In Which the Noldor Regroup (Mostly), War is Renewed, Dwarves Join the Fray, Dragons Are Unleashed, Men Prove to Be Faithful and/or Faithless, and Húrin Wears a Very Special Coat of Arms
Well, we’re way past the middle of The Silmarillion. If there was a line chart that showed the fortunes of the Elves in the First Age, we’ve been seeing the data points starting to tank. The first big drop was the Battle of Sudden Flame, but now we’ve come to Chapter 20, “Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad,” and this is when things really go south.
Literally, as well as figuratively: As the Noldor try to rally and regroup and gather what allies they can for a retaliation against Morgoth, the Dark Lord proves that he’s been thinking about war a lot more than they have and still has untold strength. And in this chapter, his arm grows long indeed, reaching out of Thangorodrim to the far ends of Beleriand. And, oh, yeah: the father of dragons is back for more.
Dramatis personæ of note:
- Maedhros – Noldo, eldest and most upstanding son of Fëanor
- Fingon – Noldo, High King of the Noldor, son of Fingolfin
- Glaurung – Urulókë, daddy dragon
- Húrin – Man-in-arms, chieftain of the House of Hador
- Turgon – Noldo, King of Gondolin, leaguer-opener
- Morgoth – Dark Lord, shockingly immense asshole
Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad
The chapter begins by wrapping up the fates of Beren and Lúthien…mostly. They are both allowed to return to Middle-earth as a living and mortal man and woman. Lúthien might still look like an Elf, smell like an Elf, and possibly still possess the power of a half-Maia, but as far as the afterlife is concerned, she is of the race of Men now. Ilúvatar’s gift of death is upon her.
And by the way, at no point is Beren given a new epithet, such as whatever the Sindarin is for “Re-handed,” so it’s very likely he’s still got just the one. In fact, the book’s narrator continues to use Erchamion (“One-handed”). Thus history records Beren by this name, which would seem a silly thing if he only went one-handed for just a few weeks in his life. I guess what I’m saying is, during his retirement, he probably wears a shirt that says, “I reclaimed a Silmaril, was slain by Carcharoth, tarried in the Halls of Mandos, and was re-embodied on Middle-earth, and all I got was this stupid t-shirt (in lieu of a new hand).”
Lúthien is given a chance to say her goodbyes to her parents in Doriath. Thingol is cheered to see her alive again, yet he must let her go…for good, this time. Her mother, Melian, can’t even manage it, for her sorrow is greater than anyone’s in this whole affair. Though she is Maiar, even she has no idea where mortals go after death—she may never meet her daughter again. Only Ilúvatar knows.
Then it’s off to the woodlands of southeast Beleriand, in Ossiriand, where Beren and Luthien retire on a river-island called Tol Galen. That name is Sindarin for “Green Isle,” but later the Eldar actually name the whole region around it the Land of the Dead That Live, which is totally badass.
“Spoiler” Alert: We’re told no Man ever sees Beren ever again—which does mean that non-Men just might—and that the Silmarillion’s most famous power couple have a kid there on the Green Isle. They give their son the name Dior, and he’s the first of a new hybrid of the Children of Ilúvatar: the Half-elven. Dior is just a baby now, but he’ll carry the legacy of his parents back into the threads of history when he grows up and continues the bloodline.
Now we zoom back out to the state of Beleriand as a whole. The narrator doesn’t just pick up where we left off before Beren, though. His reclaiming of a Silmaril wasn’t just a side-quest in history. Nope. Everything he and Lúthien went through, as well as the deeds of all those they met, has a rippling effect that starts now.
The news of those accomplishments travels far. A Silmaril has been lifted from Morgoth by an Elf-girl, her beau, and a dog—and now it’s with Thingol in Doriath. Maybe Angband is “not unassailable,” after all? This has given Maedhros, the most upstanding and responsible of the sons of Fëanor, ideas. To his credit, he’s the most proactive among his siblings in terms of keeping the oath they’d made—disastrous though that usually is. The others, particularly the C-brothers, hem and haw about the Silmarils, but never actually try and go after them. At least Maedhros is trying, though waging war with Morgoth merely for those gems isn’t necessarily his point. Morgoth is everyone’s enemy, and the Noldor seem to be as strong as they’re going to get, given the circumstances.
So perhaps it’s time to renew the siege of Angband. Maedhros has got two great houses of Men behind him: the peoples of Bór and Ulfang, who are now headed by the sons of those original chieftains. And this time, the Naugrim—that is, the Dwarves—are in his corner as well. Not only will the Stunted People (the Elves are still using that name…awkward) bring an armed force to the field, they’re also bringing tons of weapons and armor. The Dwarves are a naturally warlike people, so they’re especially well-equipped for this endeavor. Finally, Maedhros’s good friend Fingon, now High King of the Noldor, who single-handedly rescued him from his mountainside captivity, is definitely standing with him. And because Fingon’s in, so too are the Elves of the Falas, i.e. the Havens by the sea—Círdan’s crew.
Divided, the races of Beleriand are going to be easy prey for Morgoth. United, they’ve got a chance! So Maedhros has got Men, Dwarves, and the Noldor of Hithlum in his camp. Who else is with him?
Nargothrond isn’t. The Elves there are still pissed about the death of their king, Finrod Felagund, for which they rightly accuse Celegorm and Curufin. Orodreth, Finrod’s little brother and now standing king, won’t go forth with any force of Elves to help the sons of Fëanor with anything. It was those two C-brothers who really screwed Nargothrond over.
Doriath isn’t in, either. For one, leaving the Girdle security fence provided by Queen Melian isn’t exactly King Thingol’s policy. But also, he’s got a Silmaril now, though Melian advised him to give it up to the the sons of Fëanor to avoid further inter-Elven conflicts. Sh’yeah…like Thingol’s going to listen to her now. Well, because of the Oath of Fëanor, his sons had sent messengers to him to demand it after he’d first acquired. Thingol held, took, and is now keeping a Silmaril; that’s three counts of a big no-no. Even if they don’t personally care about it—as Maedhros probably doesn’t—they’re constrained by that damned Oath. They swore it in Valinor, and then again when their father was dying. So Maedhros’s hand is tied. And it doesn’t help that Thingol has been sneaking gazes at the Silmaril, desiring to keep it forever no matter what…
Almost like it’s become…precious to him.
So the team-up to take on Morgoth isn’t going swimmingly, but there’s still some progress. It’s sort of like this:
That’s right, two parties do leave their respective and otherwise uninvolved realms to join up.
In Nargothrond, a Noldor prince named Gwindor (not to be confused with Gwildor) defies Orodreth, heading out to oppose Morgoth with a small company of Elves. Gwindor’s own brother, Gelmir, was taken captive by Morgoth during the Battle of Sudden Flame some twenty years before and Gwindor wants payback for that. This mustering is a fine excuse to settle that score.
Meanwhile, in Doriath, out go Beleg Strongbow and unsubtle Mablung the Heavy-handed, who helped with the hunt of Carcharoth in the last chapter. They “were unwilling to have no part in these great deeds,” aka they’re too involved now, having faced the Wolf of Angband and seen the jewel Morgoth had stolen. And they witnessed the death of both Beren and Huan. They can’t just stay at home now. Thingol doesn’t try to stop them from going, only gives them one condition: do not serve the sons of Fëanor.
These “rogue” Elves all therefore join up with Fingolfin’s house, not Maedhros’s, so they’ll be marching under Fingon’s banners.
In Brethil (that forest of Doriath not protected by the Girdle of Melian), the Men of the House of Haleth, also throw their figurative hats in the ring. These Haladin are now led by Haldir (not to be confused with the Third Age Elf with the same name), who’s three generations down from that badass Haleth herself. Haldir marches up to stand with the Men of the House of Hador for the coming fight. And leading the House of Hador are Húrin and Huor, those two young men who visited Gondolin via Eagle quite a few years back. Fully grown and then some, now they’re better, stronger…faster.
All the participants get themselves sorted and prepped. They gather up and train for war, even ousting all the free-roaming Orcs in the northern parts of Beleriand as part of that program. But because of this, Morgoth is made aware of these preparations. Thus he renews his espionage, his “spies and workers of treason,” among Men. Three chapters ago, Tolkien told us betrayal was in the cards concerning mortal Men. It’s time to brace ourselves for that.
So Maedhros and Fingon, the leaders of this siege, pick their day. The idea is for Maedhros to march out onto Morgoth’s parched front yard, Anfauglith, with banners flying, to draw out his forces.
But when he had drawn forth, as he hoped, the armies of Morgoth in answer, then Fingon should issue forth from the passes of Hithlum; and thus they thought to take the might of Morgoth as between anvil and hammer, and break it to pieces. And the signal for this was to be the firing of a great beacon in Dorthonion.
It’s sure to work! It’s got to.
So on the appointed day, at dawn, everyone’s gathered. Fingon with all his forces and his allies of both Men and Elves stand ready and quiet on the western front, “well hid from the eyes of the Enemy.” Black smoke hangs over Thangorodrim, so he’s pretty sure Morgoth is aware of something—which isn’t great, but whatever. The High King of the Noldor looks to the east across the plain, hoping to see with “elven-sight” any sign of Maedhros and his armies. Or maybe that beacon to southeast. Nothing yet. What’s the hold up? Fingon is troubled, but his doubt evaporates when he hears the unexpected arrival of his hide-and-don’t-seek little brother, Turgon! Turgon has, at last, “opened the leaguer of Gondolin,” i.e. come forth out of hiding, and he does so with “ten thousand strong, with bright mail and long swords and spears like a forest.”
We so rarely get hard numbers in The Silmarillion that it’s always nice to have something to hang our sense of scale on. For a little comparison, note that the total number of combatants on the side of Gondor in the Battle of Pelennor Fields is probably somewhere between ten and fourteen thousand—yet here in this one corner of the field, Gondolin alone has brought ten thousand Elves. This battle is going to be big. Voices are lifted, trumpets are blown, and Fingon calls out:
‘Utúlie’n aurë! Aiya Eldalië ar Atanatári, utúlie’n aurë! The day has come! Behold, people of the Eldar and Fathers of Men, the day has come!’ And all those who heard his great voice echo in the hills answered crying: ‘Auta i lómë! The night is passing!‘
Well, right at that moment of elation, Morgoth sends out a suspiciously underwhelming force of Orcs towards Hithlum. When they’re close enough for the Noldor to see, it’s Húrin who tells his allies to not run out and just attack—a fascinating moment of maturity for a Man among immortals. He knows that Morgoth is tricksy, and that his “strength was always greater than it seemed.” But since the Orcs were ordered to draw out Fingon and his Elves, they march in closer and start throwing out taunts. Truth is, they are daunted by the hidden threat of the Noldor hiding just out of sight, but they’ve got their orders, and they’re much more afraid of their boss. So it’s time for plan B, wherein they trundle out a captive Elf, who they’d already blinded.
The Noldor can see this, and unfortunately Gwindor of Nargothrond has an excellent view, because the hostage is none other than his brother, Gelmir, the one he’d thought lost for years now. Morgoth’s heralds call out that there’re plenty more tormented Elves where this one came from, which riles up the Noldor.
And they hewed off Gelmir’s hands and feet, and his head last, within sight of the Elves, and left him.
And it so works. The Noldor were already steaming, but now Gwindor rides out on his horse, incensed, jumping the gun. And others follow, so that all “the host of the Noldor was set on fire.” The Orc heralds are all cut down, and Gwindor’s riders press on to attack the rest of the amassed army. There’s nothing to do now but to follow or else lose all of them, too, so Fingon orders all his Hithlum forces out into the field. Gone is their strategic defense, and gone is the hammer-and-anvil strike they’d be hoping for. Only Turgon holds back to guard the Pass of Sirion, not giving in to passion.
Yet Gwindor and the Elves of Nargothrond cut their way right to the Gate of Angband—where Fingolfin had come to die, and where Beren and Lúthien had bypassed Carcharoth. And even though this is exactly what Morgoth had been baiting them to do, he himself—he who still has “Melkor: He who arises in Might” engraved on his stationary, and who was once called “the mightiest of all the dwellers in Eä”—has a moment of real fear. The Dark Lord trembles even as he sits on his throne far below. That’s how scary the Noldor of the First Age are when they gather in force and kick down your door.
But there at Angband’s own open doors, Gwindor is taken alive while all in his retinue are killed—as Morgoth’s “main host” spills out from the holes and secret doors all around the gate. Fingon couldn’t catch up to prevent it, either. In fact, the Noldorin king is actually driven back by this enormous army.
Now it’s the fourth day since this started. Everyone—at least everyone on the western front—is out in the open, fighting on the plain of Anfauglith. And thus begins the fifth of the counted Battles of Beleriand, which is called Nirnaeth Arnoediad (near-NYE-eth arr-NOY-dee-add), the Battle of Unnumbered Tears “for no song or tale can contain all its grief.” Fingon is pushed back again, and in his retreat Haldir of the Haladin is killed along with most of his people.
On the fifth day, the Elves of Hithlum are surrounded, but Turgon and the Elves of Gondolin reach him, cutting their way through with their very well-equipped force. It is worth remembering that the weapons and armor of the Gondolindrim were made “stronger and more keen” due to the smithing ingenuity of Maeglin, son of Eöl. This is one of those moments where it’s helpful to flip back to the very end of the “Of Maeglin” chapter and reread the last two paragraphs. Heck, there’re a lot of places where flipping back is almost required, due to Tolkien’s proclivity for forecasting later events in each chapter.
Fingon and Turgon finally meet up again—like Aragorn and Éomer upon the Pelennor after being separated by all the hosts of Mordor—but these two are actual brothers and have not seen each other for more than three-hundred fifty years. Not since one of them went and built a hidden city on the advice of some watery Vala. Even to an Elf, that’s quite a while apart. Neither have they shared in the mourning of their father, Fingolfin. So it cheers their people to see the brothers reunited, a much-needed boost to morale in such a dire time.
And this is when Maedhros finally arrives with his forces from the east, where he…umm…“assailed the enemy in the rear.” Not something anyone wants, but it’s effective. And it spooks the hell out of the Orcs. The Elves might even have won this latest battle, had Maedhros arrived to assail their rear earlier. Speaking of which, where the hell had Maedhros been? Turns out he had a Man problem. More on that later.
But first, things get worse. Morgoth now unleashes his full force; Angband is “emptied.” Which, taken literally, means every last Orc from the kitchen staff to the troll tasked with slinging dragon patties. This is the true unspooling of Morgoth’s military might, as all his monsters run, slither, march, and crawl across the plain of Gasping Dust:
There came wolves, and wolfriders, and there came Balrogs, and dragons, and Glaurung father of dragons. The strength and terror of the Great Worm were now great indeed, and Elves and Men withered before him; he came between the hosts of Maedhros and Fingon and swept them apart.
No one’s ever seen an army of monsters like this—this whole time they’ve been breeding and mustering underground in and around Angband. And once again, we’ve got Balrogs plural, and dragons plural. Not just daddy Glaurung but who knows how many of his kids and grandkids are now rampaging across the plain. These Urulóki, or fire-drakes, aren’t winged, but they’re deadly enough.
Oh yeah, trolls also seem to show up for the first time, as we’re told there is a “troll-guard” with Gothmog the Lord of Balrogs. There’s no detail on them, here; we’re told in The Lord of the Rings appendices that they’re creatures “of a dull and lumpish nature” who Treebeard surmises to be made in mockery of Ents (meaning Morgoth knows about Ents!), so they’re at least big and strong.
So great is the sum of the Noldor’s armies that they might still have withstood and driven back these all monstrous foes…were it not for the deceit of Men! Ugh, we’re the worst! Now, the leaders of this treachery are the three sons of Ulfang the Black—and it was they who had delayed Maedhros from reaching Anfauglith at the proper time earlier. They’d fed him some false reports of Angband’s forces that had stalled his approach. The bastards.
They’re turncoats, hopping on over to Morgoth’s side, as was long schemed, and now they and their army immediately attack the sons of Fëanor “upon the rear.” (Again with the rear aggression!) This really throws a monkey wrench into the works of Maedhros’s great assault against Morgoth. Ulfang’s three sons even come close to getting to Maedhros himself, but his brother (and warrior-minstrel) Maglor intercedes and slays one, while the other two are killed by the sons of Bór.
That’s right! The Easterlings of Bór stayed true to Maedhros even though Morgoth had tried to make double-crossers out of them, too.
In your face, Morgoth! Not all mortal Men are corruptible, and certainly not all Easterlings are bad. Sadly, the sons of Bór give up their lives in the process, but they have their own army of faithful. What’s interesting is that even though Morgoth does turn the tide in his favor with the use of treacherous Men, it was supposed to have been an easier, swifter, and more complete victory, as far as he’s concerned. If only those obstinant Men of Bór had done what they were told! Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor, says this in one of his Silmarillion Seminars:
Look at the whole Bór disaster. Right? You can’t trust these people. Never send humans in to do Orcs’ work.
They are a disappointment to Morgoth, and so we’ll see his way of dealing with Men after the war. But even so, still more treacherous Secondborn pour in from the eastern hills where Ulfang’s sons had hidden them. The eastern front of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears is essentially lost now, and so the sons of Fëanor have little choice but to retreat. But who steps up and makes that possible for them?
Why, the Stunted People!—the Naugrim, who don’t back down yet. The Dwarves have battled Orcs before, and even their own kind, way off to the east beyond the Blue Mountains. And sure, this is a greater force than they’ve never seen, but these are First Age sons of Durin, for crying out loud. Led by Azaghâl, the Lord of Belegost, these Dwarves are some seriously badass warriors! Aulë made them so:
For the Naugrim withstood fire more hardily than either Elves or Men, and it was their custom moreover to wear great masks in battle hideous to look upon; and those stood them in good stead against the dragons.
If you can’t stand the heat, as they say, get out of the Urulóki kitchen. And so the Elves have! But the Dwarves can withstand it, at least enough to actually engage Glaurung up close, him and his scaly, fire-breathing offspring. Everyone else “withers” before them—immolated, burned, or sent running. The Dwarves, though, fight back and do damage, probably slaying some of the lesser drakes and actually wounding Glaurung himself, for “even his mighty armour was not full proof against the blows of their axes.” Their weapons are second to none. They can pierce Glaurung’s hide, something the Elves don’t even get close enough to try. It’s not expressly stated, but I’m thinking that at his age, arrows won’t cut it anymore. Dragons just get more dangerous over time.
Eventually, Glaurung strikes down Azaghâl and it’s a mortal blow. But even as he’s dying, the Dwarf-lord pulls a Fingolfin. He stabs Glaurung in the belly with a knife and it hurts so much that Glaurung flees! (Hey, maybe that’s the last we’ll see of him…) Seeing the father of all dragons hightail it away unnerves the other monsters who came out with him, so they scram as well. This gives the Dwarves the opportunity to pick up Azaghâl’s body and carry it away in an impromptu funeral procession.
and with slow steps they walked behind singing a dirge in deep voices, as it were a funeral pomp in their country, and gave no heed more to their foes; and none dares to stay them.
Fascinatingly, no Orc or Easterling, or troll, or dragon takes a swing at them. Not a single Elf raises a hand in protest. The Dwarves have sacrificed their lord for this great ill-prepared war, so they’re done now. No excuses, no apologies. They’ve played their part, and they’re calling it quits. Although this is the last we’ll hear of Azaghâl in this book, here’s a bit of trivia featured in Unfinished Tales: A helm was made for him by Telchar, that master Dwarf-smith of Nogrod who also made the sword Narsil and the knife Angrist. It was then given to Maedhros, then regifted a second time to Fingon, and so it became an heirloom of the House of Hador. It will end up in the hands of the titular Man of the next chapter.
[Digression: For some of us, one of the “frustrations” in reading The Silmarillion is not getting more details. It’s a book of synopses, I know, but there are parts that cry out for more! (*cough* Thuringwethil *cough*) Now if ever there was a chapter that calls for digging into the nitty-gritty, down-in-the-trenches perspectives, it’s one like this. If you’ve ever listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, that’s the sort of immersive treatment that many would be delighted to have. To be fair, this kind of dissection has a way of stripping away the mythic qualities of a story—qualities Tolkien excels at crafting. But Tolkien himself was there, physically down in the actual trenches of Europe’s own twentieth-century Nirnaeth Arnoediad. He knew just what it was like to be inside such tragic and deadly conflicts; just trade machine guns and artillery bombardments with arrows and dragonfire. More importantly, it’s not just the fog of war one can appreciate with a historical magnifying lens, it’s the nuances of the conflict itself. The doubt of its soldiers and commanders. Not only would the valor of both Men and Elves be tested, but even the dread an Orc-captain lives with would make for a memorable listen, for the Orcs hate and fear Morgoth themselves, as has been written. Imagine the possibilities! Alas, The Silmarillion is ultimately more of a book of tales handed down through generations rather than a true history in the modern sense, replete with firsthand accounts from primary sources. And that’s largely for the better. But one can still dream…. End digression.]
Well, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears isn’t done with us, or the Noldor, yet. Back in the west, the two remaining sons of Fingolfin are greatly outnumbered. Gothmog himself shows up with his own force of Balrogs, trolls, and Orcs. He shoves Turgon’s and Húrin’s forces aside—and as a result, Turgon and Fingon are separated again…this time for the last time. And now the High King of the Noldor is in serious trouble, as he soon finds himself the last Elf standing in his company. All his guards lie dead around him, which is a forbidding and recurring motif in Tolkien’s showdowns.
Now Fingon stands alone against the Lord of Balrogs, the demons of terror. The scourges of fire.
Not only is the High King of the Noldor in way over his head, but no one in Angband’s armies fights fair, nor with honor. Even Morgoth himself, when facing Fingolfin alone, consented to single combat only because the Elf-king had called him out, had challenged him at his front door in view of his lieutenants. Morgoth would have been proven weak in their eyes if he’d had Orc snipers fight his battle for him.
Balrogs, too, will fight dirty. While Fingon does hold off Gothmog on his own for a little while, a second Balrog comes in from behind and trips him up with a whip. (Those thongs of fire are a Balrog’s best friend.) Fingon is compromised. Down comes Gothmog’s axe, splitting open the Elf-king’s helm in a spray of spiritual white fire…and quite obviously his skull. And down falls Fingon, at which point the other Balrogs come in to “beat him into the dust with their maces.” No Eagle comes swooping in this time to bear the king’s remains away. Instead, his banner and his blood are now just part of the ruin of this field of battle.
Never again in Middle-earth will we see Fingon the valiant, who once ventured alone to Thangorodrim seeking his lost friend and cousin. And it was Fingon who Maedhros first thought of when Fëanor made the call to burn the Teleri ships, to abandon the rest of the Noldor and condemn them to the land of the Grinding Ice.
No time to grieve. Turgon’s Elves and Húrin’s Men are now all that’s keeping Morgoth’s tide of evil from pouring south through the Pass of Sirion and into the rest of Beleriand. That’s a bottleneck that’s been fought over before. The Pass of Sirion was the strategic importance of the late Finrod’s watchtower of Minas Tirith, which became Tol-in-Gaurhoth during Sauron’s tenure. But holding it against the forces of evil is not a good prospect for anyone right now; they’re still vastly outnumbered. Húrin turns to Turgon, who was like a father figure to him back when he and his brother stayed in Gondolin. Húrin then offers a dose of wisdom we’re not used to hearing from Men:
Go now, lord, while time is! For in you lives the last hope of the Eldar, and while Gondolin stands Morgoth shall still know fear in his heart.
Now we see that Men can be given to moments of foresight as well. Such prescience often prefaces being slain. And in this way, Húrin’s little brother, Huor, knows what’s up. He chimes in, too.
This I say to you, lord, with the eyes of death: though we part here for ever, and I shall not look on your white walls again, from you and from me a new star shall arise. Farewell!
Huor doesn’t necessarily know who or what form that hope shall take, but he’s on to something. Unbeknownst to him, the seeds have already been planted for this so-called “new star,” through Huor’s bloodline, through Turgon’s bloodline, and through Beren and Lúthien. Remember them? Standing there in that moment of dramatic parting is also the emo-Elf, Maeglin (son of the old goth Eöl), who listens with his trademark silence. But he sure doesn’t forget it. He’s got a master’s in Listening Quietly and a doctorate in Not Forgetting, this guy.
Well, Turgon does withdraw with his army of Gondolindrim at Húrin’s insistence, and then he and his people return back through the Pass of Sirion, living to fight another day. Guarding that retreat, and surviving, are two notable Elf-captains of Gondolin: Ecthelion and Glorfindel. The former name is one also taken by the Stewards of Gondor in the late Third Age (Boromir’s granddad is Ecthelion II), while the latter is the actual Elf that Frodo and the hobbits meet on the road to Rivendell. Same dude, different age. Oh, we’ll come back to Glorfindel in three chapters.
In the wake of Turgon’s retreat, Húrin and his brother, Huor, plus the last of the warriors of Dor-lómin (where the House of Hador is based in Hithlum) rally against all the odds stacked against them. The narrator, and therefore history, records this last stand as redressing the treachery of the Easterlings. One group of underhanded Men (Ulfang’s) cheated this whole endeavor to defeat Morgoth, so another group of Men (Hador’s) will redeem it by staving off the ruin of the House of Fingolfin.
Now “all the hosts of Angband” are on them, utterly surrounding them. It’s now the sixth day of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, but even as the night descends, Huor is slain “with a venomed arrow in his eye” (ugh, overkill) and the rest of the blond-haired fighting Men of Hador are finished off and fall around Húrin in a grisly pile. The Orcs take the time to actually cut off their heads and stack them up “as a mound of gold in the sunset.”
Now it’s just Húrin, who is short for his people but strong and even more tenacious. He insists on going down fighting, taking every enemy he can along with him. Húrin throws down his shield so he can wield his axe in two hands. Which is the perfect symbol of Húrin’s strategic shift—a shield would only just slow down his Orc-slaughter. He’s all about DPS at this point.
With each of the seventy foes he slays two-handed, he shouts a reprise to Fingon’s earlier cry:
Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!
The body count is bananas. It takes an army to get this Man to stop fighting, but the sheer numbers overtake him. See, orders have come down from the top to not kill Húrin—for a very particular reason Morgoth has in mind. Even as the Orcs grapple with him he hacks off their arms, which cling to him even as he keeps fighting. (Why Húrin isn’t given a name for this moment, Tolkien fashion, is beyond me. Húrin the Disarmer of Orcs? Húrin the Arm-coated?) But eventually they get him, and Gothmog, Lord of the Balrogs, has Húrin wrapped up in chains and dragged back to Angband “in mockery.”
The capture of Húrin marks the end of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and it’s a marked victory for Morgoth. The aftermath of this war is grim indeed, because it’s more than just the thousands and thousands of lives that have been lost. It’s also the doubt and mistrust that’s been sown between Elves and Men. Sure, the remnants of the Edain, the Elf-friends, still have have a place of honor, but they are not numerous.
The descendants of Finwë really have thinned out now, though at least more of his great-grandkids have sprung up (Gil-galad, Idril, Maeglin, and Celebrimbor are the ones who’ve been named for us). Of Fingolfin’s kids, there’s only Turgon now, and of Finarfin’s there’s only Orodreth and Galadriel.
The sons of Fëanor are all still alive, but they’re scattered “as leaves before the wind,” and have been reduced to skulking in the woods of Ossiriand with the Green-elves. The Elves of Hithlum are utterly swept away. None make it home. The few that survived the battle either become slaves in Morgoth’s mines or escape in small numbers into the wild. The Haladin in Brethil still exist but in small numbers. The Men of Hithlum are no more, for Húrin was the last of the warriors of the House of Hador, which means only the noncombatants remain at home—and those never get news of what became of their husbands, fathers, and sons.
Speaking of Men, in the wake of the battle the time comes to “reward” the Easterlings for the role they played in duping those exasperating Elves—whose mere existence, it’s worth remembering, so vexes Morgoth simply for being the beautiful Firstborn Children of Ilúvatar that they are (and which he had nothing to do with). Oh, how he hates them for that.
So…how to reward these backstabbing Men? Well, the people of Bór let the Dark Lord down, so it’s not like all the Easterlings delivered. And also, Morgoth is the asshole who invented assholery. Therefore, although he earlier promised them “the rich lands of Beleriand which they coveted,” Morgoth reneges like a crooked businessman turned politician and shunts them all over to Hithlum. And they’re not allowed to go anywhere else. This is a cold and barren corner of Middle-earth compared to the lush realms to the south.
Meanwhile he gives his Orcs and wolves free reign of Beleriand. This has the additional—and maybe intentional—effect of embittering the Easterlings further and inspiring in them greater evil and pettiness. They now occupy the lands formerly inhabited by the Men of Hador, where only the women, the children, and the aged of that people remain to be bullied.
In due time, Morgoth sends out armies again beyond Hithlum, down through Nevrast and then to the Havens themselves, Brithombar and Eglarest. Círdan’s mariners sail up and down the coastline, harassing the Orcs where they can, but it’s never enough. The cities of the Falathrim are besieged and laid to ruin. Most of Círdan’s people are killed or taken as captives, but some do escape on ships to the Isle of Balar. Among them is Gil-galad, son of Fingon and now the closest thing to a High King the Noldor as a people have.
Turgon, hearing of all this, sends out some of his Gondolindrim to make contact with Círdan. When they reach him, the Elf-lord helps to build seven fast ships to once again go West, seeking help. C’mon, Ulmo! This would be a great time for that “true hope” to show up. You know, the one that “lieth in the West” and “cometh from the Sea.” Props to Turgon for trying again to seek out that hope, whatever it may be.
But of those seven swift ships only one kind of, sort of makes it back—and only just barely, as it’s wracked by a great storm made by ornery Ossë. Remember him? He’s the tempestuous, coast-loving Maia who serves Ulmo and in the early days of Arda almost went over to Melkor’s service. But this time Ulmo actually does intervene; he knows what Turgon is trying to do. So Ulmo uses his waves to save the captain from that shipwreck….
That Elf’s name is Voronwë. For now, it’s enough to note that he was sent by Turgon to seek aid from the Valar. This is one of Tolkien’s little set-ups, so having met him, we can set him aside for a later chapter.
In any case, now only three Elf-kingdoms still elude Morgoth’s reach, and these are, for the time being, the only true places of refuge in Beleriand: Doriath, Gondolin, and Nargothrond. And yeah, that he can’t seem to root them out really grinds his gears—especially that Hidden City of Turgon’s.
We’re told that “Morgoth feared and hated the house of Fingolfin, because they had the friendship of Ulmo his foe,” and because it was Fingolfin who’d wounded him after the Battle of Sudden Flame, and gave him his forever limp. Now Morgoth strongly dislikes a lot of things, but those he markedly hates, as called out in the text, have their own special list. Time to jot this one down.
Then we get a wonderful little flashback to Valinor before the exile of the Noldor, before even the death of the Two Trees:
And most of all his kin Morgoth feared Turgon; for of old in Valinor his eye had lighted upon him, and whenever he drew near a shadow had fallen on his spirit, foreboding that in some time that yet lay hidden, from Turgon ruin should come to him.
Ah, those were the early days after his discharge from Mandos Penitentiary, when he became somewhat well regarded, walking freely in Tirion among the Noldor, and every now and then he’d cross paths with Tulkas, who would give that sidelong look that said, Someday, punk, I’m going to wrap you in your own headband. Just you wait. And now it turns out that Turgon—Turgon, just one of the mere grandsons of Finwë—was giving him the creeps. It’s delightful that Turgon bothers Morgoth so much.
But the Dark Enemy of the World still has one card to play in finding Turgon: the Húrin card. Recall that after the Battle of Sudden Flame, after Húrin and Huor returned to Hithlum after having spent one year in Gondolin, they kept their promises and observed the first rule about Gondolin (not to talk about Gondolin). But their own people guessed well enough where they might have gone, and that reached Morgoth’s spies in due time. So Húrin is his key to finding Gondolin.
And now Morgoth has Húrin fully in his power. Well, Húrin effectively spits in his face and mocks him, displaying the same obstinance he showed to all the Orcs whose arms he displaced in battle. This is insolence that Morgoth’s ego cannot abide, so he curses Húrin, “setting a doom upon him of darkness and sorrow.” And boy are we going to see this doom unfold. Morgoth has Húrin placed on a special stone chair somewhere high up on Thangorodrim, open to the sky. This is probably more physically manageable than the torment Maedhros endured hanging from one arm somewhere up there, but Húrin’s sorrow is going to be arguably worse.
Sit now there; and look out upon the lands where evil and despair shall come upon those whom thou lovest. Thou has dared to mock me, and to question the power of Melkor, Master of the fates of Arda. Therefore with my eyes thou shalt see, and with my ears thou shalt hear; and never shalt thou move from this place until all is fulfilled unto its bitter end.
Yeesh. Morgoth is basically going after Húrin’s family with all the supernatural, reality-altering malice of a fallen Vala. And yet this man, whose ancestry comes from both the House of Hador and the House of Haleth, remains defiant. He asks for neither pity nor death, not even for his next of kin. And very sadly, as we’ll see in the next chapter, Húrin does indeed have some of those.
The dust has fully settled, and Morgoth sits triumphant. Never does he venture forth to survey the realms he’s won. He’s a real homebody in his Dark Lord body, even though he’s the self-styled master of the fates of Arda. Previously he called himself the King of the World, when he first sat down on his throne with his tri-Sil metal hat. Oh, wait, now he’s down to just two Silmarils! But as Morgoth’s sphere of influence widens, his own personal might diminishes: He’s stuck in his body, he can be wounded, and he can definitely be robbed. Just ask Beren and Lúthien.
But that doesn’t mean Morgoth can’t continue to spite Ilúvatar and trouble his Children. Starting with all those corpses of Men and Elves outside his doorstep, for which he is utterly responsible. So he has his Orcs gather them all up from across the vast fields of battle, and damn it, there are so many. Piling them in the middle of Anfauglith with all their gear, they’re just left to rot there. No burning, no dramatic finality. Just…heaped and left out for the carrion birds. Somewhere in there is Fingon, and Huor, and thousands more. So big is this mound of the dead that it can be seen from afar. It is named the Hill of Slain, or Haudh-en-Nirnaeth, the Hill of Tears.
And yet the earth, as time goes by, subsumes it, and grass grows upon it—and Morgoth’s monsters eventually shun it. This is still the substance of Arda, which all the Valar had once shaped and made fair even as the wayward Melkor smacked it around. But the real point is, as gruesome and dreary as things have gotten, this is still Tolkien. Even after so much ruin and pain, life springs anew. Hope is kindled, if barely.
Day will come again.
In the next installment, we’ll pour over Chapter 21, “Of Túrin Turambar,” and see if we can figure out why bad things happen to good people. Or at least, people with good intentions.
Top image from “Glaurung at Nirnaeth Arnoediad” by Eric Velhagen
Jeff LaSala would also like to hear a Hardcore History podcast episode of the Battle of Sudden Flame just to hear Darn Carlin describe in vivid detail the rivers of fire spewing out of Thangorodrim, and of the Balrogs first marching in the “train” of Glaurung. Tolkien geekdom aside, Jeff wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel, produced some cyberpunk stories, and now works for Tor Books. He is sometimes on Twitter.