrayed as a prince, but they go in rags. For you they yearn, but you care not for that. Glad may your father be to learn that he has such a son: as learn he shall.[10]

One can hardly imagine, then, the effect on Húrin of seeing the decades of woe that befell his family through the malice-misshapen lenses of Morgoth’s eyes.

III.        Be not bemused by the serpent’s eyes, Túrin!

While Tolkien leaves Húrin’s experience of hell on earth largely to the reader’s imagination, he spells out Túrin’s experience of it plainly in black and white.  Tolkien tells us that, hearing the words of Glaurung, recounted above, and being under Glaurung’s spell, Túrin “hearkened to his words, and he saw himself as in a mirror misshapen by malice, and he loathed what he saw.”[11]

But we are also told that when Glaurung withdrew his glance, Túrin (slowly) stirred and came to himself, and that he sprang upon Glaurung and “stabbed at his eyes.”[12]  Glaurung, though,

coiling back swiftly towered above him, and said: ‘Nay! At least you are valiant. Beyond all whom I have met. And they lie who say that we of our part do not honour the valour of foes. See now! I offer you freedom. Go to your kin, if you can. . . .”[13]

The importance of the decision Túrin made then can hardly be overstated: Being “bemused” by the Dragon’s eyes, he abandoned the captives of Nargothrond, and specifically the King’s daughter Finduilas, to seek Morwen and Niënor in Dor-lómin.  Here Glaurung masterfully exploited Túrin’s weak spot – for though he had, just a few minutes earlier, falsely accused Túrin of not caring for his kin, he knew better, and set before him probably the only thing that might have induced him to abandon Finduilas and the captives. But had Túrin said “damn your eyes” to the Dragon, had he resisted his mind’s eye’s picture of Orcs “burning the house of Húrin or putting Morwen and Niënor to torment,” and heeded rather his mind’s ear – which “heard the cries of Finduilas, calling his name by wood and hill”[14] – the balance of the story may well have gone much better.  Túrin indeed later saw and acknowledged this; for after all of his story but his own death had been wrought, he passed by Finduilas’s final resting place, and cried

Bitterly have I paid, O Finduilas! that ever I gave heed to the Dragon. Send me now counsel!”[15]

Glaurung reported. And Túrin decided.

IV.        Conclusion

From the foregoing, we see but a little of the full measure of horror fashioned by the mingling of the evil facing and surrounding the House of Húrin, on the one hand, and, on the other, the perceptions and wills of the members of that House.  Much more could be said about this – about the doubt of Morwen,[16] or the naïve courage of Niënor in declaring herself to Glaurung,[17] or the myopia and foolhardiness of Túrin.[18]  There is no substitute, though, for simply reading the story, and submitting to the narrative flow Tolkien has delivered it to us, and letting it do its work.

[1] St Matthew 6:22-23 (ESV).

[2] From the Litany, Book of Common Prayer 54.

[3] As he distinguishes mother and son from father and daughter in more obvious ways, too.  Like appearance – Morwen and Túrin are dark-haired, Húrin and Niënor golden-haired.

[4] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion 275-76 (Random House 1999)(1977).  See also here.

[5] This question is not, by the way, just a dark mirror image of the question of the sovereignty of the Creator God and the responsibility of his creatures; it is a different question in kind.  The question here is how one (or two, if you include Morgoth’s servant Glaurung) particularly powerful creature might affect the decisions of other creatures.

[6] Morwen stands alone as the only member of the family who looks neither upon Morgoth nor upon Glaurung.  Yet one gets the sense that, had she come to such a pass, she might have fared best.

[7] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin 65 (2007).

[8] Túrin was eight when Húrin was taken captive, and died in his mid-thirties, after which Húrin was released.

[9] See The Silmarillion at 276-78.

[10] The Children of Húrin at 179.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 179-80.

[13] Id. at 180.

[14] Id. at 181.

[15] Id. at 253.

[16] Id. at 198-99.

[17] Id. at 208-209.

[18] See, among many examples, id. at 161-63.