Reading Oedipus Rex my freshman year of college was very…interesting. I would describe it as a traumatizing experience, except that I wasn’t traumatized. I even wrote a class essay on the topic, and survived.
(I later learned what school-induced trauma truly is—unwisely choosing the Black Death as the subject of a technology presentation, being required to include a video clip, and finding one so disturbing that I dreaded bedtime for a week. Oedipus, mercifully, made me imagine very little in the way of plague victims lurking in dark corners.)
In any case, I understand why Freud named a disorder after the play. But Oedipus intrigued me, as well. I contended, against my teacher’s opinion, that Oedipus was not a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense—that Oedipus fell more because of fate than through any “tragic flaw” of his own. My teacher took the opposite opinion (I would say that my essay grade showed it, but a lack of structure was more likely responsible). Still, I think we both recognized that there was room for disagreement. Oedipus was indeed impulsive and too easily angered. Most impulsive people, however, do not accidentally kill their fathers and marry their mothers. In Oedipus, fate and folly collude.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin is a similar story in some of its themes, though not in tone or setting. Published in 2007 thanks to the editing work of Tolkien’s son Christiopher, The Children of Húrin describes the tragedy of Túrin Turambar, son to the war hero Húrin the Steadfast, whom Morgoth cursed. The Silmarillion contains the story in a briefer version, but The Children of Húrin provides a fuller understanding of Túrin’s actions and motives. The two accounts largely agree, but there are a few differences—the depth of Mîm the Petty-dwarf’s treachery, for one.
In The Silmarillion, more space was given to Túrin’s misfortunes, and less to Túrin himself. The Children of Húrin does justice to the references in The Lord of the Rings about Túrin’s heroism. While much of what Túrin attempts ends in failure, his brief successes prove that Túrin, tragic through he is, deserves respect.
Writes Christopher Tolkien, “Morgoth is not ‘invoking’ evil or calamity on Húrin and his children, he is not ‘calling on’ a higher power to be the agent: for he, ‘Master of the fates of Arda’ as he named himself to Húrin, intends to bring about the ruin of his enemy by the force of his own gigantic will. Thus he ‘designs’ the future of those whom he hates.”
Embodied in Túrin is the same contradiction faced by Oedipus—a sort of paradox between fate and free will. Túrin certainly has been cursed by Morgoth, and it is Morgoth’s dragon Glaurung who ultimately ruins Túrin’s life. Yet Morgoth, whatever he claims, is not all-powerful. Túrin, once taken in by the Elven-king Thingol as a foster-son, is hidden from Morgoth while he lives in Thingol’s realm of Doriath. The story offers reason to think that if Túrin had stayed in Doriath, the entire calamity might have been averted. And staying in Doriath is Thingol’s strong recommendation.
But Túrin‘s “tragic flaw” is pride—a rash pride of the sort that won’t listen to counsel. Outside of Doriath, such a flaw might be blamed on the shadow of Morgoth. But inside Doriath, hidden from Morgoth’s sight, Túrin makes the same mistakes. And at one point in his life Morgoth fears that Túrin will grow so strong that Morgoth’s curse will fail.
Messengers come to the Elven city where Túrin lives for a time, and they warn him about his refusal to hear counsel, reminding him of how his ancestors respected the advice of the Elves. “You, it seems,” says one, “will take counsel with your own wisdom, or with your sword only; and you speak haughtily. And I say to you…that if you do so, other shall be your doom than one of the Houses of Hador and Bëor might look for.”
“Other it has ever been,” says Túrin. And so it is—whether because of Morgoth’s curse, or the stubbornness of Túrin himself, I cannot say. I am inclined to think the latter.
Túrin is not the only one to exhibit this flaw. He takes after his mother Morwen, who refuses to listen to wise counsel, just as he does. And even Túrin’s best friend, the Elf Beleg Strongbow, fails to listen to Melian, the queen of Doriath, who warns Beleg that the sword he wanted was dangerous and would not stay with him long. Beleg, normally wiser, took the sword anyway, and it later caused his death and took Túrin’s life. All caused by the curse? Perhaps.
I did not read The Children of Húrin for the lesson in it. And Tolkien was not the sort of man to start a work of fiction from a desire to instruct. Yet Túrin’s story does instruct. First, we cannot control fate—that is, providence. Our lives are not our own. But, second, we can create far more misery than necessary if we choose to be self-absorbed. We are not in Morgoth’s hands; we are in God’s. He orders all things for our ultimate good. How he does that, and what our “ultimate good” is anyway, are topics for another day. But Túrin reminds us of this, at least—we cannot escape unpleasant circumstances by stubbornly asserting our own will. Submission is the only way to freedom.