Title image: “Tuor and Ulmo” by Renato Domingos
What makes a hero? Is it fate? Divine favor? Special powers? Dogged perseverance? Glorious deeds? Exceptional virtue? Despite the ubiquity of heroes in literature and society, it is not easy to define the term. Heroes are the canvas onto which humans project their (sometimes contradictory) aspirations and ideals. Heroes can be the individuals we hold above us or the ones we hold up as models for right behavior. Heroes can be exceptional or everyday people.
Literary heroes typically follow patterns to better communicate the meaning behind them. Usually, these tropes are repeated within a given tradition or culture. Though there is always internal variation, it is not controversial to say that Marvel superheroes do not adhere to the exact same heroic model as, say, medieval Arthurian romance, or the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. In fact, many who are immersed in one heroic tradition may well be repulsed by the heroes of another.
Today I’m going to look at two heroes from the wider mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, based primarily on the Silmarillion and other similar sources published after his death: Túrin and Tuor, among the first of the great heroes of humanity, cousins by birth. Their stories have eerie parallels to each other, making them excellent foils to each other. For those not familiar with the term, a foil is a literary term referring to two characters who are different in specific ways that contrast something important. Tolkien made extensive use of this technique: Gandalf and Saruman, Boromir and Faramir, Théoden and Denethor, Arwen and Éowyn, and so many more. These specific character oppositions provide an implicit narrative tension that can drive the story and emphasize the elements most important to it. For example, without the tragic temptation and fall of Boromir, Faramir’s later decision to reject the Ring would have a lot less impact. I’d like to discuss the ways that the stories of Túrin and Tuor in fact embody the conflict between two incompatible models of heroism within Tolkien’s fantasy universe, and are fundamental to understanding the dynamics of his world. They also tie into a larger conversation about his relationship with mythological heroes writ large.
The stories of both of these heroes are scattered throughout published material in several versions. The abbreviated forms are in the Silmarillion, but more detailed versions are available in Unfinished Tales. There is also a fantastic edition of The Tale of the Children of Húrin available which offers a definitive presentation of the epic of Túrin, and the end of August this year will see the release of an edition of The Fall of Gondolin, which promises a full telling of the story of Tuor as Tolkien had intended but never finished before his death. The best way to highlight the dynamic mentioned above is to examine both of their stories side by side, so the divergences become all the more apparent.
Túrin was the son of Húrin and Morwen, the scion of two of the great noble families of the humans who allied with the Elves against the Dark Lord Morgoth in the First Age. From the very beginning his story was marred by tragedy and woe, when his beloved little sister named Lalaith (Laughter) died from a plague. At the tender age of eight his father went off to fight in the fateful campaign that would be known as the Battle of Unnumbered Tears (Nírnaeth Arnoediad), and as he and his brother Huor fought a last stand to allow the Elven King Turgon of Gondolin to escape, he was captured and tortured by Morgoth, who laid a special curse on him and his descendants. This curse would follow Túrin and his sister Nienor for all of their lives, with the Dark Lord and his servants continually interfering in their affairs to maximize their suffering, all while their father Húrin, granted supernatural vision (albeit distorted) by Morgoth, watched helplessly from his prison in Angband.
With the defeat, the lands of the House of Hador were annexed by the humans who sided with the Dark Lord, and the people were enslaved. Morwen, eager to protect her children from this fate, used her intimidating presence and support from loyalist slaves to spread rumors among the invaders that she was a powerful witch, which allowed her to remain unmolested in her home. However, she decided to send the young Túrin to the Elven Kingdom of Doriath to the south, a mighty realm protected by powerful magic, so that he might have an upbringing befitting his noble lineage. Túrin said he did not wish to be parted from his mother and sister, and Morwen responded:
“Would you not rather be a king’s guest than a thrall?”
“I do not know,” said Túrin, “I do not know what a thrall is.”
“I am sending you away so that you need not learn it.”
Túrin was escorted to Doriath by two elderly servants of his family, and was adopted by the mighty King Thingol. But he never forgot his family, who refused to abandon the home of his father, and he eagerly began a career of military service in Doriath in order to strike back at their foes. During that time he made a name for himself and befriended the great elf warrior Beleg Strongbow.
Tuor, eight years junior to his cousin Túrin, was born to Rían wife of Huor right after the news of the dreadful defeat at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears reached them. Rían fled into the wilderness and sought the aid of the Elves living in a remote part of Mithrim. She entrusted her son to their care and went to seek her husband – and died of grief when she found the enormous pile of dead on the battlefield. With neither mother nor father, Tuor was raised by the Elves, who educated him well, despite their humble home in a cave in the wilderness. Like Túrin, he wished to lash out at the evil that plagued his world:
… his heart grew hot within him at the tale of the griefs of his people, and he wished to go forth and avenge them on the Orcs and Easterlings. But Annael forbade this. “Far hence, I deem, your doom lies, Tuor son of Huor,” he said. “And this land shall not be freed from the shadow of Morgoth until Thangorodrim itself be overthrown…”
– Unfinished Tales
We can already see the paths of the heroes diverging at the earliest stages of their lives. Túrin was given a life of nobility and luxury, and allowed to indulge his thirst for vengeance against his enemies alongside a legendary Elven warrior. Tuor, however, was raised in a humble environment, and isolated from the push to avenge kith and kin. He still learned the path of the warrior – the text mentions he favored the axe and bow like his Elven foster-family, but Annael and the other Elves taught him that mere force of arms would not suffice to free the world from the evil that afflicted it.
But the divergence did not stop there. As Tuor and his Elven foster-family attempted to escape south to a safer place, they were attacked and worsted, and Tuor was captured and enslaved:
“Hard and bitter then was his life; for it pleased Lorgan to treat Tuor the more evilly as he was of the kin of the former lords, and he sought to break, if he could, the pride of the House of Hador. But Tuor saw wisdom, and endured all pains and taunts with watchful patience; so that in time his lot was somewhat lightened…”
Where Túrin was sent to live as a prince in order to escape the misery of servitude, Tuor was forced to endure it. Tuor experienced firsthand the suffering in the world, instilling in him a patience and humility that his cousin never learned. This was the key difference in their characters, and its significance would continue to echo throughout their sagas. Tuor learned how to exercise prudence and caution, two skills that would serve him well in the time to come.
Living as Outlaws
Túrin’s newfound fame at the court of Doriath won him at least one enemy, Saeros, who mocked him and his kin openly, to which Túrin responded by violently hurling a cup at him. Later, Saeros attacked him in the woods, but Túrin overcame him and forced him to run naked from him in shame. In the course of his flight, Saeros fell to his death in a river (a symbolic scene – keep an eye out for further references to water and especially rivers!). Túrin, facing trial, chose instead to exile himself from Doriath, as he refused to live as a prisoner.
After he learned the truth of what happened, Thingol forgave Túrin, but he was already gone. His friend Beleg swore to find him and bring him back, if he could. After he left Doriath, Túrin joined a desperate band of outlaws who preyed on all who passed by, regardless of allegiance. Here he took up his first pseudonym, Neithan, “The Wronged.” As we shall see, Túrin repeatedly took up false names and identities in order to avoid the cursed fate that hounded him. Túrin killed the outlaw leader when he found him about to assault a woman, and seized leadership of the outlaws, commanding them to move away from settled lands so that this sort of evil might not happen again. When Beleg eventually found Túrin and told him of Thingol’s forgiveness, he stubbornly refused to accept it out of sheer, unyielding pride. Beleg was crushed, and returned to Doriath. Even so, as a result of this meeting Túrin swore that his band would only ever take up arms against the servants of Morgoth from that time forth.
Beleg eventually returned, this time to stay with Túrin and protect him if he would not come back to Doriath of his own volition. He brought the Dragon-helm of Dor-lómin with him, an heirloom of Túrin’s ancestors. Túrin took up the name Gorthol, “The Dread Helm,” and together they became renowned as heroes against the forces of darkness, with many flocking to their banner. However, one day Mîm the dwarf, who had once been captured and spared by Túrin in exchange for his hidden hill-cave home, was captured by spies of Morgoth and betrayed the outlaws in exchange for his life, asking only that Túrin be spared. Túrin and his band, ambushed by orcs, were defeated, and he was taken captive. Beleg survived, and though injured hurried after Túrin and his captors. While on the way, he encountered the Elf Gwindor of Nargothrond, who had escaped from the mines of Angband after years as a slave. Together they found Túrin and rescued him in the night, but because of the darkness, and the panic from noticing someone with a drawn blade above him, he lashed out and killed his friend Beleg:
“But as he stood, finding himself free, and ready to sell his life dearly against imagined foes, there came a great flash of lightning above them; and in its light he looked down on Beleg’s face. Then Túrin stood stonestill and silent, staring on that dreadful death, knowing what he had done; and so terrible was his face, lit by the lightning that flickered all about them, that Gwindor cowered down upon the ground and dared not raise his eyes.”
“Túrin Kills Beleg” by Ted Nasmith
One of the iconic moments of the saga, Túrin’s curse of distorted perception as well as his quick recourse to violence led him to inadvertently murder his closest friend. So ended his time as an outlaw: with betrayal, and wracked by guilt and despair.
After enduring three years of slavery, Tuor took advantage of the trust of his captors to suddenly turn on them and escaped alone back to the cave where he was raised, becoming the bane of all orcs and wicked humans who passed through. Not much is written of the four years he spent thus, except that he was impossible to track, since during his time as a slave he had befriended the hunting dogs of the warlord Lorgan, and they would simply greet him when they found him and then return home.
Though both heroes chose the path of the outlaw in order to escape a state of subjection, Túrin’s was based on a misunderstanding, and worsened by his stubborn pride. He fought alongside wicked men, and was complicit in violence against innocent people until his change of heart. Once reunited with Beleg, he showed his valor and began to win great victories and won many to his side. Tuor, in contrast, trod a solitary path, fighting only servants of the Dark Lord, and never for glory.
Tuor’s time as an outlaw ended very differently from Túrin’s. Guided by mysterious signs in a river (!), he traveled to the west and encountered two Elves, Gelmir and Arminas, who helped direct him when he was lost (they will be important later). He traveled to the land of Nevrast by the sea, the former realm of King Turgon, which he had abandoned when he moved his people to the Hidden Kingdom of Gondolin. Here Tuor found more solitude, and remained for the better part of a year in peace by the sea until seven swans appeared and honked angrily at him, which again he took as a sign that it was time to move on. The swans’ flight path led him to the deserted halls of Vinyamar, where he found arms and armor that had been left behind by Turgon centuries ago for a prophesied hero.
Tuor claimed this gear, and as he left Vinyamar the Vala Ulmo, Lord of Waters, appeared to him. Ulmo explained that Tuor was his chosen herald, and taught him the truth of the history of the Elves who fought against Morgoth, of their Fall and Doom. He declared that Tuor would go to the Hidden Kingdom of Gondolin and deliver his message. In a fantastically descriptive passage, Ulmo blew his horn and for an instant Tuor was granted the expanded perspective of the Vala himself, sensing the entirety of the world through its waters – a perfect contrast to the distorted perception that continually plagued Túrin. Then he brought Tuor a guide, the elf Voronwë of Gondolin, who had been sent on an expedition to the West by Turgon to beg for assistance, and had been shipwrecked. When he met Tuor, at first he mistook him for an Elven lord, before he realized his mistake.
“For surely a king of Men you must be, and many must wait upon your word.”
“Nay, I am an escaped thrall,” said Tuor, “and I am an outlaw alone in an empty land.”
Tuor was of noble birth, but never knew his family. He was raised among Elves in the wilderness and for many years had lived a solitary life. Humility thus became instilled in him, in stark contrast to the overweening pride of Túrin. Thus, the circumstances of these cousins’ upbringings affected the paths they took through life. Superficial similarities abound – as we have seen, both spent time among Elves and as outlaws, but the details emphasize how very different these two were – differences that would abruptly become even more pronounced.
The Downfall of Elf-Kingdoms
By this point in the First Age, most of the Elven kingdoms established by the Noldor, the exiles from the West, had collapsed. Only Nargothrond, ruled by Orodreth in the southwest, and Gondolin, ruled by Turgon and concealed deep within mountain valleys in the north, remained. Túrin and Tuor would bear witness to the final destruction of both of these realms, with the Grey-Elven kingdom of Doriath to follow not long after.
After accidentally murdering Beleg, Túrin fell into despair, but allowed Gwindor to lead him to the Pools of Ivrin, which were blessed by Ulmo. The waters healed him of the anguish that afflicted him, marking the first instance in his story where water brought some good into his life. Gwindor gave him the cursed black sword that Beleg had carried and led him to the Kingdom of Nargothrond, his homeland. There Túrin took the name Agarwaen, son of Úmarth (The Bloodstained, son of Ill-fate), though most took to calling him Mormegil (The Blacksword), because of the blade he wielded.
At Nargothrond Túrin won much acclaim because of his valor in battle, and soon he overshadowed even the king in popularity. The princess Finduilas, who had been in love with Gwindor before his imprisonment in Angband, fell in love with Túrin against her will, and Gwindor secretly told her of Túrin’s true identity in order to warn her away from the cursed hero. Túrin did not take this lightly:
“you have done ill to me, friend, to betray my right name, and call my doom upon me, from which I would lie hid.”
“The doom lies in yourself, not in your name.”
Gwindor understood Túrin better than he himself did. Túrin thought that it was his name and therefore his lineage that carried his curse, blaming it on external causes. But Gwindor saw that the malevolent influence of Morgoth was not the sole explanation for the woe that followed Túrin everywhere he went – it was also the flaws in his character that sowed discord and courted annihilation. Gwindor saw Túrin for what he was: the living embodiment of the self-destructive ideal of martial pride.
Túrin called for the Elves of Nargothrond to abandon the guerrilla warfare they had taken to and instead to defy Morgoth openly. Though the king and Gwindor opposed him, he had too much influence, and the hearts of the Elves were stirred by the sentiments of glory that he invoked. Túrin had a great bridge built in front of the fortress-capital so that their armies could be mobilized more easily, and soon Nargothrond, led de facto by Túrin, had cleared the lands of orcs.
At that point, the Elves Gelmir and Arminas, who had met Tuor on his way to Nevrast, arrived in Nargothrond with a dire warning from Ulmo: they must destroy the bridge outside the fortress (literally saying “cast the stones of your pride into the river”), or else Nargothrond would fall. Túrin mocked this message, saying that if others wanted to offer counsel then they should take action against the Dark Lord themselves.
Naturally, having defied the divine warning, Nargothrond’s armies were soon routed by the forces of the dragon Glaurung. Orodreth was killed, and Gwindor was mortally wounded. Gwindor’s last words to Túrin were that he must rescue Finduilas from capture by the orcs – for
“she alone stands between thee and thy doom. If thou fail her, it shall not fail to find thee.”
These words were not merely romantic – once more Gwindor showed his prophetic tendencies, as he predicted that Túrin could still potentially avert his doom. And it was no coincidence that Finduilas was the way out: pairings between Elven women and human men in the First Age were rare but filled with significance, always marking a major shift in fate. Beren and Lúthien were just the first, when they moved the unmovable Mandos to pity and returned from death. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Gwindor nicknamed Finduilas “Faelivrin,” meaning the sparkling of the sun on the waters of the Pool of Ivrin, where Túrin had once found healing. The association of Finduilas with enchanted water (and therefore Ulmo) marked her as a benign presence, a force for good. But Túrin showed no signs of romantic attraction to her, and though he heeded Gwindor’s last request and rushed to save her, Glaurung the dragon cast a spell on him to freeze him in place and distort his understanding, tricking him into seeking his sister and mother instead. Finduilas was carried off as a prisoner by the orcs, and her cries to Túrin went unheeded.
“Of Túrin and Glaurung” by EthalenSkye (Deviantart)
Túrin fled from the sack of Nargothrond, goaded by the guile of Glaurung into seeking his family, little knowing that they had left for Doriath long ago. In his homeland for the first time since childhood, he took the opportunity to confront and kill the warlord Brodda, who had forcibly married Aerin, a woman of the House of Hador. Aerin reproached Túrin for his rashness, warning him that this had doomed her and many others of their people to death. Túrin mocked her for what he perceived as her cowardice and left with the few remaining men who had the strength to travel. One of them, Asgon, spoke yet another warning to him:
“Many a man of arms misreads patience and quiet. She did much good among us at much cost. Her heart was not faint, and patience will not break at the last.”
In vain, Túrin searched for Finduilas, but he was too late. She had been killed by the orcs when a group of woodsmen attacked the warband. On the way there, he had stopped at the Pools of Ivrin one last time, perhaps hoping to make use again of the healing powers of the waters. But the pools were defiled by the dragon, ruined just as had been Nargothrond and Finduilas. There was to be no turning back for Túrin.
This was, curiously, the only moment that both Túrin and Tuor would be in the same place at the same time. Unbeknownst to Túrin, Tuor and his guide Voronwë were watching as the dark hero passed, concealed by the magical cloak of Ulmo. For Tuor to have witnessed Túrin after one of his greatest failures heading to an even darker doom, while he sought out the city of Gondolin and the last hope of the world, emphasized the ways his narrative had had avoided so many of the pitfalls encountered by his unfortunate cousin.
Voronwë faithfully led Tuor to Gondolin, where he delivered the warning of Ulmo. Though Turgon appreciated the gravity of the occasion, since Tuor even appeared in the very armor Ulmo had instructed him to leave behind centuries ago, he rejected the counsel:
“But Turgon was become proud, and Gondolin as beautiful as a memory of Elven Tirion, and he trusted still in its secret and impregnable strength, though even a Vala should gainsay it…”
Turgon took the opposite path that Túrin had done at Nargothrond, opting for total isolationism, even going so far as to block off the only tunnel leading beyond the mountains. Yet Tuor was held in high favor, and won much respect from the Elves of Gondolin for his wisdom. He married Idril Celebrindal, the daughter of the king, becoming the second union between Elf and Man.
But the doom of Gondolin was inescapable. As Túrin’s story reached its tragic conclusion, Morgoth released his father Húrin, and he inadvertently betrayed the general location of the Hidden Kingdom to him. It was only a matter of time before one of Gondolin’s great nobles, the miner and craftsman Maeglin, was captured by Morgoth and tortured into revealing the city’s location. In the end, Maeglin readily agreed to betray his city, because he secretly lusted after Idril, and hated Tuor. Morgoth promised him that when the city fell she would be his. This treachery wrought the doom of the city. It is worth noting here that the sword of Maeglin, Anguirel, was the twin of the sword Anglachel, wielded by Beleg and then Túrin. Both held the malice of their original smith, Maeglin’s father Eöl. Thus the two sagas intertwined on another level.
Gondolin was destroyed in fire. Turgon and other great warriors died fighting against endless hordes of foes. Tuor himself killed the traitor Maeglin while he was attempting to kidnap Idril and their son. The warning of Ulmo that Tuor had brought did not go entirely unheeded, however – his wife Idril had prepared a secret escape from the city, and she, Tuor, their young son, and a small number of survivors escaped the destruction. The fates of Gondolin and Nargothrond embody the price of arrogance: whether you seek to directly confront evil or ignore it, it will find you, and use your very strengths against you. The Bridge of Nargothrond, symbol of its military might, made it all too easy for Glaurung to attack and destroy the city. The isolation of Gondolin, thought to make it utterly impregnable, made escape impossible for all but the few Idril and Tuor were able to save.
“Flight of the Doomed” by Ted Nasmith
To tie into the notion of the heroes being influenced by disparate powers, it’s worth noting that each of them were given an Elven guide to show them their path. Túrin’s guide, Gwindor, came to him from the pits of Angband, the wretched realm of Morgoth. Voronwë, on the other hand, came to Tuor from the sea, protected by Ulmo. The origins of each guide show the general course that was determined for the hero. That being said, Gwindor was far from evil – he continually tried to turn Túrin down a better path, but to no avail. After Tuor reached Gondolin, no further details about Voronwë were written, so further comparison is impossible. But as this demonstrates, the guide is an important element of a hero’s saga.
Content warning: the following section contains mentions of suicide and incest. If you wish to avoid it, please scroll down until you find another line of squigglies giving an all-clear.
After finding Finduilas slain, Túrin fell into the deepest despair of his life, and entered a nearly comatose state. He had identified himself only as “The Wildman of the Woods” to the woodsmen of Brethil who found him, and they carried him back to their home where Brandir, their chieftain, healed him. At that point Túrin took on his final pseudonym, Turambar, High Elven for “Master of Doom.” Quite the proclamation considering the path that led him there! As he did with every group he joined, he soon became respected for his military prowess, and assumed effective leadership over the legitimate, wiser leader Brandir, and led the men of Brethil to more open military action. Túrin had not learned from his past mistakes, and the fame that accompanied his feats of arms began to draw the attention of Morgoth once more.
He found a woman unconscious on the grave of Finduilas one day, and brought her back to the village, fell in love with her, and married her. Little did he know, this woman was actually his sister Nienor, who through a series of fateful events had been separated from her mother and bewitched by the dragon Glaurung into total amnesia. Níniel was the name Túrin gave her, meaning “Tear-Maiden.” But just as before had happened with Gwindor, Brandir, who had also fallen in love with Nienor, revealed to her Túrin’s true identity. Her amnesia prevented her from feeling any more than vague discomfort at this revelation.
She made Túrin promise to stop fighting so they could raise a family together, and he agreed, and soon she was pregnant. But at this time orcs began threatening Brethil in large numbers, and Túrin was shamed into joining the battle again, this time wielding his signature black sword. This alerted Glaurung to his presence, and soon the dragon was threatening the village. Túrin gathered some small band of loyal men to confront the dragon and ordered the villagers to be prepared to flee if he failed.
But Túrin did not fail – he stabbed Glaurung from below as he crawled over the river Teiglin – yes, a river. However, the dragon’s blood was venomous and he fell into a death-like state, when Nienor found him. In a scene reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, she assumed he was dead. The dragon, still clinging to life, spoke to her one last time to tell her the truth of what had transpired, that she carried the child of her brother, and lifted the curse of amnesia from her. In utter despair, she uttered her final words:
“A Túrin Turambar turún’ ambartanen: master of doom by doom mastered! O happy to be dead!”
Her pronouncement about Túrin was a confirmation of the arrogance of the final name he had taken. Despite all his efforts to escape the curse, fate inevitably found him time and again. With that, she threw herself into the river and met her death. In another version of the story, she begged the river to carry her to the Sea, emphasizing the waters as an escape of sorts from a terrible fate.
Túrin was not dead, however, and awoke in confusion to find his wound bandaged. He found Brandir and confronted him, asking where his wife was. When Brandir told him the truth, that his wife was his sister Nienor, he accused him of lying and murdered him in front of the entire village. When the Elf Mablung of Doriath arrived and was able to confirm what Brandir had told him, Túrin gave into despair and fled to the place he had slain Glaurung and begged his sword to kill him quickly, then threw himself on it. Thus ended the saga of Túrin, slayer of the mightiest dragon ever to be spawned.
The content warning ends here.
Tuor met a drastically different fate. He and his family fled to the havens in the south, the last refuge of the Elves of Beleriand after the fall of Doriath. Ulmo’s prophecy had been that from the House of Hador and the Elves of Gondolin would come the last hope of the Noldor, and that prophecy was made true in his half-Elven son Eärendil, who would one day sail into the West with the Silmaril won from Morgoth by Beren and Lúthien.
“In those days Tuor felt old age creep upon him, and ever a longing for the deeps of the Sea grew stronger in his heart. Therefore he built a great ship, and he named it Eärrámë, which is Sea-Wing; and with Idril Celebrindal he set sail into the sunset and the West, and came no more into any tale or song. But in after days it was sung that Tuor alone of mortal Men was numbered among the elder race, and was joined with the Noldor, whom he loved; and his fate is sundered from the fate of Men.”
Like his wife and son, Tuor effectively became an immortal Elf, an apotheosis of sorts that reflected the virtue and wisdom he had accumulated over his lifetime. The Sea, an ever-present influence in his life that guided him to fulfill his destiny, called to him, and he answered. His ill-fated cousin won renown through great deeds of arms, through the destruction of a powerful foe, but that story witnessed an endless cycle of violence and destruction. Tuor played a more passive role as the servant and herald of Ulmo, but by sacrificing his own personal glory he assured the salvation of the survivors.
Description and Heroic Equipment
“Túrin Turambar” by Alan Lee
“dark-haired and pale-skinned, with grey eyes, and his face more beautiful than any other among mortal Men, in the Elder Days. His speech and bearing were that of the ancient kingdom of Doriath, and even among the Elves he might be taken for one from the great houses of the Noldor; therefore many called him Adanedhel, the Elf-Man.”
A hero’s appearance and, especially in the literary tradition Tolkien was imitating, their heroic equipment, can be a major component in establishing who a hero is and what they stand for. In Túrin’s case, his primary physical qualities were his dark hair and clothing, his extremely attractive appearance, and his noble bearing. His hair was part of his overall color scheme relating to darkness, an obvious nod to his cursed life. His beauty was linked to the extraordinary charisma which allowed him time and again to win the friendship and loyalty of virtually everyone he met. His noble bearing naturally reflected his pride, founded in his regal upbringing at Doriath. The detail comparing him to an Elf is very significant, since it is parallel to the more or less literal Elf-transformation of Tuor mentioned above. But unlike Tuor, what made Túrin resemble the Noldor were the things that caused their very downfall: their arrogance, their might at arms, their materialism.
Two items were of paramount importance to Túrin: The Dragon-helm of Dor-lómin and the dark sword Anglachel. The helm was an heirloom of his family. It was originally forged for a Dwarf-lord but was granted as a gift to a great Elven king, who in turn passed it on to Túrin’s ancestors. It was said to shield the wearer from all injuries, and was too massive for any but the strongest to wear. It was also known as the Dragonhead of the North, because it had a golden depiction of the dragon Glaurung on it, a being with which Túrin’s was intimately linked. With such a helm, Túrin was all but invincible, but it could not protect others around him, and it was so distinctive that its very fame repeatedly brought about his own downfall. One of Túrin’s assumed names, Gorthol (the Dread Helm) was because of this helmet.
The Blacksword, another namesake (Mormegil), was his signature weapon: the blade Anglachel, the most likely etymology of which is “Flaming Iron Star” in Sindarin. It was forged by the dark elf Eöl from a meteorite and could cut through steel; it eventually passed through Thingol to Beleg as a reward for his loyal service. Melian warned him that the blade was partly sentient, and contained the malice of its creator. It was the blade Túrin used when he accidentally killed Beleg – it came into his possession through Gwindor, who said it would be better for the blade to be used against orcs than to be buried with Beleg. Túrin had it reforged at Nargothrond and gave it the new name Gurthang (Iron of Death). It even spoke to Túrin before his death. Such a powerful blade befit a warrior of his prowess, but its cursed demeanor also expressed the dangerous and double-edged nature of that path he walked. Strength alone would not avail him. He would overcome nearly every foe he faced, and still fail.
During his time at Nargothrond, it was also stated in Unfinished Tales that he wore a gilded dwarf-mask into battle. It would terrify his foes, and also served to emphasize how he repeatedly attempted to conceal his true identity in order to avoid his fate. But in the end he always resorted to one or more of his signature pieces of equipment, which betrayed him to his foes. Túrin’s gear thus represented his indomitability and unsurpassed skill in battle, but also his inability to protect those around him and the inescapable doom that hounded him.
“Tuor” artist unknown
Tuor appeared very differently from his cousin:
“he was fair of face, and golden-haired after the manner of his father’s kin, and he became strong and tall and valiant, and being fostered by the Elves he had lore and skill no less than the princes of the Edain, ere ruin came upon the North.”
In contrast to Túrin, Tuor bore bright colors, and his gear predominantly bore the white of the swan-feathers given to him by the swans that guided him to Vinyamar. His gear was the Elven mail left behind by Turgon centuries before at the bidding of Ulmo, predicted to be precisely the right size for him, and a shield with a swan insignia. He bore the sea-cloak of Ulmo for a time, which shielded him from the sight of his enemies and allowed him to pass safely to Gondolin, avoiding direct combat. Though vanishingly little is written about his time at Gondolin, it is known that he acquired a mighty axe named Dramborleg (Thudder-Sharp), reflecting his roots as a foster-child of the axe-wielding Elves of the wilderness. Like Túrin, Tuor received an education from Elves, but Tuor’s was without the royal pretensions Túrin was raised with, and so in a sense he absorbed the best parts of Elven culture.
Tuor’s gear bore no link to his human ancestry. It tied him firmly to the Elves and to the Vala Ulmo who guided him. His swan insignia represented his divine mission, his obedience to the path laid before him, and his connection to the natural world from so many long years in solitude in the Wild. There is also of course his hair, golden, in contrast to Túrin’s darker hue. But lest we reduce the comparison to the superficial, there is a passage from another version of the story of Túrin that is cited in the footnotes of Unfinished Tales. When Gelmir and Arminas arrived at Nargothrond to deliver the warning from Ulmo and were rebuffed by Túrin, in this version they approached him in private and asked if he was who they suspect. Túrin responded with anger to having his identity revealed, and Arminas mentioned that his cousin Tuor was a much better exemplar of their family than he was. Túrin, outraged, thinking this was just about his differing hair color, said that it came from his mother’s side. But Arminas responded:
“I spoke not of the difference between the black and the gold […] But others of the House of Hador bear themselves otherwise, and Tuor among them. For they use courtesy, and they listen to good counsel, holding the Lords of the West in awe. But you, it seems, will take counsel with your own wisdom, or with your sword only; and you speak haughtily. And I say to you, Agarwaen Mormegil, that if you do so, other shall be your doom than one of the Houses of Hador and Bëor might look for.”
This scene was cut from later versions, perhaps because it was too heavy handed in stating the overall message of the saga. But it illustrates that the physical differences between the two heroes really are little more than aesthetic, and not determinant of their characters.
What Makes a Hero?
As I hope the extensive analysis above has convinced you, Túrin and Tuor represent two opposed heroic archetypes: Túrin the martial hero, and Tuor the moral hero. The tension between their two stories is in fact the central conceit of the mythology Tolkien built up over his life – The Lord of the Rings was at heart a story about the rejection of the sort of hero that Túrin represented, and an exaltation of the common hero who rejects power and authority in order to do what is right. In this regard, Samwise Gamgee is in the same company as the legendary Tuor.
But the meaning of these two sagas goes much deeper. Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin was the first story that Tolkien wrote set in Middle-earth, while recovering in a hospital after his deployment in the Battle of the Somme. Not long before, in 1914, right as his world was beginning to be torn apart by the war to end all wars, he wrote a prose version of the Finnish saga of Kullervo. Why is this relevant, you may wonder? In brief, the story of Kullervo is as follows: he realizes at a young age that the people who raised him are the ones who murdered his actual tribe. They sell him into slavery, but he eventually escapes and begins to find members of his former family, but one by one he loses them. He then unknowingly has relations with own sister, and murders all of the people who wiped out his tribe. He and his sister both end tragically.
You may have realized by now that this story formed the nucleus of what would become the story of Túrin in later years. But curiously, the element of living in slavery became part of Tuor’s story. In the midst of World War I, as nearly all of his close friends died and his world seemed on the brink of collapse, Tolkien began to pen the story of Tuor and Gondolin, of a city about to be destroyed because of its own arrogance, but out of that conflagration one hero would emerge who would ensure the salvation of the survivors. Tuor was an answer, a way out of a cycle of violence and destruction and loss. I believe this was Tolkien’s way of working through the situation of his world, of making new connections and directions for the ancient stories that he loved so much in order to respond to his own concerns.
In this way, Túrin can be understood as a synthesis of the ancient nordic or pagan heroes (his story also contains elements from the saga of Sigurd in the Poetic Edda, for example). Túrin is committed to the principle of revenge, of standing forth openly in battle against one’s foes in order to strike back at them for the wrongs they have done you. He is the essence of what Tolkien saw as a fatal flaw in aristocratic society. Túrin’s cycles of vengeance and glory followed by cataclysmic collapse represent the cycle of violence Tolkien saw enacted throughout World War I.
Tuor was the key to breaking that cycle. His humble upbringing and time as a slave taught him lessons that the pampered and proud Túrin never grasped. Instead of being misled and deceived by the malevolent influence of Morgoth, he had his perspective opened by the benign Ulmo. Faithful to his mission, he avoided the pitfalls of arrogance and with his wife enabled the survivors of the destruction to be rescued from further suffering. This is a profoundly Christian perspective, in essence a rejection of the pagan heroism that Túrin embodies. Ulmo’s words to Tuor only emphasize this further:
“… in the armour of Fate (as the Children of Earth name it) there is ever a rift, and in the walls of Doom a breach, until the full-making, which ye call the End. So it shall be while I endure, a secret voice that gainsayeth, and light where darkness was decreed.”
I understand this to be the central conceit of Tolkien’s mythology. Seeking answers in a world riven by suffering and war, he rejected some of the elements of the foundational myths that he grew up with and instead turned to values linked to his faith to retell the stories that he cared about. The story of Middle-earth is the story of the rejection of martial glory in favor of humility and peace, of power being replaced by decency as an ideal. It all began with a story he was never able to come back to and complete before his death.