The Tale of the Children of Húrin remains remarkably consistent throughout its long history. The tale was obviously close to Tolkien’s heart, as it exists in no less than five published versions. The tale draws upon Tolkien’s vast knowledge of legend and mythology, “[deriving elements from] Sigurd the Vulsung, Oedipus and the Finnish Kullervo” (Letter 131). One of the central themes of each of these tales, including that of Túrin, is incest, both known or unknown. The union of Sigmund and Signý, in the Vulsunga Saga, is one of both love and vengeance (Legend 83). Their incest is committed with full consciousness of their actions, and yet little repercussion. In Oedipus, the incest is unknown, and when discovered leads to madness and death. In the Kalevala, Kullervo seduces his sister, unaware of her identity. When she discovers their shared patrimony she flees and casts herself into a river (Turgon 377-8). In the treatment of the seduction and discovery of incest, the tale of Turambar and the Faolókë is markedly similar to the Tale of Kullervo.
However, the topic of incest must have been a challenge for Tolkien, who worked to create a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” not only in The Lord of the Rings but throughout his sub-created world (Letter 142). As described in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, incest “corrupts family relationships and marks a regression toward animality,” it is a corruption of the Natural Law (CCC 2388). In writing of the incest of the children of Húrin, Tolkien reinvestigates the nature of love, and uses draconic glamour to bring about its corruption.
The cursed fate of the children of Húrin is partly brought about by their overweening pride, but the primary instigator in the darkest element of their curse is Glaurung. In his meeting at the gates of Nargothrond with Túrin and later with Niënor upon Amon Ethir “he [accomplishes] the errand of his Master,” Morgoth (CoH 180). These encounters mark the turning point in their fate. Glaurung may be able to hold others in thrall, and twist truth in crafty speech, but his true power lies in corruption (TBoLT II 98). He does not create the incestuous love in Túrin and Niënor, but merely perverts the fraternal love of brother and sister because no one can “deny…the bond of…blood” (CoH 179).
On Amon Ethir, Niënor confronts Glaurung, revealing the desire of her heart: to be reunited with her brother Túrin, unwittingly also “[revealing herself] to his malice” (CoH 209).
“Then he drew her eyes into his, and her will swooned. And it seemed to her that the sun sickened and all became dim about her; and slowly a great darkness drew down on her and in that darkness there was emptiness; she knew nothing, and heard nothing, and remembered nothing.” (CoH 209)
Glaurung does nothing more than hide the memories of Niënor and her sense of self. He has little need to do much more. She will subconsciously follow the desire of her heart to find her brother, for Fraternal love cannot be created or erased. These longings are allowed to flourish, but are devoid of their original meaning and so open to perversion.
During a raid by orcs, Niënor is separated from the elves of Doriath and flees to Brethil, where she is found by Turambar,
“and when her glance fell on Turambar a light came in her face and she put out a hand towards him, for it seemed to her that she had found at last something that she had sought in the darkness, and she was comforted” (CoH 215).
Though devoid of all other memory, the instinctual love of family remains in testament to the Natural Law. In finding her brother, Niënor fulfills the original intent of her quest to Nargothrond, and senses that satisfaction at its completion. Yet neither she, nor Túrin, yet know from where their seemingly instantaneous bond springs.
There is joy and comfort to be found in the love of family. Just as a baby calms in its mother’s arms, so “only when Turambar stayed near [Níniel] would she lie at peace or sleep without moaning” and “only at his coming would she smile…only when he spoke gaily would she laugh” (CoH 217). At the same time, as she succumbs to the power of their inexplicable love, “there lay at times a chill foreboding upon Níniel’s heart” (TBoLT II 102). When Turambar speaks of his past and family, Níniel is “troubled” and when questioned of her past, she is “[distressed]…as though he troubled the surface of dark dreams” (TBoLT 102-3). Often throughout this romance in the Tale of the Children of Húrin, there is a dark undercurrent to the siblings’ courtship. A delicate balance between joy and unease is struck, in which neither realize the perversion they are enacting on a conscious level, but both, particularly Níniel/Niënor, express unease indicating a subconscious awareness of their familial bond.
This is seen most clearly in Turambar’s pursuit of Níniel’s hand in marriage in the Tale of Turambar and the Faolókë in the Book of Lost Tales. In the later iterations of the tale, the misgivings are born by Brandir, who persuades Níniel to wait (CoH 220). However, these doubts were originally Níniel’s own, and even when passed to another, are still evident in her actions.
“[Turambar often pressed] his suit with her, yet though he was a man of valiance and renown she delayed him, saying not yea nor no, yet herself she knew not why, for it seemed to her heart that she loved him deeply, fearing for him were he away, and knowing happiness when he was nigh.” (102)
On some level, Níniel senses the true nature of their relationship, first of her own volition, not knowing why, and then easily succumbing to the doubts of Brandir.
Túrin and Niënor do eventually wed, and conceive a child. Shortly thereafter, Glaurung learns of the might of Brethil (along with the possibility of Túrin’s presence) and comes. This action may be part of the warlike and sinister nature of dragons, but if Glaurung indeed knows of the union of Turambar and Níniel, this journey to his death marks the completion of his part in fulfilling Morgoth’s curse.
Glaurung is dealt a mortal blow by Túrin Turambar as he crosses over Cabed-en-Aras. But though dying, Glaurungs’ work is not done. When Túrin removes his swords from Glaurung’s belly, he “[stirs] and [opens] his baleful eyes and [looks] upon [him] with such malice that it seemed to him he was smitten by an arrow; and for that … he [falls] in a swoon, and [lies] as one dead beside the Dragon” (CoH 239). After much time has passed, Níniel approaches, unwilling and unable to wait longer for tidings. Finding Turambar seemingly dead, she despairs, and falls into the trap laid by the Dragon. Here remarkably, the words of Glaurung are almost identical across the earliest and the latest versions of the tale:
“’Hail, Niënor, daughter of Húrin. We meet again ere we end. I give you joy that you have found your brother at last. And now you shall know him: a stabber in the dark, treacherous to foes, faithless to friends, and a curse unto his kin, Túrin son of Húrin! But the worst of all his deeds you shall feel in yourself.’” (CoH 243)
These are the last words of the Dragon and act as an introduction to Níniel’s release from his glamour. With his death, the spell of forgetfulness leaves Níniel and the mean of Glaurungs last utterance becomes clear to her. Here again the description remains near identical in each account:
”…And with his death the veil of his spells fell from her, and all her memory grew crystal clear, neither did she forget any of those things that had befallen her since first she fell beneath the magic of the worm; so that her form shook with horror and anguish.”(TBoLT II 109)
Discovering the sham of her marriage, and believing her brother already dead, in despair Niënor casts herself into Cabed-en-Aras, where she pleads with the water to wash her clean (TBoLT 109). It is interesting to note the words Tolkien uses here, and elsewhere when describing Niënor’s memory; it is veiled, lost in dark dreams. So too, upon discovering the death of Níniel and the revelation that she is his sister, Túrin Turambar exclaims “’Blind, blind, groping since childhood in a dark mist of Morgoth!’” (CoH 255). The spell of Glaurung is a veil, a cage holding all Niënor’s memory of self and family. It is obscured, but not wholly forgotten.
This is the nature of the curse of Morgoth, fulfilled by proxy through Glaurung. In this union of brother and sister, Glaurung has succeeded in creating the greatest perversion of the Natural Law. He is apparently unable and unwilling to erase the siblings’ fraternal love or to create a new love, but he succeeds in masking the nature of that love such that it is not recognized for what it is. And so, the children in their ignorance twist their fraternal love into romantic and carnal love. The revelation of the falsehood of their love, and their willing partnership in its fulfillment is the final piece of their curse which leads to utter despair and death.