Friday, May 6, 2011

Monsterous Hero?

What separates a cursed hero from a monster? Reading “Of Túrin Turambar” and the poem Kalevala, we see two great men, Túrin and Kullevro, one born cursed, the other born into horrible circumstances, who seek to overcome the circumstances of their birth but are ultimately unsuccessful. Through their actions, though good in intent, they bring ruin to the people who love them, many who counseled them against these very actions, and at the end of their trials they commit suicide; their swords gladly claim their lives. What I want to know is whether or not they are monsters. Neither is overtly evil, but none of their actions lead to positive ends. I would argue that Kullvero is a primarily tragic figure, whereas Túrin treads the line between good and possible evil.

Kullvero, born into enemy hands, has attempts on his life starting at three months of age, after a tumultuous childhood growing up among those that he hates and who hate him, he is sold into slavery and abused. This is a tragic story, and given his background, his maturation into brash, stupid adult, makes sense. He cannot do any of the work his family sets him to, because he doesn’t listen. On his way back from collecting taxes, he tries to seduce a number of women who all rebuff him, before dragging a beggar girl into his boat, showing off his wealth and then sleeps with her. She turns out o be his sister, and she commits suicide in shame. He then reports this news back to his family, and decides to kill Untamo, the man who sold him into slavery and killed his people. His brother, sister and father council him not to go, and say they will not cry for him when he’s gone and they will have another brother or son, a much better one who is cleverer and handsomer. Only his mother says she will cry for him, and councils him not to go. He ignores everyone’s advice and goes to fight. He is ultimately successful, but when he returns to his family, he finds them all dead, and in despair he asks his sword would be willing to take his life. He swords says yes, gladly, and Kullevro kills himself. At the end of the tale, Väinämöinen, a god of sorts, councils against giving away or mistreating children, because they “won’t grasp things/ have a man’s understanding/ though he should live to be old/ or should grow strong in body.”

Kullevro, tragic and stupid, is not a monster, just a fool. His actions spring from his abusive childhood, and the desire for revenge for those who wronged him. Revenge, however poorly carried out, does not make one a monster. Kullevro did not know where his actions would lead, and in contrast to Túrin, he did not have a curse over his family which at the very least should have alerted him to the possibilities of all of his actions going astray. His refusal of advice is motivated by pride, not ignorance. At age eight he was sent to be raised by elves, and became the foster son of the King. He lacked for nothing, but he still sought revenge on his enemies. In this I do not fault him, but most of his actions are motivated by pride, which always leads to doom. When Beleg comes to tell him that he was pardoned by the King, “the pride in the hear of Túrin refused the pardon of the King, and the words of Beleg were of no avail to change his mood.” He is given the choice to return to his foster home, from which he could continue his quest, but his pride keeps him in the wild, where more trouble befalls him and the men who follow him. Later, after much strife, when he is in Nargothrond, he become angry with Gwindor telling him “you have done ill to me, friend, to betray my right name, and call my doom upon me, from which I would lie hid.” He knows of the curse on his family and would seek to hide it from others. It is this action, he desire to hide his curse, that causes me to question his status as a hero.

Túrin knows the burdens of his name, and tries to overcome them, but tragedy after tragedy befalls him. His pride and arrogance lead to the destruction of Nargothrond, the results of which eventually lead to the destruction of the people of Haleth as well. Pride and ignorance are not the same; and pride coupled with knowledge that one is cursed does not a hero make. All of Túrin’s accomplishments result in pain and loss; he saves someone’s life only to accidentally kill his friend in rage. The monster in this story, Galurung is evil yes, but he isn’t hiding anything of his nature to others. He is acting in better faith that Túrin does. Even taking into account Galurung’s thrall of Nienor, Túrin’s actions still cause the doom of a number of people, which could have been averted had he been less prideful and more aware of what his curse was capable of. This is not to say that he should have sat at home, waiting to die, but whenever he meets a new people, he is accepted into their council, they accept his advice over the protests of others, and they are lead to their downfall. This might be his ultimate curse; were he to do nothing, awful things still would have befallen his loved things, but by trying to overcome, he is still led into doom. He may not be evil, but there is no way he could be considered good. To lead oneself into doom is one thing, but bringing other’s with you is quite another. Kullevro is ignorant, but well meaning. Túrin is well meaning, but knowledgeable. The former is a tragic fool, the latter is also a fool, but a darker sort. Not a monster, but perhaps monstrous.



  1. I think you bring up a good point about one of Tolkien’s more complex figures. One of the earlier posts mentioned the point that someone made in class of a monster needing a monster-slayer. In the case of Túrin and Glaurung, “monstrosity” seems to have bled across the hero/villain boundary, becoming a relation in which both enemies perish nearly simultaneously. Far from being the typical, valiant monster-slaying story (or the tragic, being-slain-by-monster story – see Fingolfin versus Morgoth), there is a sinister reciprocity to be found here. Though the dragon, the embodiment of evil, is the instigator of the antagonism, the hero himself is far from morally perfect – and his faults echo back to him in the dragon’s vicious words. One does not ultimately vanquish the other; Túrin and Glaurung destroy one another, each one monstered in the eyes of the other – Glaurung for obvious reasons, Túrin for the various family-based crimes that form his tragedy. Tolkien emphasizes this in the linguistic dimension of the tale – Túrin’s self-given surname, “Turambar,” is “master of doom,” and at his downful Nienor/Niniel cries, A Túrin Turambar turun ambartanen – master of doom by doom mastered! This lovely-sounding paradox encapsulates Túrin’s fate, and the imperfection of his heroism, which, in the end, is certainly a kind of moral monstrosity.

  2. This is a fantastic point! I've always found Turin's moral complexities fascinating, especially when they're combined with the inescapable tragedies that seem to follow him. He's fated to cause the horrors that he does, no matter how hard he strives against him -- and, personally, I don't think he's a monster. Morally grey, yes. Possibly even bordering on evil. But not a monster -- to be a monster, I think he would have to be acting without any good faith at all. His intentions would have to be evil, where Turin does try to do good, even if it is always doomed to fail. -MJ

  3. Whether we consider Turin to be a hero or a monster (or indeed, somewhere in between) depends on the definition of “monster” that we all struggled with in discussion. Glaurung is undoubtedly a monster, one of the best monsters in all of Tolkien in my opinion, because he’s not the sort of guy with hidden plans like Morgoth, but rather he’s evil and he loves it. Turin, on the other hand, is more a Byronic hero, rather than a monster, because he is a sympathetic character. Yes, he commits acts of evil, and yet these acts are never of his own volition, and many times the murders stay with him (“[the death of Beleg] was graven on the face of Turin and never faded”). There is also a section from one of the earlier readings where Turin physically as well as mentally decays from the acts he has committed. So I think Turin as an “anti-hero” character rather than a “monster” is a more fitting description. The poor guy was cursed by the Darkest of Lords, after all, and I think Tolkien meant for this to be the case because of the prophecy of Turin’s fate to be the slayer of Morgoth. I think this is especially important. That Turin, the one who was most grievously afflicted by Morgoth’s curse, shall be the one who avenges Hurin and all the children of Men, seems to indicate a sympathetic fate to his character, rather than one who is just doomed for being a bad dude and killing himself.

    -James T.

  4. Given that Tolkien purposefully rewrote the story of Kullervo in his account of Turin, why do you think he changed the central character in the way that he did? You are definitely right about the complexities of Turin's faults: what was it, do you think, that Tolkien was trying to show through Turin's "doom"?


  5. Well if I may defend Turin a bit… no, he was not blameless in all of his deeds, but he was after all cursed. Also, he had the worst kind of the curse—one that was not specified. All that others know is that his father might be alive as a captive of Melkor and there was some curse or another put upon him and his house. Likewise, all Turin knew was that some said a doom followed him. What was he to do, hide himself away as a recluse for the rest of his days because some people say there is a dark cloud over him? The full truth of the matter was not known to] any but Morgoth. For Turin’s crimes, be can be condemned for the murders of Brandir as well as Brodda and his people. However, the latter was an ally of Morgoth and his death can be seen a retribution for his misdeeds towards the house of Hador. Turin should be blamed for any unspoken ills he committed against good people while an outlaw, but we really don’t know how bad he was in that capacity. Blameworthy, but not criminal, was his neglect to seek out his mother and sister as intended when he left Doriath. This last thing was probably the most damning of all his deeds or rather lack of action. Had he found his family and brought them back to Doriath or anywhere, the most foul tragedy between him and his sister would never have happened.
    The rest of his alleged misdeeds were either true accidents or not entirely his fault. The deaths of Beleg and Saeros were accidental. He did not seek to steal the affection of Finduilas. He had no idea Niniel was his sister and he did not have an Oedipal prophecy to tell him that such foul coupling was in his future. The destruction of Nargothrond was due to a bad call on his part, but who was king of Nargothrond after all. Orodreth clearly could have, and probably should have, chosen to take Ulmo’s council over Turin’s.
    Turin’s pride, impetuousness, and volatile temper was clearly a problem for him and those around him. However, his intentions were usually good. The ill events of his life, as well as those close to him, were hardly deliberate insofar as he could not have foreseen them happening. Note that Gwindor said that “the doom lies within yourself, not in your name.” One can take those words to mean that his curse was his own personal failings of pride and poor self control, and not necessarily some shadowy hand of Melkor.
    Turin was a flawed man, overly proud, and probably a bit of a jerk, but also with truly wretched luck. His tragedy was that of man who spent his life running away from who he was, forsaking his name and his past; at once over-proud and ashamed. Perhaps his curse what just this inner conflict. The punishment for betraying his identity and self loathing was the slow and tortuous destruction of his life. Had he openly acceptd all that he was, son of Hurin and lover foster-son of Thingol, then many of the event s might have turned out differently. He was hardly a saint, but the label monstrous might be too harsh.

    -Jason A Banks

  6. In regards to Turin’s status as a hero or “monstrous hero”, I think an earlier comment by James grapples the issue at its heart—“he commits acts of evil, and yet these acts are never of his own volition”. While this statement is not entirely true (he did, by his own choice, live as a violent outlaw for many years—and not the friendly Robin Hood sort of outlaw either), for the most part Turin committed evils only with the hope of achieving good. And what sort of monster lacks evil intent?

    In our class discussion, I believe the general consensus was that beasts (creatures that commit evil only for the sake of their own survival, and who indeed lack conceptions of good or bad) cannot be monsters. This is due in part to a certain amount of innocence or unaccountability that they can necessarily claim in any of their “evil” acts. I think that Turin can also claim this plea of innocence, because he was doomed from the get-go. Can he be condemned for acting, despite his knowledge that all his acts were cursed? Rather than submitting to his tragic fate, he tried instead to live in spite of it. In doing this, he did indeed commit sins and atrocities. But I think his overarching struggle against his destiny—with its few successes and numerous failures—make him neither hero nor monster, but instead one of the most humane characters we’ve studied thus far.

    -Jessica Adepoju

  7. Not entirely on the topic of monsters, but I think all of these comments point to an interesting question about the legendarium... considering 'free will' to be a hallmark of the Children of Iluvatar, why are there so many 'dooms' prophesied (or cursed)? A doom implies a fate that cannot be escaped, regardless of the choices made. We see it with the doom of the Noldor, we see it in Turin's struggles, and in a lesser (positive) way, we see it with Tuor's journey to Gondolin. In each, the protagonist(s) seem to have free will, and yet every choice made inevitably leads towards the fate determined for them. This debate over Turin's choices points to another interesting part; does this doom/inevitability stem from a personality facet, or from a manipulation of fate? Is it inevitable because the protagonist in a given situation will only act one way, and so it's predicted, or because it is fated? For example, are Turin's actions costly because of his curse, or because his pride leads him to act certain ways? Another one; is Tuor's journey to Gondolin symptomatic of his personality and his chosen responses to Ulmo's portents, or is Ulmo playing a more direct role in fulfilling the prophesy of Earendil's birth?
    I think that this might have been a reason Tolkien changed the story of Kullevro to ... in particular Turin's epitaph points to his role: "Master of doom by doom mastered" as exploration of free will vs. fate. Kullevro's story as written does not have this element to it.

  8. I am in LOVE with Turin's character!!!
    So much that I even wrote my SOSC midterm paper on a freudian reading of him!

    The essay, which is some 10 pages long would be too long to post here, but I will paste below the most important points in the essay;

    Just a few notes on the three most important Freudian concepts used in the analysis;

    1. the unconscious, is subdivided into two sections; The Preconscious and the Id.

    That which “is only latent, and thus easily becomes conscious” of which we call the ‘preconscious’, from that which is permanently hidden from us, of which we “retain the term ‘unconscious’” (Dissection, 89) per say, and of which we recognise as the ‘id’.

    2. the super-ego;

    It “represents the claims of morality” and “is in fact constructed on the model not of its parents but of its parents’ super-ego; the contents which fill it are the same and it becomes the vehicle of tradition and of all the time-resisting judgements of value which have propagated themselves in this manner from generation to generation.”

    That is to say, one’s super-ego will reflect the education by which one has grown up with, and will, often times, function as an inhibiting force in relation to the unconscious.

    3. the ego;

    the ego functions, simply put, as a moderator between the above two resulting in one’s perceived personality, which is in turn, reflected in one’s actions.


    Alright, now back to the interpretation of this enigmatic character;
    (I'll try to be as concise as possible)

    Programme/Thesis of paper;

    As a result of the loss of his father, Túrin is left with a weakened ego which, as a result, tends to favour his unconscious instincts without taking much heed as to the inhibitions which would otherwise had been imposed by his super-ego. We therefore observe several shifts in Túrin’s mental apparatus which are marked not only by a change in his actions, but also by a change in his identity - that is, by a change in his name. Understanding these shifts upon a freudian standpoint will allow the reader to understand the logic behind the unfolding of events that occur in the tale, as well as, the symbolism contained in its tragic ending upon the realisation of a fraternal Oedipus complex.

    Rough conclusions arrived at throughout the body paragraphs;

    - Firstly Beleg, and the Gwindor function as Turins super-ego. (Since he was lacking that psychical structure from childhood due to having been segregated from his parents.

    - Once these men are both dead, Turin is put to the test and we see whether he has strengthened his ego to be able to exert healthy functioning. (i.e. to mediate between his id (impulses) and super-ego (moral values)). Test; Will he save Finduilas? Or surrender to his inherent Oedipus complex by trying to rescue his mother/sister?

    Answer; Falls back to Oedipus complex. - Finduilas dead.

    - Thus he decides to "“remain in Brethil hidden, and put his shadow behind him, forsaking the past. He took therefore a new name, Turambar, which in the High-elven speech signified Master of Doom” (Silmarillion, 260)
    i.e. decides to completely shut down his super-ego (his societal role, identity, and any moral expectation of him)

    Outcome; Thus he is left with only a functioning id. (source of his impulses, which will find no more resistance from his dysfunctional super-ego).

    - Glaurung as a symbol of his id, leading him to his sister Nienor, whereby the Oedipus complex may be put into effect unknowingly (as is expected of an unconscious process).

    - One fine day Turin decides to slay Glaurung (his id) and assume his identity as Turin son of Hurin. (That is, he puts his super-ego back into functioning). The incest is no longer unconscious, and its content clashes with the content of his super-ego. Thus, can only find solution to his existence in suicide. Death by sword.

    - Conclusion;
    Freudian prophecy fulfilled - “Where id was, there ego shall be.”


    - J.Machado