One of the delightful things about J. R. R. Tolkien is that he remains ever full of surprises, even for those who have been reading him for decades. For example, once when perusing his Letters, I came across a passage where Tolkien called his description of Cerin Amroth (Book II, ch. 4) the heart of The Lord of the Rings. What casual reader – nay, what attentive reader – would have guessed?
Now I mention this at the top of this essay on The Children of Húrin because, several months prior to reading Tolkien on the importance of Cerin Amroth, I was likewise gobsmacked by another quote from his Letters:
The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala. It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion), though as ‘The Children of Hurin’ it is entirely changed except in the tragic ending.
In other words, though Tolkien finished The Fall of Gondolin before it, and the tale of Beren and Lúthien later supplanted it as the heart of Tolkien’s account of the First Age of Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin was the seed of Tolkien’s entire legendarium.
I. They’re writing songs of eucatastrophe – but not for me
The three great stories within The Silmarillion – The Fall of Gondolin, The Lay of Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin – have one significant thing in common: the heroes are Men, caught up in the Elves’ hopeless war against Morgoth. As such, death and the doom of Men loom large over all three stories. But with this difference: Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin each have a eucatastrophic twist absent in The Children of Húrin. Beren, like Lazarus, escapes death, at least for a little while; Tuor the sojourner in Gondolin marries the King’s daughter and afterwards is counted among the Elves, and “his fate is sundered from the fate of Men.”
Not so for the House of Húrin, or for Húrin’s son Túrin, hero of The Children of Húrin. It was this house’s lot to drink to the dregs the fate of Men. Indeed the measure of their bitterness far exceeded that of any other house of Men, for Morgoth laid upon them a terrible curse. As Morgoth told Húrin:
The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda [the Earth], and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise.
Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.
II. “The worth of defeated valour”
Yet, for all its darkness, The Children of Húrin isn’t a fatalistic tale. For, blazing the trail his wife and children would follow, Húrin steadfastly refuses to yield to Morgoth:
This last then I will say to you, thrall Morgoth . . . and it comes not from the lore of the Eldar, but is put into my heart in this hour. You are not the Lord of Men, and shall not be, though all Arda [Earth] and Menel [Heaven] fall in your dominion. Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.
Even in Morgoth’s nethermost hell, Húrin sees something like the clear “shaft of light” that Master Samwise would see in Mordor several thousand years later: there was light and high beauty forever beyond the Shadow’s reach.
A grimmer but similarly manful spirit of defiance moves Túrin. Perhaps Túrin doesn’t see light and high beauty beyond the Shadow’s reach, but he does see history and judgment which the Shadow cannot deface:
The defiance of Húrin Thalion is a great deed; and though Morgoth slay the doer he cannot make the deed not to have been. Even the Lords of the West will honour it; and is it not written into the history of Arda, which neither Morgoth nor Manwë can unwrite?
The absence of a Fairy-story eucatastrophe makes the desperate stand of Húrin’s household appear in bolder relief. They are not allowed to skate around, but must walk through, the deepest depths of the doom of Men. Yet they do so in faithfulness to what good they see, whether beyond the Circles of the World, or in indestructible judgment. The Children of Húrin is thus to Tolkien’s body of work roughly what the eighty-eighth Psalm is to the Psalter: for the Psalmist, like Húrin’s house, was laid in the lowest pits, and yet “unto thee have I cried, O Lord.” 
This was, in fact, the great virtue that Tolkien saw in the Northern literature that so moved him, the theme which gives his work its unique flavor: “Northern courage” and “the creed of unyielding will.” Morgoth, like the monsters of the North, may win, but the House of Húrin’s defeat is not a refutation of its valour. Here, perhaps most keenly in Tolkien’s works, “the worth of defeated valour is deeply felt.”
(Originally posted 3/28/12 at Pages Unbound, for Tolkien Reading Week 2012.)
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 221 (Humphrey Carpenter et al. eds., Houghton Mifflin 2000)(1981).
 Id. at 345; cf. Id. at 214-15.
 That is, an unlooked-for, happy catastrophic twist. See Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, in The Tolkien Reader 85-86 (1966).
 Tolkien, The Silmarillion 294 (Random House 1999)(1977).
 For those only familiar with The Lord of the Rings, Morgoth was the original, and mightiest, Devil of Middle-earth; Sauron was his servant.
 Tolkien, The Children of Hurin 64 (2007).
 Id. at 65.
 Id. at 161.
 Psalm 88:13.
 Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, in Lewis E. Nicholson ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism 70 (1963).
 Id. at 73.