Friday, 9 November 2012

What is the point of the tale of Turin Turambar?

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I have never enjoyed reading Tolkien's Silmarillion stories about Turin Turambar - because they are so miserable and tragic as to seem almost sadistic in the sufferings they describe.

Indeed, I found it hard to understand why Tolkien had written the Tale of Turin, and especially why he kept returning and returning to it - in different versions and styles; such that it seemed that Turin had some special meaning which I was missing.

Yet - on the face of it - Turin is a pretty appalling hero, whose courage is flawed by reckless impulsivity and bad temper, who is prone to savage and violent despair - and whose struggles against Morgoth and the dragon seem futile.

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But in the earliest intention, I think we can understand Tolkien's fascination for Turin.

Later versions of The Silmarillion leave out the key explanatory event, which makes sense of Turin's fruitless struggles.

This can be seen in the earliest published version, from The Book of Lost Tales Volume 2, page 115:

After Turin has committed suicide by asking his own sword to slay him (a request to which the sword verbally agrees) - we discover this:

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Turambar indeed had followed [his sister] Nienori along the black pathways to the doors of [the death goddess], but [she] would not open to them, neither would [Mandos - the Valar of death].

Yet now the prayers of [their parents] came even to Manwe [the highest Valar], and the Gods had mercy on their unhappy fate, so that those twain Turin and Nienori entered into ... the bath of flame... and so were all their sorrows and stains washed away, and they dwelt as shining Valar among the blessed ones, and now the love of that brother and sister is very fair;

but Turambar indeed shall stand beside Fionwe in the [Last Battle]; and [Morgoth] and his [dragons] shall curse [Turin's sword].

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The meaning now becomes very obvious, and the underlying reason for Tolkien's decades long fascination with this story.

Turin Turambar is Man, Everyman - in all his weakness and his strength; the greater his strength, the more evil he accomplishes in the end.

Crippled by original sin (his impulsive violence and bad temper and despair), whose undoubted valour and heroism all lead to evil.

His will to Good being always perverted to wickedness; the stronger the will, the worse the consequences.

Man who is puny, easily manipulated and apparently helpless in the face of the relentless evil will of the god, the fallen chief angel of Morgoth/ Satan and his demons (the dragons).

Man who, despite the ultimate human achievement of slaying a dragon, is finally utterly broken in spirit by accumulated sorrow from the torturing fate laid upon him by these vastly superior forces of malice so that he commits the final mortal sin of seeking his own death...

Where is any possible hope in this?

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And yet...

It is this same Everyman who is resurrected via the purification of the purgatorial fire, to become a Son of God, higher even than The Valar' - as symbolized by the fact that it is Turin Turambar who slays Satan and inaugurates the re-made world (the New Jerusalem, Heaven in Earth)

- as described in the second prophecy of Mandos in the Quenta Silmarillion:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagor_Dagorath);

Man redeemed who thereby accomplishes a task impossible to any of the gods, or all of the gods.

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Presumably Tolkien recognized the too-obvious Christian symbolism behind the early versions of the Tale of Turin Turambar, and deleted the denoument.

Yet that was the origin of the Tale, and that is what makes sense of it; and indeed of the Silmarillion as a whole.

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Tolkien knew that despair was a sin and hope a Christian duty; yet the reason for hope got left-out of the published Silmarillion.

This whole sequence of events in the evolution of the Silmarillion legends can be taken as evidence that Christianity is the only ground for hope in this world as we know it.

And that insofar as Tolkien eliminated Christianity from his Legendarium, thus far he necessarily eliminated hope.

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28 comments:

Samson J. said...

Yet - on the face of it - Turin is a pretty appalling hero, whose courage is flawed by reckless impulsivity and bad temper, who is prone to savage and violent despair - and whose struggles against Morgoth and the dragon seem futile...

Man who, despite the ultimate human achievement of slaying a dragon, is finally utterly broken in spirit by accumulated sorrow from the torturing fate laid upon him by these vastly superior forces of malice so that he commits the final mortal sin of seeking his own death...

Where is any possible hope in this?


I guess I come at this from a different perspective than you - all of this is why Turin's story *appeals* to me. It *resonates* with me. But I am one of those cursed with a terribly dark, depressive streak, at times given to spending the evening brooding in the dark over the hopelessness of life...

Fantastic to know that there was an "unknown" ending that was left out.

Brandon said...

I think for dealing with this question it's useful to go back and compare the Children of Hurin story with its original inspiration, the story of Kullervo, Kalervo's son, in the Kalevala. Lots of features carry over from the original into the full Turin story (including the speaking sword), but there are some important differences:

(1) Tolkien's version of the tale is far more tragic than the Kullervo story, which intersperses tragedy with a sort of black comedy. So that part is definitely deliberate: starting with a tragic story, he took away all the things that alleviated the tragedy in the original, and kept all the major tragic elements, even making them more bleak. In the Kullervo story there's a sort of black comedy as well as tragedy about Kullervo destroying everyone and everything around him; but there is nothing comic, even darkly comic, about Turin.

(2) We never get a good sense of the reason why Kullervo deals with the tragedy he does, nor why he makes the choices that he does. Tolkien, it seems to me, deliberately fills both of these points out, and the point we continually come to is that while Turin is dealt a bad hand, a spoiled world under Morgoth, nonetheless all the major tragic elements occur because of his pride.

And I think this somewhat speaks to the issue of hope, because the obvious contrast to Turin within the Legendarium is his cousin Tuor. Tuor's story is not as interesting in itself as Turin's, but in great measure this is because Tuor, dealt a similarly bad hand, does almost everything right: Tuor trusts to Ulmo and works with others, whereas Turin repeatedly tries to do everything himself and force everyone to his own will. There is still tragedy in the story of Tuor -- Tuor's coming heralds the beginning of the Fall of Gondolin just as Turin's heralds the beginning of the Fall of Nargothrond -- but whereas Turin's story ends in futility, Tuor's does not end, because out of it comes the hope of Men and Elves.

None of this necessarily contradicts your suggestion: it could very well be that this theosis of Turin, so to speak, was originally a key and 'Christianized' element. But I think it requires some sort of qualification. The Turin story is also competing with other stories in the Legendarium, most notably that of Earendil, and it seems to me that there may be due more to the differences between the story of Turin as a relatively freestanding narrative and the same story as part of a greater story that in some sense must culminate with Earendil.

bgc said...

@SJ and Brandon - thanks to both for your comments.

I suppose the root of my concern with the Tale of Turin is that (unlike SJ) I do not find it effective as a story - it is 'not for me' (I much prefer the tale of Tuor); and that it sticks out 'lie a sore thumb' in Tolkien's work for that reason.

I have not read the Kalevala, but has assumed that this unremitting bleakness had been carried-over from there; but Brandon informs me that Tolkien exaggerated this aspect (if I ever read this I had forgotten it).

This makes my question even more pointed - *why* did Tolkien make this story, why did he return to it again and again? Why did he make it so very horrible?

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I can make sense of this if I regard the 'end' of the story as the theosis-by-grace ('undeserved' deification) of TT.

I find it easy to imagine Tolkien taking a grim satisfaction in creating a story to show the worst that human nature and demonic influence could do to a man of almost superhuman strength and courage; and yet with a eucatastrophic twist at the very end, beyond death, whereby the loving and merciful God can turn *even this* to great good.

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This emphasizes what a big error Christoper Tolkien made by omitting the Last Battle prophecy element from the 1977 Silmarillion - this completely transforms the whole of the history of Arda.

The difference to Tolkien's world (for a Christian) is as large as the difference would be for our world before and after Christ.

In the later Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (in HoME Morgoth's Ring) we can see Tolkien struggling to find a way from the Silmarillion to the Last Battle without creating too obvious an analogy to Christ (a way to undo the corruptions of Morgoth); aiming to provide the necessary and fully convincing 'happy ending' but without making his whole Legendarium into a Christian allegory, which he did not want to do.

Tolkien did not find a way to do this - presumably there *is* no way to undo evil while retaining the Good, except by the creator God entering into the world and via a process of purification and remaking.

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So the ultimate reason why the Silmarillion was never properly finished is that:

1. If T left it unfinished (like the 1977 SIlmarillion) it would be a blasphemously despair-inducing tragedy.

2. If T finished it as it required to be finished, it would be rather-too-obviously a Christian allegory - but perhaps one containing rather worryingly heretical aspects.

As it turns-out, Tolkien would have been quite 'safe' to finish the Silmarillion even though it would be a Christian allegory, since Christian understanding has declined so much in the past 60 years that nowadays hardly anybody can recognize Christian allegorical elements - of those who can very few are interested by them.

And of those few of few who recognize and are interested by the Christian symbolism, we are mostly deeply grateful for the spiritual insights we may gain from Tolkien; rather than being condemnatory of the non-Christian elements in the mixture.

Ariston said...

I'm ill & a bit out of it, so I'll keep my comment short & (hopefully) coherent:

I don't think the Túrin tale sticks out at all in Tolkien's mythology; rather, it is the essential core of his eucatastrophic vision. Túrin serves as a type of Christ, and I believe that Tolkien eased back from the early version not as a de–Christianization, but as much as he moved the tale away from the allegorical (a mode he thought low) to the [typo/mytho]logical. Túrin is not Christ, he comes before him, and like all types of Christ (think of David or Jonah— there are also pagan examples, but most of those are seen in their gods), he shows the ever–present deep moral flaws that prevent mankind from realizing itself without being united with God in the incarnation. Middle–Earth is a preincarnate history; there can be no victory without sorrow within it.

Samson J. said...

and that it sticks out 'lie a sore thumb' in Tolkien's work for that reason.

Well, is it? You know more about Tolkien than I do, of course (I mean you know more about the man himself and his personality and mindset), but it has always seemed to me that one of Tolkien's themes is hopelessness and emptiness and "this is how bad things can get if you have no hope or faith [in God]."

Boromir is my favourite character in large part because I identify with his sense of hopelessness. His story is partly one of seduction by sin - but also a story of seduction by hopelessness (which is another kind of sin).

Saruman is (or has become, by the time we meet him) a bona fide "bad guy", but I even like and feel a bit sorry for him. I particularly enjoy the part in PJ's film where Saruman watches Gandalf escape and softly says, "So you have chosen death..." I don't interpret this utterance as a *threat*, but rather as a sort of "Why will you die, O Israel?" expression of frustration - born from Saruman's genuine sense that there really is no hope.

Turin's story is objectively much, much worse than either of these, but at root I view it the same way: it's a story about how bad things can get. I don't see it as incongruent with the rest of the Legendarium, anyway.

bgc said...

@Ariston and SJ - well, that's how I see it; and I feel I have discovered an explanation for why it strikes me that way!

But if you don't see a problem, I guess you won't be impressed by the solution.

Troels said...

As Brandon points out, the original for the Túrin story is really the Kalevala — or rather Tolkien's attempt to rewrite Kullervo's story (published in a volume of Tolkien Studies).

It shouldn't be forgotten either that Tolkien was fascinated with what he in one place called the ‘northern heroic spirit’ — particularly the will to keep fighting against hope in the knowledge that there was no salvation. In many ways I see the Túrin story as also containing an investigation of this spirits, both its virtues and its problems.

While the redemption of Túrin and his re-emergence in the Final Battle have some elements both of Nordic and Christian myth and achieves, in my reading, a nice balance of the two that is at the same time both and neither. Reading Túrin as somehow a representative of Mankind seems to me to be allegorical at a level that Tolkien would seem to me very unlikely to have intended.

bgc said...

@Troels - "Reading Túrin as somehow a representative of Mankind seems to me to be allegorical at a level that Tolkien would seem to me very unlikely to have intended. "

But that is exactly what he did in Athrabeth.

My point is that Tolkien was ambivalent and vacillated about this issue, and never found a satisfactory answer: probably because there is no satisfactory answer to be had.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce, although your blog has been daily reading for what is now years(!) I've never commented before, but a post on the Tale of Turin demands it.

Interesting thoughts on the 'prophecy' of the Dagor Dagorlad, but I think the same function is served by the LotR. Turin's undoing is his lack of hope; he lives to defy Morgoth physically/politically ('wrestling against' 'powers and principalities’) which is greatly heroic, but not the full extent of how he ought to live. In LotR, we see the love and hope of the hobbits is not only good in and of itself, but also accomplishes Turin's goal of defeating evil by other means. Although Turin meets his dire fate, his despair at the world (because he cannot overcome Morgoth by power) is shown to be ultimately false in the full story. I was not struck by the necessity of the prophecy, it was an interesting ‘behind the scenes’ look at how Tolkien was thinking through the story, but I think it is too intrusive to have ever been included in a published version without breaking the reader’s immersion. I can’t imagine how Bilbo would have got hold of it!

I suppose I always had a subconscious intuition when reading that Turin's Tale was crucial to the realisation of the Music of the Ainur and Nienna's third theme - that the sorrows of the world point to an ultimate meaning and healing. The fate of Hurin's family epitomises this sorrow, as the purposive evil of Morgoth is personally directed against them. Insofar as Morgorth can be said to 'delight' in anything, it would be contributing to the ruin of the House of Hurin. "In it are revealed the most evil works of Morgoth Bauglir".

In order to be brief I must present an exaggerated and distorted argument; but Beren/Luthien and Tuor are almost cheating, providence allows the rules to be twisted for them. Turin adds balance, so their stories fit into the larger picture as acts of grace rather than the normal course in a ‘fantasy world’.

Personally, although it may sound strange, I find the 50's version of the story in the Unfinished Tales and 2007 Children of Hurin to be beautiful and consoling. The terse, sparse tone so fits the narrative that I consider this to be Tolkien's artistic peak. "But you are queenly, and as a golden tree; I would I had a sister so fair" (Turin to Finduilas). Throughout the irony and the scope of things left unsaid are hugely powerful. This is lost in the edits of the 1977 Silmarillion version.

Like Samson J, I like to see my own feelings of (small 'd') despair reflected in the fantastical mirror of the grim and heroic Turin. Turin dwells on the past and what is lost, as do I, but seeing this portrayed prompts one to remember one should also appreciate the beauty of the world, and hope for the beyond. Amazing that Tolkien and Lewis are thought of as twee tweedy professors and children's writers.

For wider interest, here is a good review of Children of Hurin by commenter Baduin, which links to another:
http://baduin.livejournal.com/2137.html?nojs=1

Hope you can get something out of this, I'm not a very clear writer even on straightforward subjects!

Anthony

bgc said...

It has been interesting to hear from commenters who find the T of T to be among their favourites; but I think this is objectively wrong! Tolkien himself said that a real and good fairy story must have a 'happy ending' or more exactly eucatastrophe - and the published versions of Turin do not.

Ergo the T of T cannot be his best work...

!

Brandon said...

Another source for Turin is Sigurd (who also slew a dragon, and in a way that clearly has similarities to Turin's dragon-slaying), and I was interested to come across the following today in Tolkien's retelling of the Volsung story (in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, pp. 179-180), which speaks of Sigurd:

In the day of Doom
he shall deathless stand
who death tasted
and dies no more,
the serpent-slayer,
seed of Odin:
not all shall end,
nor Earth perish.

On his head the Helm,
in his hand lightning,
afire his spirit,
in his face splendour.
When war passeth
in world rebuilt,
bliss shall they drink
who the bitter tasted.


Conceivably that might contribute to an indirect argument that Christopher Tolkien should have included at least some intimation of something like this.

I'm not convinced by the eucatastrophe argument; it would make sense if the Turin story stood entirely alone, but it doesn't -- it's a story of a memorable and tragic defeat in a long defeat that, nonetheless, against all expectation, ends in victory. This is one of the reasons why I think it makes sense to distinguish what makes sense for the story considered as more or less standing alone and what makes sense for the story as a contrast with the culminating story of Tuor and his son, who bring a eucatastrophic ending to the whole First Age.

Ben said...

I tend to agree with the poster, davem, from this thread on the Barrow Downs discussion forum here : http://forum.barrowdowns.com/showthread.php?t=13878

"LotR ends in Eucatastrope, CoH in dyscatastrophe. Yet, by chance ("If chance you call it"), the last published work of Tolkien's on Middle-earth reflects not Christian faith, but heroic Northern courage in the face of hopelessness. I think Garth is right, too, that only a Somme veteran could have written CoH."

I especially agree with this comment:

"Turin is a man of his (& our) time. No-one knows the answers to his questions, because there are no answers that work. There is no overarching religious vision or philosophy - his world is cut off from meaning & all a man can do is fight wrong to the best of his ability. His actions may be wrong, stupid, reckless, even cruel, but they are not seen as 'sins'."

And with regard to the Eucatostrophic Ragnoroc in which Turn takes part davem has this to say:

"what a writer omits to mention is often more important than what he includes. In the Narn Tolkien chose to omit any 'light', any glimpse of a Eucatastrophe. Does the reader need that?"

Finally, a point with which I very much agree:

"Its only when we read CoH as a stand alone work, divorced from the rest of the writings, entirely absent of any hope or eucaastrophe, that it becomes important & significant - & more importantly says something new"

This last point, for me, sums up the reasons why i love CoH so much - taken as a part of the tapestry, in which hope is assured, its poignant depiction of human suffering is sapped by the insipid knowledge that everything will come good in the end. CoH works as a story precisely because it is so unrelenting in his suffering. We should neither look for nor desire a "Eucatastrophe" in this story. That's my two cents anyway. Interesting discussion!

bgc said...

@Ben - Thanks for this.

I think your argument makes my point even clearer - I believe that Tolkien would have been *appalled* to know that The Children of Hurin/ Tale of Turin was being interpreted in the way you describe; and being contrasted with ultimate hope being regarded as 'insipid'.

I'm afraid I don't believe that *modern*, post-Christian people genuinely believe in this way - I'm afraid I regard it as dishonest macho posturing to cover up a hedonic motivation.

I believe (speaking as an ex-neo-pagan) that there are no *real* pagans anymore, and pagan virtue is now impossible; and attempts to emulate it (such as National Socialism) are merely variations on decadent modernity.

Ben said...

I think this disagreement demonstrates just how much a world view can impact on our appreciation of literature. As an atheist, I have no particular desire to see the Turin story in Christian terms, or to need to "make it safe" by invoking some kind of eukatastrophe.I simply take it for what it is - a poignant tale of human suffering set amidst a fantastical world.

I don't think I like the Turin story because it is hedonistic, and that's not quite what I (or I suspect davem) quite meant. It appeals to me because it seems to acknowledge the reality of suffering without sugarcoating it. Hence why I called the promise of ultimate hope "insipid". As a non-Christian, such a belief seems to me to be unfounded, and having to thrust it into every one of Tolkien's works, even where such an "estel" like hope is not apparent, seems to me to debase the story. As davem says, CoH says something new precisely because it is unrelenting in its depeiction of suffering. Otherwise it would just be LoTR all over again.

It's not that I'm a nihilist, or that I'm saying CoH is nihilistic, although it could legitimately be read that way. I'm saying that in depicting human suffering without the promise of final hope, it appeals to a worldview divorced from Christianity, which is my worldview. I'm still a moral person, I still love, and have hopes, but it's not the kind of hope that says there is some ultimate purpose and meaning. It seems to me that CoH, as a story taken on its own literary, aesthetic and philosophical merits, really does reflect this point of view.

Whether Tolkien would be appalled by that notion or not is, for me, beside the point. My own response to the story, upon reading it, was very intense and meaningful, and whatever Tolkien's intentions may have been, my response certainly didn't lead me to want to Christanise a story that from the start appealed to me precisely because it repudiates much of the Christian moral vision - that human suffering is in some sense morally worthwhile, because 1. humans are sinfull and deserve it, and 2. because good will ultimately triumph.

Again, thanks for this discussion :)

It's not so much that my liking of CoH is based on any inherent hedonism

bgc said...

@Ben

Thanks for your cordial reply - I'd like to contiue a little longer, if you would agree:

"I think this disagreement demonstrates just how much a world view can impact on our appreciation of literature."

Absolutely. Which is how it should be and must be.

"I don't think I like the Turin story because it is hedonistic, and that's not quite what I (or I suspect davem) quite meant."

Of course not - and it is not what I meant either.

But if you do not believe in the trasncendent, you *are* a hedonist - i.e. you regard pleasure/ pain in this world as the ultimate bottom-line evaluation

"It's not that I'm a nihilist, or that I'm saying CoH is nihilistic, although it could legitimately be read that way."

You probably are - nihilism means denying the reaity of the real. Without divine revelation there is no way of recognizing the real, no non-arbitrary way of recognizing truth.

"I'm still a moral person, I still love, and have hopes, but it's not the kind of hope that says there is some ultimate purpose and meaning."

In other words, morality, love, hope are your subjective opinion - which is indistinguishable from a delusion.

What is your hope for? Pleasure, happiness? That is hedonism. And what about death? If death wipes away everything, then what is the ground for hope?

"Whether Tolkien would be appalled by that notion or not is, for me, beside the point."

Indeed, but for Christian readers of this blog it is extremely relevant.

"a story that from the start appealed to me precisely because it repudiates much of the Christian moral vision - that human suffering is in some sense morally worthwhile, because 1. humans are sinfull and deserve it, and 2. because good will ultimately triumph."

I realize, from my own fairly recent memory, that this is what modern people imagine Chrstianty to be - but really it is not! Christianity is 2000 years old, and is the toughest and most realistic world view ever devised (quite aside from its being true). If you don't recognize this, then you don't know the facts.

You may or may not agree that Chrostianity is true, but at present you don't know what it is.

Ben said...

Okay, I'll take the bait :) But no, in all seriousness, thanks for this discussion as well I am enjoying it :-)

"But if you do not believe in the trasncendent, you *are* a hedonist - i.e. you regard pleasure/ pain in this world as the ultimate bottom-line evaluation"

No, I certainly wouldn't call myself a hedonist. I don't only value "pleasure" taken in some meaningless *lay about and sip wine all day* sense (although I do that sometimes!). I certainly value many kinds of pleasure, and I think the greatest good in the world involves reducing the pain of as many people as possible. I would call that moral, not hedonistic.

"You probably are - nihilism means denying the reaity of the real. Without divine revelation there is no way of recognizing the real, no non-arbitrary way of recognizing truth."

Which divine revelation? What kind of methodology allows you to distinguish false divine revelations from "real" ones? Furthermore, science is a non-arbitrary way of recognising truth, indeed the only one. Scientific methodologies systematically work by weeding out error. That is why real, scientifically garnered knowledge actually makes progress, and it is also why religious "knowledge" never does - because it is premised on revelation. How do you know which revelation is actually true? It is far more likely that they are all false.

"In other words, morality, love, hope are your subjective opinion - which is indistinguishable from a delusion."

Not at all, "morality" as a concept I take to be highly meaningful in the world. How does morality become more meaningful if it is dictated by some God? The good old Euthyphro dilemma is operative here methinks.

"What is your hope for? Pleasure, happiness? That is hedonism. And what about death? If death wipes away everything, then what is the ground for hope? "

I hope for many things, but worshipping a jealous god for eternity is not among them :)

"Indeed, but for Christian readers of this blog it is extremely relevant."

Then that is certainly their prerogative :)

"Christianity is 2000 years old, and is the toughest and most realistic world view ever devised (quite aside from its being true). If you don't recognize this, then you don't know the facts"

Actually I think I'm pretty knowledgable about Christianity and its dogmas. I just happen not to agree with any of them :). I simply ask again, how on earth do you know, with such blithe certainty, that it is true? The fact that so many religions inhabit the earth can mean only three things: they are all correct, only one of them is correct, or none of them are correct. Which is more likely? Given that there is no methodology known to man for distinguishing religious truth from falsehood, it seems apparent to me that they are all false.

I don't wish to appear combative, I am only responding to your points, and once again thanks for this interesting exchange.



bgc said...

"I certainly value many kinds of pleasure, and I think the greatest good in the world involves reducing the pain of as many people as possible. I would call that moral, not hedonistic."

It is both. As a bottom-line morality that is precisely hedonism.

"Which divine revelation?"

First you need to acknowledge the reality of divine revelation. Do you believe in a divinity, and that it would want to communicate with humans?

If you don't believe in that possibility (a possibility which almost every human who ever lived *did* believe) then there is no point in asking the other questions.

"Given that there is no methodology known to man for distinguishing religious truth from falsehood, it seems apparent to me that they are all false."

There are many such methods. But first you have to seek, honestly.

I was an atheist from age 6-49. I am a scientist; what is more an evolutionary theorist. I have appeared in public debates on the atheist side.

I know exactly where you are coming-from; and I can tell you that for sure you do *not* understand what Christianity *is*.

You may not be motivated to find out, you may not believe what you find (although you would certainly *want* it to be true) - but what you are rejecting is not Christianity.

That's pretty much all I wanted to say.

Troels said...

In my summary of Tolkien-related stuff from this November, I wrote about this post:

“I cannot follow Charlton in this religious allegory reading of the tale of Túrin Turambar. First of all the real ‘origin’ of the Túrin story is not in the Book of Lost Tales, but in Tolkien's retelling of the Kullervo story from the Kalevala where there is no such offer of hope at the end, and secondly I think this denies Tolkien's admiration for the idea of fighting evil without hope that he found in the Nordic myths and legends.”

This comment relates specifically to the original post, and thus doesn't take into account anything from the subsequent discussion in the comments. My present comment here will do the same, though I hope to find time to also take a closer look at the comments.

My objection is mainly related to the importance attributed to Túrin's inclusion in the Last Battle. I would agree that this element in itself is likely to be also influenced by Christian ideas, albeit I would add that the inclusion of tragic heroes at a final battle is hardly a specifically Christian idea: it is very much a well boiled-down part of the stock in the great Cauldron of Story, and Tolkien was sufficiently knowledgeable about many ancient mythologies that it is impossible to point out a single mythology as a more likely source than any other.

The point of invoking the Kullervo story is that this element is absent there — that story ends with Kullervo's death upon his own sword, and there is no later elevation or redemption. Tolkien was clearly fascinated by that story even without this element, and he clearly saw a point in that story, and I would argue that this point is not voided by the tagged-on ending.

Going into details about what the point of the story is, or might be, will be too much for a comment here (several Tolkien scholars have made excellent attempts at uncovering at least some part of it), but my argument is that “the point of the tale” is the same for the Túrin story as for the Kullervo story, and that Christopher Tolkien therefore didn't excise something that was essential specifically to the Narn itself when he removed all trace of Mandos' final prophecy and the Last Battle from the published Silmarillion.

At a more general level, it seems to me quite clear that Tolkien didn't have any particularly Christian agenda in his earlier tales. He writes that The Lord of the Rings only became consciously a Catholic work in the revision, and that he wasn't aware of this when he wrote it originally. However, from that point we can trace his conscious effort to bring his legendarium into some degree of consistency with Catholic thought (the level to which he did this is also worth an interesting discussion). Before this point, i.e. the revision of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien didn't make any conscious effort to include Christian elements — though he did make a conscious effort to include non-Christian elements (as his adoption of the Finnish tale of Kullervo shows). This is, of course, not the same as saying that there are no Christian elements prior to the revision of LotR, but such elements are there simply because Tolkien believed that the world does so work; that is, they are incidental and thus unlikely (IMO) to constitute “the point of the tale” for his tales.

Obviously mileage varies, and all of this is indeed “in my opinion,” but I think that you deserve some details about my comments from my transactions.

bgc said...

@Troels - "Going into details about what the point of the story is, or might be, will be too much for a comment here (several Tolkien scholars have made excellent attempts at uncovering at least some part of it), but my argument is that “the point of the tale” is the same for the Túrin story as for the Kullervo story, and that Christopher Tolkien therefore didn't excise something that was essential specifically to the Narn itself when he removed all trace of Mandos' final prophecy and the Last Battle from the published Silmarillion."

I don't see how you can say that!

Surely it makes a truly VAST difference whether the last we hear of Turin is him dying in despair at the end of his own sword; or actually *slaying the devil* - the second most powerful being in the whole universe?

Furthermore, we have Tolkien's own evidence from On Fairy Stories that the 'happy ending' / eucatastophe is a prime requirement of the true Fairy Story.

The same applies to the Silmarillion as a whole: the ending affects the whole story, casts a light, or shadow, back on everything that happened up to that point.

Therefore, the decision to omit Mandos' final prophecy and the Last Battle was of momentous significance, having an importance which can scarcely be exaggerated.

George Goerlich said...

Is it possible that Tolkien may have had a fascination with the story because it reinforced his faith in Christianity? Specifically, that after removing the black humor elements, he found an extremely tragic story without any hope - and for him the story was forever incomplete without hope. That is, in a raw form it contrasts well with a LOTR-type story and shows very clearly the importance of ultimate hope.

michael froio said...

I'm seriously sorry, this is a real noob question (I've only recently gotten into Tolkien's writings)

How is the correct order to read the Tale of Turin?
There's a part in Unfinished Tales where is basically skips a whole section and tells you it's in the Silmarillion. But where do a start and finish that story in the Silmarillion and then go back to Unfinished Tales?

Hope someone can help. Thanks!

Bruce Charlton said...

I suppose the canonical answer nowadays is to read the recent stand-alone book entitled The Children of Hurin - although, from my perspective, that misses out the happy ending about the Last Battle which is featured in Lost Tales and early versions of The Silmarillion published in the History of Middle earth.

MNb said...

"Without divine revelation there is no way of recognizing the real, no non-arbitrary way of recognizing truth."
Every single atheist, like I am, will dismiss this as nonsense. We don't need divine revelation to recognize the truth, whatever that means, of things falling downward and not upward, for two reasons: we have empirical data and a theory that accurately describes them.
So you won't be surprised that my angle is a completely different one. The main theme of the story of Turin Turambar is not religious at all. It's about making wrong decisions based on incomplete information, due to the manipulations of Morgoth. All protagonists, not only TT, make such wrong decisions. What makes the tale so uncomforting is that the reader does have complete information and can do nothing about it.
I won't speculate why Tolkien was fascinated by this story. It's easy to understand why you dislike it though - this main theme is entirely secular. The omitted "hope" bit in this context would only serve as cheap patchwork.
Note how lame Ulmo's warning is - about as lame as the divine intervention during a natural disaster; saving a few at the cost of the vast majority. Your interpretation cannot account for this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MNb - My point is that the story as published is incomplete - as regards the original conception and one sustained over decades. That surely makes a difference.

( I know what atheists think - I was one for 43 years.)

Anonymous said...

I've always found the story of the children of Hurin to be one of Tolkien's most captivating, in the same way that Oedipus Rex is captivating. In fact, it seems to me to be much more rooted in pagan mythology than christian allegory. It's also very much in line with the rest of Tolkien's mythology, which is full of characters finding themselves ensnared in dooms long foretold.

However, one of the joys of Tolkien's writing is its broad applicability and room for interpretation. I think everyone takes what they want from it.

Anonymous said...

I also think it's pretty obvious why the ending you quote wasn't included in the Silmarillion or the Children of Hurin. Tolkien (according to Morgoth's Ring) had long since abandoned the entire concept of a "Last Battle," and had decided that humans didn't hang out in the Blessed Realm, so including that ending wouldn't have been in accordance with Tolkien's wishes.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - I realize that. What I am saying is that it was an *error*.

Maggie said...

I saw J.Sampson's comment and laughed at the Gandolf and saruman part. I see gandolf kind of like a christian figure because first - he was sent by the valars fromn the west to help the people in middle earth; second, he was a prophet and he said at the begining that the wise will be aided by the weak and least expected ones; third, he was selfless, brave and niot afraid of death(even went into the dump that Saurin in his nacromansser form gathered his strength by himself, twice!)
Although the part where he was given a ruby elf ring was kind of unholy(lol), so jesus wears a ruby ring~