TOLKIEN'S NEW WORK:
A Parable on Humanity's Inability to Conquer Evil Without a Redeemer
Already the reviews are pouring in, and most are favorable for J. R. R. Tolkien's The Children of Hurin. Rather than focus on the usual stuff of criticism, I want to look directly at Tolkien the Catholic author and what he does with this material. The man who talked about the necessity for a happy ending and the triumph of good over evil has produced a tale of woe, betrayal, and tragedy that turns the most optimistic of us to tears. Therein lies the genius of this work. Born out of the despair of World War I, treasured in his heart for his entire life but never really given final form, a window into the complex heart of this Catholic author, The Children of Hurin is a brilliant portrayal of the power of evil even in the midst of God's providence and ultimate conquest of this dark force. Almost a century old in its genesis, the tale is parable for our times and a cautionary warning about the pride of humanity.
In our world, we like to think of ourselves as the masters of creation, flawed but not really sinful. Ask a friend if he or she sins and they will tell you they make mistakes but "sin?"--not so much. The Western world values "niceness" above all other virtues and raises tolerance to an almost oppressive level. We must accept anything and everything because each of us is the ultimate decider of what is right and wrong. Ambiguity rules our hearts and assuages our consciences. What is good for you may be wrong for me and vice versa. Too much reflection and we may think badly of ourselves. The problem is: not enough reflection and when our sins come home to roost and we must face them, then we may just give in to despair.
Critics will say our world is nothing like the one Tolkien created in his mythology, but they would be wrong. It is exactly like it--peopled with characters who are much like us, convinced that they can look evil in the eye and conquer it; convinced that if we just all tolerate everyone's take on the truth, we can do anything we want; convinced that salvation rests in our own virtue and courage. Just like the heroes in Tolkien's story, we do not reflect on our weakness for fear that such reflection will drag us down and tear us apart. The irony is that a little reflection on personal sin, balanced with humility usually leads to a chastened and wiser person who goes forward better for the examination of conscience. If we keep running away from the evil within us, then it becomes most dangerous when we are forced to face it. That fact destroyed Turin and Hurin, his father, and may very well destroy us.
Turin is a kid who grows up with an absent father, who happens to be a hero, and deals with the fear of terror every day. His father, Hurin, captured by the Satanic figure of the story--Morgoth--is held in thrall in Middle-Earth's version of hell. As Turin's world breaks apart (Morgoth stretches out his hand to conquer his family), he flees to the Elves where he is fostered by the Elven King. Yet, as he grows into adulthood, he remains a man apart, a loner, given to flashes of anger and compassion, in the grip of emotions he doesn't understand. In his hatred of Morgoth, he dances with the Dark. His loathing is very close to a perverted form of love, for his very self finds its only meaning in relationship to this terrible evil force. Elves and men who try to befriend him, women who try to love him are pushed away in favor of his lust for revenge.
Fleeing the consequences of his anger, he takes up with a group of outlaws and lives like them, finding his humanity leeching out of himself. Here is where Tolkien, in the midst of this bleak tale, reminds us that in our essence, human beings are inherently good. This is the very Catholic, optimistic view of humanity. We sin, but we cannot blame our actions on our sin. In the end, our inherent goodness makes us responsible for our actions. By our evil decisions, we diminish our humanity, no matter what the horrendous circumstances may be in which we make those choices. Turin is a prideful man, and when his one friend comes to take him back to the elven king who promises friendship, Turin turns him down and goes back to his lonesome life. Tragedy never happens from happenstance; there is always an element of choice. Much is admirable in Turin; but his pride is his undoing.
When he confronts the dragon Glaurung, servant of Morgoth, he thinks he is a match for that evil, but the serpent beguiles him, getting Turin to focus solely on what a failure he is. In trying to save himself from his failings, he continues to make disastrous decisions. Unknowingly, he marries his sister, but neither she nor he will seek forgiveness for this unwitting horror. Once again, evil in the shape of the dying dragon throws the twisted truth in their faces and rather than conquer the evil, they submit to its terrible despair. The most haunting words in the whole novel come when Turin realizes that his sister is dead. All his actions, even his good ones, have led to darkness and doom and he cries out, "Now comes the night!" and thrusts himself toward a suicidal end. The epilogue to this pain-wracked story comes at the grave of Turin some time later when his father, Hurin, released by Morgoth, chances across his long lost wife, Morwen, and they hold each other in sadness and their grief cannot be consoled.
Never has Tolkien shown so powerfully, the existence of Original Sin. This is an unredeemed world, long before the advent of Judeo-Christianity, and in this graceless time no human, despite his or her inherent goodness, has the power to successfully confront evil. Neither elves nor men can destroy Morgoth; sin has weakened them too much. Indeed, though not told in this tale, it takes the angels of Middle Earth, the Valar, to thrust Morgoth outside the world's bounds. Humility is the lesson of this story. If humanity is to succeed in conquering evil, it must look elsewhere for salvation. It will not come from man, or elf, or anything in this creation. Critics see only tragedy in this story, but there is a shadow of hope, an unseen answer that Tolkien is pointing to. It will not be found in the later Lord of the Rings tales, but will only be found, as Tolkien has written elsewhere, in the Gospel with the Incarnate God who came to earth to save a fallen humanity and cosmos. Tolkien the Catholic is alive and well in this newly published story. A parable for our times, this cautionary tale warns us of thinking ourselves as gods, as masters of the universe.
For more information on Tolkien and Original Sin, see my article in Touchstone Magazine, "The Shape of Evil and the Power of Hope: Fantasy Literature and the Dark Reality of Original Sin." This is a link to the article.