Academic journal article Mythlore

Tales of Anti-Heroes in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien

Academic journal article Mythlore

Tales of Anti-Heroes in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien

Article excerpt

The majority of stories in Tolkien's legendarium offer dramatic examples of heroic behavior which can instruct the reader on how to conduct one's life. He draws engaging characters that never stop in their struggle to defeat evil, even when facing insurmountable odds. The reader encounters characters who are dedicated to serving others, who continue to plod onward despite the apparent futility of their actions, and who rely upon faithful friends. In contrast, "The Mariner's Wife" in The Unfinished Tales and "Of Turin Turambar" in The Silmarillion are stories about anti-heroes that demonstrate what not to do in life. Similarities between the stories suggest that they were written to perform similar purposes. Both stories have tragic human heroes and story elements that are surprising for a J.R.R. Tolkien composition. The former is about the break-up of a marriage; the latter includes an incestuous marriage between the hero and his sister.

Although unfinished, "The Mariner's Wife" is an absorbing profile of filial relationships. It is no story about idealized children of Iluvatar who stay on their path and get things right. Instead, it is a representation of marital relationships as we see them today. It shows that, even in paradise, unhappiness and conflict can cut to the quick of an individual life.

While this essay will focus on "The Mariner's Wife" and the story of Aldarion and Erendis, it is useful to note some similar points about "Of Turin Turambar." In this story, the hero wallows in defeat and separates himself from the people who loved and fostered him. The acts of focusing upon how wrong things have gone and severing himself from the nurture and support of friendships lead him to unknowingly marry his sister.

Of the two story elements, the incest found in "Of Turin Turambar" is more jarring to the reader than the dissolution of marriage found in "The Mariner's Wife" because incest is taboo in contemporary society. A first reading of either story sparks surprise and causes the reader to question Tolkien's purpose in adding each element to the story. Yet the style and degree of development of both stories indicate they were not passing thoughts (though unfinished, "The Mariner's Wife" is quite polished). Tolkien's well-documented conservative character leads the reader to believe the elements must be important or they would not have remained in their respective stories. Indeed, "Of Turin Turambar" was rewritten in different versions, such as the book length The Children of Hurin, and holds primacy of place by being included in The Silmarillion, intended by Tolkien to be the definitive presentation of his myth cycle.

One purpose of the element of the incestuous marriage is to show the magnitude of Morgoth's evil in his curse of the children of Hurin. Similarly, the purpose of showing a failed marriage in "The Mariner's Wife" is to show the resulting wrong when an individual will not work for unification and instead retreats to self-isolation. This is shown to be true even in a blessed realm, with all of its advantages, such as the island society of Numenor. In "Of Turin Turambar," the starkness of the incest element reinforces Tolkien's theme of the apparent all-pervasive power of evil in the world. Even Turin--a young man of great physical and leadership abilities--is shown to fail because he did not have the mental discipline to perform the deeds of a hero. Like Aldarion, he blames others for all his designs going wrong. He does not step outside of himself to get a better perspective, nor does he rely upon a positive network to help him in his goals. When Turin begins to go astray, King Thingol, his foster father, sends messages calling him to return home to a place of honor at court. The messenger, Beleg Strongbow, repeatedly tracks him to aid him in battle and urge him to return home. But Turin ignores or dismisses the network of loved ones that could have saved him.

Turin is a slave to Morgoth's curse because he believes he is its slave. …

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