Pity and Fear: the Tragic Tale of Túrin

It’s been three weeks since Alan and I finished our trilogy of episodes on the story of Túrin Turambar in The Silmarillion, and no one is looking forward to Tuor showing up on the podcast more than I am. But before we say farewell to the son of Húrin, I still wish to explore the idea of Túrin as a tragic hero, as I promised to do at the end of our epic-length episode 039 – Exit the Warrior.

I have to say that Alan did such an excellent job with his last Prancing Pony Pondering examining Túrin’s free will and fate as defined in the philosophy of Boethius, that I think we have enough to close the book on Túrin’s case: his responsibility for his own misdeeds, and the verdict that Morgoth’s Curse — though real and powerful — does not overcome Túrin’s free will, has been well established by my co-host. But I’d like to add some additional insight to that discussion that satisfies my desire for a literary explanation of Túrin’s responsibility, in addition to the philosophical one; and I’d still like to investigate the question of just why Professor Tolkien saw fit to present such a tale of grief in the first place. For these questions, I must turn to the work of another ancient philosopher whose work was profoundly influential to the medieval culture Tolkien held so dear: the 4th-century BC Athenian philosopher Aristotle.

If you managed to make it through all three hours of episode 039, thank you … and forgive me for repeating here some things I said there. But I promised to give this question the attention it deserves in a longer study, so here we are.

I’ll start with a quote from Verlyn Flieger’s introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien’s adaptation of Finnish myth The Story of Kullervo — a work tangential, but relevant, to the study of Túrin:

As a tragedy, The Story of Kullervo conforms in large measure to the Aristotelian specifics for tragedy: catastrophe, or change of fortune; peripeteia, or reversal, in which a character inadvertently produces an effect opposite to what is intended; and anagnoresis, or recognition, in which a character moves from ignorance to self-knowledge. The classic example is Oedipus, whose drama Sophocles situated within quasi-historical time and place — Thebes in the 4th century BC. Tolkien’s fictive Middle-earth examples are Túrin Turambar, who is closely modelled on Kullervo, and his least likely tragic hero Frodo Baggins, whose journey and emotional trajectory from Bag End to Mount Doom take him through all of Aristotle’s norms set within the larger context of the history of Middle-earth, as do those of Túrin.
     (The Story of Kullervo, p. xv)

I’ll have to leave the question of Frodo as a tragic hero alone for now, and focus on how Túrin conforms to this Aristotelian model. It’s a daunting enough task, so I appreciate your patience.

Túrin’s pride may be a fault and
essential part of who he is,
but that doesn’t mean it’s not his fault
when he builds a bridge to let the dragon in.

The “Aristotelian specifics for tragedy” Flieger lists are described in a treatise called the Poetics, written by Aristotle around 335 BC. The Poetics established a definition of tragedy and a description of the various elements Aristotle considered necessary for a “perfect” tragedy. It is essentially the book on Greek tragedy, and the earliest work of literary theory that survives to this day (to the Tolkien devotee, the Poetics can be thought of as the “On Fairy-Stories” of its time).1 As Flieger mentions, one of Aristotle’s examples of a perfect tragedy is another work tangential, but relevant, to the story of Túrin: the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, the tale of a Theban king attempting to flee his fate after a prophecy warned him he would kill his father and marry his mother.

I realize I’m playing with fire by citing Kullervo and Oedipus so early in the discussion. It’s always dangerous to “desire to see the bones of the ox” out of which the soup of story has been boiled, to borrow Tolkien’s appropriation of the words of George Webbe Dasent; for it gives no insight into what Tolkien believed truly mattered about a story: “the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot.” (“On Fairy-Stories,” Tree and Leaf, p. 19) However, given the utter lack of commentary about Túrin’s story by Tolkien himself, it seems necessary in this case to look at his inspirations to gain any insight. I feel somewhat justified in this partly because the one reference to Túrin in Tolkien’s published letters is in letter 131 to Milton Waldman, in which Tolkien cited Oedipus, Kullervo, and the Norse hero Sigurd as sources for the Túrin myth (of course, only after pointing out how “not very useful” such information is). At any rate, Tolkien suggests that Aristotelian tragedy was partly his intent with the story when he calls it in this letter “the tragic tale of Túrin Turambar and his sister Nínielof which Túrin is the hero.” Tolkien was always precise with words, so there is no question in my mind that the reference to Túrin as a “tragic hero” was intentional, and as a student of the classics (former student; though I daresay there’s really no such thing as a former student of the classics) Tolkien knew his Aristotle well enough to know exactly what those words meant.

For now, then, back to Flieger’s handy overview of Aristotle’s “specifics for tragedy.”  It may be helpful to break up Flieger’s paragraph and define the terms we’ll be using for these:

  • Change of Fortune (usually called catastrophe, though Aristotle’s word was metabasis) – a change in the hero’s status, always from good to bad in a tragedy.2
  • Reversal of the Situation (peripeteia) – by which the action of the story “veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.” (Poetics, 1452a)
  • Recognition (anagnorisis)a “change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune.” The best Recognitions, according to Aristotle, coincided with the Reversal of the Situation. (Poetics, 1452a)
  • Also in Aristotle but not mentioned by Flieger, the final Scene of Suffering (pathos) a “destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds and the like.” (Poetics, 1452b)

Because all stories are about action, Aristotle says, they must describe some change, and the best tragedies are those wherein the Change of Fortune is accompanied by a Reversal of the Situation, or a Recognition, or both. The example Aristotle uses from Oedipus Rex is this:

  • A messenger from Corinth comes to bring Oedipus “good news” of the death of his father by sickness. Oedipus has apparently escaped the prophecy by not killing him, and will now succeed his father as king of Corinth.
  • As Oedipus continues to speak with the messenger, he learns that he was adopted by the king of Corinth. Through further questioning, he learns that a traveler he killed on the road to Thebes years ago was his biological father, and the Theban woman he married is his biological mother (Recognition).
  • Thus, Oedipus unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy long ago (Reversal of the Situation).
  • In the final Scene of Suffering for Oedipus, we see that the hapless hero has, as Andy Serkis’ Gollum might say, “put out his eyeses”blinding himself rather than face a world he can no longer bear to look upon (Change of Fortune, Scene of Suffering).

The paragraph I quoted from Verlyn Flieger above points out that Kullervo’s story conforms to this Aristotelian pattern. However, it should already be clear from my synopsis of Oedipus’ downfall that Túrin’s story does as well. Here it is Mablung who plays the messenger, when he finds Túrin at the Crossings of Teiglin, intending to bring warning and aid to his old friend:

And Mablung hailed him, crying, ‘Túrin! Well met at last. I seek you, and glad I am to see you living, though the years have been heavy on you.’

‘Heavy!’ said Túrin. ‘Yes, as the feet of Morgoth. But if you are glad to see me living, you are the last in Middle-earth. Why so?’

‘Because you were held in honour among us,’ answered Mablung; ‘and though you have escaped many perils, I feared for you at the last. I watched the coming forth of Glaurung, and I thought that he had fulfilled his wicked purpose and was returning to his Master. But he turned towards Brethil, and at the same time I learned from wanderers in the land that the Black Sword of Nargothrond had appeared there again, and the Orcs shunned its borders as death. Then I was filled with dread, and I said: “Alas! Glaurung goes where his Orcs dare not, to seek out Túrin.” Therefore I came hither as swift as might be, to warn you and aid you.’
     (The Children of Húrin, pp. 253-4)

Mablung’s news backfires (Reversal) when Túrin demands news of his mother and sister, and is told by Mablung about losing them years ago (Recognition):

‘They went out into the wild seeking you,’ said Mablung. ‘It was against all counsel; but they would go to Nargothrond, when it was known that you were the Black Sword; and Glaurung came forth, and all their guard were scattered. Morwen none have seen since that day, but Niënor had a spell of dumbness upon her, and fled north into the woods like a wild deer, and was lost.’
     (The Children of Húrin, pp. 254-5)

…at which point Túrin realizes that Brandir (whom he’s just killed) was telling the truth about Níniel. As if to underscore the Aristotelian-Oedipal perfection at work here, Túrin condemns his own failure to see the truth sooner:

‘For see, I am blind! Did you not know? Blind, blind, groping since childhood in a dark mist of Morgoth!’
     (The Children of Húrin, p. 255)

But Túrin’s choice of self-inflicted agony in his Scene of Suffering, which closes out the story and brings about the final catastrophe, is a step further than Oedipus’ blindness. He throws himself onto the point of Gurthang to kill himself.

Túrin’s placement of blame on the “dark mist of Morgoth” is interesting here, and brings me to one of the main points I promised to discuss, which is Túrin’s responsibility for his own fate. Aristotle indicated that a perfect tragedy should not only have the plot elements described above, but that it should also feature a certain kind of protagonist:

It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes,—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.
     (Poetics, 1452b-3a, emphasis added)

The word Aristotle uses, translated here as “error or frailty,” is hamartia, which is frequently translated as “tragic flaw.” But in ancient Greek, the word could also mean not only ‘fault’ or ‘flaw,’ but also ‘error’ or ‘mistake,’ which reveals a distinct alternative meaning. A ‘flaw’ is an unfortunate imperfection that is part of something’s essential makeup. An otherwise perfect gem can be flawed due to circumstances of the creation of the rock it came from. A plan can be flawed despite the best intentions of its planners. But ‘error’ or ‘failure’ implies a degree of personal responsibility that is especially relevant in Túrin’s case.

The classic hamartia we learn about in school is pride: hubris in Greek (though Aristotle does not say this in Poetics).3 And certainly pride is a key personality trait in Túrin that leads him to make bad decisions, as we discussed extensively in the podcast. But I would stress again that hamartia can mean specific mistakes, individual errors of judgment arising from a key character trait such as pride, as much as it can mean that fundamental character flaw itself. And this is key to understanding Túrin’s responsibility in an Aristotelian sense, because his hamartia is not just some character flaw he cannot control. He is flawed as a character, certainly. But it is his actions as a result of this “tragic flaw” that lead him to commit multiple hamartiai, many errors, which lead to his ruin.

It’s a challenging distinction, made more challenging by the multiple meanings of the Greek word; but perhaps it’s helpful to think of the shades of meaning in the English word ‘fault’: one can have a character fault that leads them to bad decisions, but it is still that person’s fault when they make one. Túrin’s pride may be a fault and essential part of who he is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not his fault when he builds a bridge to let the dragon in.

And it must be this way, for the tragedy to be effective. Despite the fact that Oedipus Rex is often seen by modern readers as a tale of unavoidable fate, the celebrated Oxford classicist E.R. Dodds (a contemporary of Tolkien’s at Oxford) once pointed out that ancient Greeks did not distinguish between free will and deterministic fate the way we do. Analyzing Oedipus’ story extensively in a 1966 essay tellingly titled “On Misunderstanding the ‘Oedipus Rex,’”4 Dodds considers the character’s responsibility for his actions essential, saying “what fascinates us is the spectacle of a man freely choosing, from the highest motives, a series of actions which lead to his own ruin.” (p. 43)

This last point is key for understanding how we are meant to see Túrin, if he is a tragic hero: how we are meant to pity him and be afraid for him. A character flaw, however great, is likely to be seen by readers as either a smudge on an otherwise perfect character, or as a condemnable trait in a despicable one. This leads to arguments suggesting that Túrin is either a pure hero (footnote: “but he was cursed”) or a pure villain (footnote: “but he killed Glaurung”). But such blacks and whites are contrary to the nature of tragedy as defined by Aristotle. According to Aristotle, tragedies should inspire pity and fear in their audience, not simply shock (such as a story about a purely virtuous man brought down) nor simply evoke a sense of moral superiority (such as a story about a villain getting his just desserts). It is witnessing the foolish actions of a character “between these two extremes” that inspires pity and fear:

Pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves … a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.
     (Poetics, 1453a, emphasis added)

A character between the two extremes of pure virtue and pure wickedness. A character whose misfortune is (to a degree) unmerited. A character who is like ourselves, one we can relate to. Túrin is all of these things. And that is why it is so awful to watch him make mistake after mistake until he is undone. That is why his story inspires pity and fear. That is why his story works.

But why do we want to read it?

According to Aristotle, the purpose of reading such stories (or rather, viewing such plays at the theatre) was to effectuate the “proper purgation” of the emotions of pity and fear by viewing them in fiction. The word Aristotle used, still scrawled in the notebooks of secondary schoolers everywhere, is catharsis. Exactly what kind of “purgation” Aristotle intended has been debated by classicists for centuries and is outside the scope of this essay; but in general, it can be seen as a release of pent-up emotions, either to feel “emotionally spent” (certainly how I feel after reading Chapter 21 of The Silmarillion) or to restore emotional balance.

Viewed as the lattera restoration of balanceit may be seen as analogous to (but not the same as) the “recovery” Tolkien wrote about as the goal of fairy-stories in “On Fairy-Stories”. As tragedies lead one to catharsis through the depiction of catastrophe, fairy-stories lead one to recovery through the depiction of eucatastrophe: an inversion of the Aristotelian formula Tolkien was most certainly aware of when he coined this term.

But for that matter, why did Tolkien, an author who placed so much importance on happy endings that he coined a new term for them, include an Aristotelian tragedy in his legendarium, the opposite of a fairy-story? The eucatastrophe is right around the corner on the heels of Tuor and his descendants, after all; why would Tolkien subject us to such misery when we are so close to the epic conclusion?

As I started with a lengthy quote from Verlyn Flieger, I’ll respond to this question and finish with another. In Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (a work I cannot recommend highly enough) Flieger writes:

Light and dark are contending forces in Tolkien’s fiction, but the emotional weight is on the dark side. The presence and power of the dark are among the most effective elements in his mythology, for his vision of the light rides on the dark as sound rides on silence, as spoken words ride on the pauses between them. Each needs the other. The shadow defines and thereby reveals the light as the brightness of the light sharpens the shadow. Opposite points on the circle, they are held in tension by simultaneous attraction and repulsion. Their interdependence embodies all the polarities in Tolkien’s theme, for, as light cannot be known without darkness, so hope needs the contrast of despair to give it meaning, and free will opposes, yet is defined by, the concept of fate.
     (Splintered Light, pp. 4-5)

This is the role Túrin’s story plays in the legendarium: it is the darkness that reveals the brightness of the light. Superficially, this is most apparent at Eithel Ivrin, when the dark-haired, black-garbed Túrin crosses paths with his blond, shining-mailed cousin Tuor, walking in opposite directions and to diametrically opposed fates. When we see them together, even for a moment, we realize the contrast between them, and we see each for what he is. The same effect is achieved by the placement of Túrin’s story in the legendarium. With only eleven pages of The Silmarillion between them, the contrast between Túrin’s miserable ending and Tuor’s happy one is painfully evident.

But this contrast is there not just to show the characters themselves in such sharp relief. It serves a narrative purpose as well, and a mythic one. Túrin’s catastrophe highlights the coming eucatastrophe by depicting its opposite. It is a vision of how bleak and despair-ridden Middle-earth could be if Morgoth truly did become, in his own words, “Master of the fates of Arda.” (The Silmarillion, p. 197) Arda is our world; thus, more than just a shocking display of the power of evil or a moralizing cautionary tale, Túrin’s story is a glimpse of the misery we ourselves have been spared by the eucatastrophe that will soon end the First Age.

But as the end of every Age of Middle-earth teaches us, victory is always temporary, a little win against what Galadriel called “the long defeat.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 348) In writing the tragic tale of Túrin, Tolkien is like Galadriel, inviting us to look into the mirror to see what could have been, and what might yet be: to inspire fear in what might befall without the light, and to remind us to pity those who have succumbed to the darkness.

In fact there is more to the Poetics than just a study of tragedy; epic poetry is also discussed in what survives of the work, and another half of the work discussing comedy has been lost.

Throughout this essay I cite Aristotle’s Poetics using the standardized Bekker numbering system. The translation I use is the 1902 translation by Samuel Henry Butcher, available online here or as a free Kindle download from Amazon.com.

We often use the Old English equivalent ofermod at the Prancing Pony Podcast, due to Tolkien’s discussion of the word in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.

The Dodds essay referenced was published in the journal Greece & Rome in 1966, and is available online here.  H/T to listener Tom Hillman, who sent me this essay after our last Túrin podcast, just because he knew I’d love it. You’ll love Tom’s blog Alas, not me, so go check it out after you finish reading this essay.


4 thoughts on “Pity and Fear: the Tragic Tale of Túrin

  1. Shawn, a very nice piece of work. The parallel you draw between catharsis and recovery is right on the mark. I think you’re absolutely right. You should definitely follow that up and investigate it further. I think it’s a terrific idea and I don’t know that anybody has said this before. But now that you say it it seems so obvious.

    And speaking of being on the mark, the verb related to hamartia is, as you probably remember, is hamartano (ἁμαρτάνω), which means ‘to miss’ — as in to aim at something and miss. Both Turin and Oedipus both missed what they were aiming at rather badly.

    I also find the remark Turin makes about ‘heavy as the feet of Morgoth’ really fascinating since there are three characters in Turin’s tale who have problems with their feet, Sador, Morgoth, and Brandir. And of course who else of relevance to this discussion was supposed to have a limp? Oedipus.

    And thanks for the plug.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Tom. That parallel came to me while re-reading “On Fairy-Stories” and Poetics back to back, and as you say, it seemed so obvious; but I haven’t found anything on it. I think I would like to delve into it a bit further.

      That’s an excellent point about the verb hamartano. I wonder if both Túrin and Oedipus might have done better if they had selected their targets more wisely.


  2. Well, I definitely prefer the other, “whole” versions of the Narn from The History of Middle-Earth where they end up in Valinor after death.


    • That version certainly satisfies the desire to see our heroes redeemed, but I think it loses some of its tragic impact to see that redemption so definitively. If anything, I like the version of the Dagor Dagorath that has Túrin slay Morgoth, because at least it’s only a prophecy of hope for him.


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