NZ Strider:  Chap. Discussion: The Silmarillion: Of Beren and Luthien (I): #3: The Band of Outlaws

TORn Reading Room, October 25, 2004


“It has been told that Barahir would not forsake Dorthonion, and there Morgoth pursued him to his death, until at last there remained to him only twelve companions...  Thither [to the lake Tarn Aeluin] Barahir and his outlaws withdrew, and there made their lair, and Morgoth could not discover it.  But the rumour of the deeds of Barahir and his companions went far and wide...”


NZ Strider: Tolkien seems fascinated by the theme of the band of outlaws, headed by a noble outcast.  It is, of course, a theme deeply rooted in English folklore: One thinks immediately of the exiled Saxon nobleman Robin of Lockseley, alias Robin Hood.  English tales offer additional specimens, e.g. the mediæval tale of Gamelyn, a young nobleman whom his wicked elder brother deprives of his property and then drives into the greenwood where he becomes the leader of a band of outlaws. 


NZ Strider: Q. 1A: Does the band of outlaws serve a narrative purpose in this tale?  After all, from whom is Barahir an outlaw?  Certainly from no legitimate authority of any kind -- the Sheriff of Nottingham surely had a legitimacy of office which Morgoth does not. 

squire:  Morgoth was originally a bit more of a King who kept an evil Law The concept of outlaw is a tricky one, once one gets into it, since the law itself is a function of sovereignty which ultimately derives from force majeure. Whether just or unjust, the law is what the lord says it is, unless the lord can be defied or overthrown.

In The Silmarillion, Morgoth as a Dark Lord would seem to be trying to kill any and all who oppose him, rather than running a kingdom of the kind that the Sheriff of Nottingham represented.

But in re-reading the opening of the Lay of Leithian, we see Morgoth's description is that of an evil King. He kills those who do not acknowledge his lordship:

With fire and sword his ruin red

on all that would not bow the head

like lightning fell. The Northern land

lay groaning neath his ghastly hand.

(lines 123-6)

and of Barahir's outlawry is written:

Yet small as was their hunted band

still fell and fearless was each hand,

and strong deeds they wrought yet oft,

and loved the woods, whose ways more soft

them seemed than thralls of that black throne

to live and languish in halls of stone.

King Morgoth still pursued them sore

with men and dogs, and wolf and boar...

(lines 135-142) Lays of Beleriand pp. 197-8

I always find it a bit un-Silmarillion-like to see the phrase "King Morgoth"! But that explains to me how Barahir and Beren (and the various other men you note) qualify as outlaws. Their tribes or peoples have been enslaved by Morgoth, and live under his cruel, unjust laws in slavery. Yet laws there are, and Morgoth rules the land, and so those who oppose him are "outlaws."

No time now for further thoughts, but will try to continue later.


NZ Strider: Q. 1B: And what do we learn about Barahir and Beren by knowing that they were once “outlaws”?  Or is Tolkien just drawing on a stock folkloric theme; i.e. he justs wants us to know that Barahir and Beren are Robin-Hood-types who live in the wild? 


NZ Strider: Beren stands first in a long line of Tolkien’s heroic men: Beren, Túrin, Túor, Bard the Bowman, Aragorn, Faramir... Many of the others also lead “bands of outlaws” of one sort or another: Túrin, the next mortal hero, following the order in the Silmarillion will command a pack of bravos on the borders of Doriath; Aragorn will have his Rangers in Eriador; Faramir his in Ithilien. 


NZ Strider: Q. 2A: Is the period in the wilderness, leading a band of hardened men, simply part of Tolkien’s “formula” for what makes a hero? 

Menelwyn:  archetypes, not stereotypes

Yes, we definitely see some commonalities among these heroes.  But it seems a bit overly negative to me to speak of these similarities as being formulaic or stereotypical.  I would rather say that these similarities reflect the archetypal nature of the characters.  (Ok, I'm not going to try to really distinguish between archetype and stereotype.)  Especially in the Silmarillion, we are in the realm of myth, and that is assuredly the realm of archetypes.  Heroes like Beren exist throughout the myths and legends of many cultures; we needn't limit ourselves to Tolkien examples or to obvious people like Robin Hood. 

Indeed, many mythological and legendary figures (and even some historical figures) have had their "wilderness band" period.  This time allows for several aspects of their heroic character to develop.  We see our heroes start small.  They rarely start out as all they're going to be.  (We do see this with the hobbits, incidentally.)  The wilderness gives them a chance to learn the skills that they will need when they get to the big adventures of their careers.  They gain strength by dealing with hardship.  The small bands are often a prelude to higher leadership positions.  Again, they're starting small.  We aren't dealing with people here who have been raised since day one to rule a nation (or if they have, they don't know it!).  And in the case of those who have actual outlaw bands, we get to see our heroes as rebels against evil overlords (I agree with squire about King Morgoth by the way), which certainly seems admirable.  This is how we know they're heroes. 

Yes, it happens with all of these people.  And yet, do you really get tired of it?  How many of you read other fantasy and science fiction?  It's the same thing again.  (Try the original Star Wars, or Dune, for sci-fi examples!)  There's something about this story that really resonates with people.  Whatever that something is, it's why this kind of story always seems to become a great myth or legend.  We like the hobbits because they can show the heroic in the ordinary, but the great legends let us see the extraordinary.  And that's always exciting.


Penthe:  Wilderness But the problem is, the wilderness seems to kill so many people. The only ones who survive do become astounding heroes (including the Hobbits as you say - and Aragorn comments explicitly on their toughness in FOTR). Many more, however, die tragic deaths alone in the forest or mountains or whatever. This seems like wastage of talent when you need every individual to fight a dark lord. And quite a lot of them seem to go a bit peculiar as well.

Maybe utilising this archetype is not such a good match for the Sil's actual narrative(s)?


erather:  But those who elect to avoid the wilderness experience never become heroes.  They're the Gaffers and pumpkin-worshiping hobbits of the world.  At least in mythology, to be a hero you have to do your time in the wilderness, and it will either kill you or make you great.  Actually, as I write this, it sounds a lot like the "walkabout" the Australian aborigines are said to have required as a rite of passage.


Penthe:  'What doesn' t kill you makes you strong'? Yeah, I don't know about that as something that I find in Tolkien generally. It's definitely worth thinking about more. The Gaffer, or Farmer Cotton, for example, do become heroes of a sort when protecting their own homes.

But I agree, staying home is no guarantee of safety either. Forced marriages, destruction of property, Fall of Gondolin - all kinds of disaster, but with no moral advantage.

I can't really say much about 'walk-about'. I believe there are many different formal processes of maturation in Indigenous Australian cultures. The notion of 'wilderness' is inherently problematic in Australia, though. I should imagine similar issues arise in the USA and Canada, too?


Arquen:  Wilderness/crucible

I will vote no on this one.  Many examples may be found of the ordeal of coming of age.  In myths, it commonly occurs in the wilderness.  For doctors, it's the (hazing?) ritual of residency and endless 18-hour shifts.  For geologists, it's the ritual 6 weeks of summer field camp in the wilderness senior year.  For perfessers, it's the Ordeal of the PhD defense.    I think it rings true because it happens to a lot of us, one way or another, some harder, some a bit easier. 


NZ Strider: Q. 2B: If so, why are heroes such as Bilbo and Frodo drawn differently? 


NZ Strider: Q. 2C: Taking another tack: do heroes like Aragorn gain meaning by standing beside heroes like Bilbo and Frodo?  That is to say, what may look like a stereotype in Beren becomes something more in Aragorn when there is a contrast? 

Arquen:  Perhaps part of the difference is that the stay-at-homes have not yet been tested in an ordeal, and they need the guidance of someone who has survived it.   

Perhaps heroes need different qualities depending on their mission.  Beren had a pretty straightforward mechanical mission: Remove treasure from resisting Evil Overlord, get girl.  Aragorn had a more complicated mission:  Save world without brain being eaten by evil Artifact; get girl.  Frodo had an even stranger mission: save world by destroying Evil Artifact, self-preservation optional.  Perhaps that's it:  if you have a girl waiting, you need to overthrow evil without getting yourself whacked, and if you don't have a girl, you can go for broke.


NZ Strider: And to add one final question:


NZ Strider: Q. 2D: Is a hero like Frodo at all conceivable in the world of the Silmarillion?  Or did Tolkien’s vision develop between his work on the Silmarillion and that on The Lord of the Rings so that a new type of hero was not only possible, but even necessary? 

drogo_drogo:  The hero as self-sacrificer I will tackle this question:

It seems to me that a hero such as Frodo is only vaguely adumbrated in the Silmarillion in its potrayal not of Beren or of Turin, etc., but rather of Earendil, at least aspects of Earendil.  Frodo is the self-sacrificing hero, the one who is not a leader of others (or of an band of merry men such as the others) but rather one who takes a solitary journey that will culminate in his end, but will ultimately save others.  Earendil is the closest to that model of hero, the most "Christ-like" of Tolkien's heroes (and of course, the first one he conceived as far back as 1917).  He is the one who takes a solitary journey of self-sacrifice and is the one mortal who forever stands apart from others of his kind by becoming part of the cosmos.  Now the obvious difference between Frodo and Earendil is that Earendil is also the traditional hero-as-warrior who battles Ancalagon and will be one of the ones to fight Morgoth in the end (in some versions of Tolkien's envisionings of the end of the world).  The self-sacrificing hero concept evolved from Earendil to Frodo when Tolkien chose to make that hero type the unsung hero (at least in his own land), the hero who eschews violence (as Frodo does during the Scouring of the Shire) but rather invests all his heroism into his decision to act for the good of others.  We thus see the beginnings of that alternative conception of heroism late in the Silmarillion, but yet still associated with the more traditional form of hero we see populating the other parts of the story.

Beren is still cut from the cloth of the hero as outlaw/exile/outcast who uses his cunning and his strength of body and will to achieve his heroic end.  Aragon, his heir, plays that role in LOTR.  This is rather like putting Beren and Earendil together on a quest:  they too, like Aragorn and Frodo, would have had to have separated in order to accomplish their respective goals.


Arquen:  Are heroes born or bred?

I think a hero like Frodo is not going to work in a narrative like the Sil.  The heroic tradition of the Sil draws mainly on the idea of nobility being conferred by birth, and that royalty, having their authority vested by birth, do most of the heroics out of a sort of noblese oblige. 

But when working the material into a kids story, like the hobbit, there is a really big narrative problem:

A kid's experience of the royal family will be limited to newspaper photos of cavalcades and motorcades, and people in nice suits, dresses, and pearls. 

Now let's let a kid imagine the Brit royal family fleeing Buckingham, and camping in the woods eating acorns.  It just doens't work.  The job of 'kinging' has changed a lot since the Old Days(tm).

I think JRRT had to come down off his high horse when it came to making an 'up-close-and-personal story'.  High horses are great for long-distance views, but things often look different up close with a magnifier.  Now JRRT met many common Englismen and was impressed by their pluck and heroism in WW1.  He realized that an army was composed of more than officers.

I don't think he was ever able to reconcile the two opposing views in the Sil.  I think that only happened in LOTR, and in part it reflects his being of two minds on heroism: nature or nurture?


erather:  Hobbits are a new breed of hero. The heroes of the Sil are definitely of the classic mold, brave and powerful individuals with a strong code of honor and limitless courage.  Hobbits are exactly the opposite:  small, peace-loving, comfort-seeking, mundane, and naturally timid folk who somehow manage to tap unsuspected reservoirs of moral strength when placed in "hopeless" situations. 

With all the movie-engendered talk of "character arcs" I think the evolution of hobbits represents a genuine character arc in Tolkien.  In his youth (when most of the Sil was imagined) his imagination dwelt with classical-style heroes who could have stepped right out of the old sagas.  But the mature Tolkien was able to look at ordinary life and find what was truly heroic in it, and his genius was able to encapsulate this in his new breed of unlikely heroes.  By inahabiting LotR with both varieties, he shows us both the strengths of the classical heroes as well as their limitations: only Frodo could actually save Middle Earth, and not by physical strength as much as moral fortitude.


Beren IV:  Frodo and Sam

Even in the Lord of the Rings, the mighty heroes are all kings and princes and other high nobility in a sort of mythic style. Now, if heroism, intellect need to learn the skills that allows a hero to survive and be successful, and the special talent that otherwise cuts one above the common rabble, are hereditary, then we would expect that heroes would rise to the tops of their societies and become lords and nobles. This is how I picture the Elven houses as having gotten set up in the first place.

One other thing that I notice about the Lord of the Rings is that whenever there aren't any Hobbits watching, things become very mythical. You have the noble Prince with his lords and mighty sword-arms smiting down evil (sometimes it doesn't even say sword-arms, sometimes you get the impression that they might be using "magic" as a weapon, etc.). Whenever there are Hobbits watching, however, everything becomes believable. Suddenly, the characters, the people, are people - love takes a while to develop (rather than happening at first sight), and heroes are not as strong as giants but need to think about what they are doing. In short, the Hobbits' perception of events makes things become real and believable. The events that are described when none of the Hobbits are looking probably didn't happen quite as was written. After all, this is supposed to be a portion of the Red Book of Westmarch!

In the mythical style of the Silmarillion, no, Frodo and Sam do not and could not exist. However, we can accept that people like them probably did exist if we actually try to imagine what living in the days of the Sil must have been like.

So, with that concluded, I would like you to all consider this as you read the chapter:

What really happened in the adventures of Beren and Lùthien?


NZ Strider: Barahir and his outlaws have a hideout, somewhere near Tarn Aeluin.  I don’t believe that Tolkien ever specifies what made that hideout so perfectly concealed that it took treachery to reveal it to Morgoth; yet for some reason I keep thinking of the entrance to a cave behind a waterfall... 


NZ Strider: Q. 3: Any speculation?  Or is there some note in HoME (which, I confess, I haven’t had time to scour on this point)?