Monday, May 4, 2009

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: The Battle of Unnumbered Tears

4. The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien
Nirnaeth Arnoediad

Great was the triumph of Morgoth, and his design was accomplished in a manner after his own heart; for Men took the lives of Men, and betrayed the Eldar, and fear and hatred were aroused among those that should have been united against him.

J.R.R. Tolkien,
The Silmarillion

As much as I enjoy the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the Battle of Five Armies, neither can compare in size, pathos, devastation, and sheer magnificence with the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, also known as the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, one of the six major battles of the First Age of Middle Earth. Imagine magnificent elf-lords in gleaming armor and high white helms, doughty dwarves blasted with dragon fire, Balrogs engaging in single combat, a battle of betrayal, of bravery and sacrifice, and of ultimate ruin. That is the Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

Though not quite as enormous as the War of Wrath, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears is massive in scope. This Wikipedia entry does a nice job of pulling together an order of battle that estimates 330,000-500,000 orcs in the hosts of Angband, the fortress of the dark lord Morgoth. Opposing them is a force of approximately 85,000-120,000 elves, men, and dwarves.

If these massive armies weren’t enough, Morgoth's forces are reinforced with balrogs, trolls, wolves, and the dragon Glaurung. That’s right—balrogs and a dragon are involved in the battle. The armies of elves, men, and dwarves include several great heroes of their age, such as are rarely seen in the Third Age of Middle Earth (the age in which The Lord of the Rings takes place) and of which songs are still sung.

Such a battle defies description: Even Tolkien, its creator, can’t do it justice. As he writes in The Children of Hurin:

Many songs are yet sung and many tales are yet told by the Elves of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, in which Fingon fell and the flower of the Eldar withered. If all were now retold a man’s life would not suffice for the hearing.

I’d be willing to sit at the feet of Tolkien's shade and listen to a full recounting of the battle, but I have only one life to give to the endeavor. Alas, as it now stands, our only description of the battle are eight pages in The Children of Hurin and a brief section of The Silmarillion. Still, what is told and/or hinted at is enough to easily earn the battle a place in my Top 10 Fantasy Fiction Battles.

As befits its name, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears results in perhaps the most devastating loss on the battlefield for the forces of good in J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium—utter defeat of the Noldor elves, the death of Fingon, their king, and the capture and eventual torture of the great human hero Hurin. It’s an antidote for critics who accuse Tolkien of being soft on war, and a teller of easy, child-friendly tales in which the forces of good always prevail. This opinion (and I've seen it espoused in more than one place) is horseshit.

The battle rages for at least six days, from what I can gather from the text, and is like a great, slowly unfolding tragedy. The forces of good are well-prepared, confident, and hold the high ground, and when Turgon and his 10,000-strong army issues uncalled for from Gondolin, Fingon’s heart is filled with hope of final victory. “The day has come! Behold, people of the Eldar and Fathers of Men, the day has come!” he says.

But a black night is in store. The Captain of Morgoth sends out heralds with tokens of parley, and bring with them Gelmir, a lord of Nargothrond, an elven lord whom Morgoth had blinded in captivity. The heralds cruelly hew off his arms and legs in plain sight of the elves and leave him to die. As fate would have it, Gelmir’s brother Gwindor sees this act of butchery and charges the heralds in a blind rage, slaughtering them. His forces continue the attack all the way through the gates of Angband, penetrating so far and with such wrath that Morgoth himself, hearing Gwindor and his men beating upon his door, trembles on his throne. But Gwindor is trapped at the doors and captured, and all his folk slain there.

Back on the field, Fingon and the main body of the elves have followed Gwindor onto the battle-plain where they no longer have the advantage of high ground, and there begins the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, “all the sorrow of which no tale can contain,” Tolkien writes. The field is lost when Gothmog, a balrog and high-captain of Angband, meets King Fingon in combat on the field. Fingon fights Gothmog to a standstill until a second balrog comes behind him and casts a throng of steel around him. Gothmog hews Fingon’s white helm with a stroke of his black axe, killing the elven king. “Thus fell the King of the Noldor; and they beat him into the dust with their maces, and his banner, blue and silver, they trod into the mire of his blood.” In addition, the Easterlings turn traitor and fall upon the rear of the sons of Feanor, helping to turn the tide of battle in favor of Morgoth.

Fingon’s younger brother Turgon escapes back to Gondolin thanks to a brave, suicidal rear guard action by Hurin and his brother Huor. This is perhaps the most poignant pause in a battle filled with such moments. Says Huor to the elf-lord:

“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!”

The Men of Dol-lomin fight a terrific last stand, affecting Turgon’s escape, but there is no escape for the brothers. Huor falls with a venomed arrow in his eye, all his valiant men are slain about him in a heap, “and the Orcs hewed their heads and piled them as a mound of gold in the sunset.”

Then comes the ultimate end. If this passage doesn’t invoke a chill in your soul, Tolkien will never be for you:

Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and seized the axe of an orc-captain and wielded it two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried aloud: ‘Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, who thought thus to do him more evil than by death. Therefore the Orcs grappled Hurin with their hands, which clung to him still, though he hewed off their arms; and ever their numbers were renewed, till he fell buried beneath them.

Unfortunately for Hurin, he is taken alive.

The enduring image of the battle is a great mound of corpses of men, elves, and dwarves that can be seen for miles off, and upon which no servant of Morgoth dares to trod. It later grows green and is the only verdant place in the desert of Anfauglith. Wives of the slain later find it and grieve upon it. Artist Ted Nasmith’s wonderful, grim painting “The Hill of the Slain” captures this image beautifully and terribly.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one other amazing sequence of the battle that is not included in The Children of Hurin, but which can be found in The Silmarillion: A battle of dwarves and dragons. Glaurung the dragon and his brood are wreaking havoc upon the Noldor, who break before the fire-spewing wyrm. But standing firm are the Dwarves of Belegost, who wear “great masks in battle hideous to look upon” and are thus able to withstand the flames. The dwarves surround Glaurung and hack at him with their axes. Glaurung in his rage turns and strikes down Azaghal, Lord of Belegost, and crawls over him, but with his dying stroke Azaghal drives a knife into his belly, so wounding him that he flees the field. The grief-stricken dwarves bear away their lord singing a dirge, and none dare to stay them, not even their foes. It’s an amazing image.


Kent said...

This is an excellent description of the battle. I must dig out that chapter again. The first time I saw that 's' on the end of 'Balrog' was a powerful what-the-fuh moment for me.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Kent. It is eye-opening to see the scope of the Silmarillion First Age battles... they make the Battle of the Pelennor Fields seem like a minor skirmish in comparison.

Mythopoeia said...

The Battles of the Third Age are those of warriors and monsters; the First Age battles were between Gods and Heroes. I really enjoyed your summary of the Nirnaeth here; the battle is so important and impressive and powerful, but as you pointed out, so little of it is told. Somehow it still resonates. Tolkien was a Genius.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Mythopoeia, no surprise here but I'm in total agreement on Tolkien's genius. The battles of the Silmarillion/First Age are in the spirit of Homer's The Iliad--a clash between Gods and heroes that are more akin to Gods than men, especially when viewed through the lens of the Third Age.

Eric D. Lehman said...

I prefer the single combat between Fingolfin and Morgoth.

I love how it is hopeless for Fingolfin, but he manages to lame a god nevertheless.