There is a popular subgenre of fantasy fiction known as “grimdark,” which tends to feature violent, unpleasant settings and predominantly human characters. No one is entirely good or bad, and their protagonists are made to suffer all sorts of agonies over the course of the story. Think George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series Game of Thrones is based on), Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, or the works of Steven Erikson.
This sub-genre is often referred to as “anti-Tolkien,” and we can see why. J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, with its noble kings with healing hands, impossibly beautiful Elves, angels come down to Middle-earth to fight the forces of evil, and actual God (Eru Ilúvatar), could never be described as “grimdark,” a subgenre full of amoral people, wicked kings, and flawed heroes, where Elves are either absent all together or thoroughly evil.
But if you dig a bit deeper into Tolkien’s sprawling, complex fictional world, some of Tolkien’s characters have stories that would be entirely at home in a “grimdark” setting. Whether that is because the character in question is morally gray and commits heinous acts, or because of the extreme suffering they undergo, there are more of them than you might think.
We know – highlighting Tolkien’s version of Satan as a “dark” character might not entirely be considered “shocking.” An immortal, angelic being who rebelled against Eru and came to Arda (the world) because he wanted to dominate it, he is basically the Devil – of course he does terrible things. His right-hand man and successor Sauron was left off this list for being a fairly typical “Dark Lord,” or rather, being the prototype of a fantasy Dark Lord, an evil being bent on acquiring power at any cost.
We have singled out his master Melkor, aka Morgoth, though, because he manages to be even more grim and evil than Sauron, and often in a more personal way. In one of Tolkien’s versions of the story of Arien, guide of the Sun, published in The History of Middle-earth, Morgoth rapes Arien, prompting her to leave Arda forever. In The Silmarillion, he plans to rape the Elf Lúthien (he “conceived in his thought an evil lust, and a design more dark than any that had yet come into his heart since he fled from Valinor”), and he curses the children of Húrin (see below for how that turned out) as well as corrupting Fëanor…
Fëanor was King of the Noldorian Elves and the creator of the Silmarils, three beautiful jewels containing the essence of the Two Trees of Valinor, which lit the land of the Valar (sort of like angels). He was inspired to create them after his niece Galadriel refused to give him a single strand of her hair no matter how much he begged, which suggests that Galadriel really is as wise as she seems, and that Fëanor had some very inappropriate feelings toward his niece. Melkor, who wanted the Silmarils, managed to convince Fëanor that his brother Fingolfin was planning to usurp him and steal the Silmarils. In response, Fëanor had his people start forging weapons (which had not existed beforehand) and threatened to kill his brother.
Eventually Melkor had his giant demonic spider friend Ungoliant destroy the trees, nicked the Silmarils, killed Fëanor’s father, and ran off to Middle-earth. Fëanor raised an army to follow and fight him, and swore an oath together with all seven of his sons that they would fight anyone who ever kept the Silmarils from them. When the Sea-Elves declined to give or lend him their ships, he fought and massacred them to steal their fleet, sailed across the sea, then burned the ships so that Fingolfin and his followers could not reach them. According to some of Tolkien’s later drafts published in the History of Middle-earth, he even accidentally killed one of his own sons in the process. Fëanor was eventually killed by a Balrog, and his spirit was so fiery that his body was reduced to ashes as it left.
Celegorm and Curufin
All of Fëanor’s sons had difficult lives and most came to sticky ends thanks to the oath they swore to go after the Silmarils no matter what, but these two, his third and fifth sons, were particularly bullish about it. After their father’s death, and after losing another battle to Melkor (now going by Fëanor’s name for him, Morgoth, “Black Enemy”), they went to live with their cousin Finrod. One day, the mortal Beren turned up at Finrod’s stronghold, asking for help to steal a Silmaril from Morgoth because his Elvish girlfriend Lúthien’s father, Thingol, would not let him marry his daughter unless he did. Finrod went with Beren but Celegorm and Curufin refused because of their own oath to keep the Silmarils to themselves. When Beren and Finrod were captured and Lúthien turned up looking for them, Celegorm tried to force her to marry him, and when Finrod died and Beren returned, Curufin tried to kill her, but only managed to (non-fatally) shoot Beren instead.
Beren eventually got his hand on a Silmaril, only to have it bitten off by a werewolf, but he persuaded his father-in-law to accept that the Silmaril was still “in his hand” even if his hand was no longer on him. They eventually killed the wolf and cut it out, and the Silmaril ended up in the possession of Beren and Lúthien’s son, Dior. This inevitably resulted in another battle, in which Dior, Celegorm, and Curufin, as well as another of their brothers, were all killed. But at least Curufin’s befriending the Dwarves led to his son Celebrimbor having a close relationship with them too, which in no way backfired horribly later on. Ahem.
Fëanor’s eldest son and heir, Maedhros was much less inclined towards foolish and/or downright evil acts than his father or some of his brothers. But he comes under the category of “grimdark” for the sheer amount of suffering he was forced to endure. He had barely inherited the kingship from his father and not yet claimed it when he was captured by Morgoth and chained to a high cliff on a volcano by his right hand. He was rescued by his cousin Fingon and an Eagle, but they could only get him free by chopping off his hand – long before the Saw movies made that cool.
Clearly having had enough of all this nonsense, Maedhros turned over the kingship to his uncle. He survived the battle against Dior that killed three of his brothers, and then attacked Dior’s daughter Elwing, who was now in possession of the Silmaril. He captured her sons Elrond (yes, that Elrond) and Elros, but another brother died. As a result, Elwing jumped off a cliff and into the sea, the Silmaril with her. But she got better and the Silmaril became a star.
On the other hand, Maedhros did not do so well. He and his last surviving brother Maglor managed to take the other two Silmarils from Morgoth, but they had all behaved so badly in trying to get them that the jewels burned their hands. Unable to bear the pain, Maedhros threw himself, along with the Silmaril, into a volcano.
Túrin and Niënor
Túrin and Niënor’s cursed lives were not their own fault – they were literally cursed. Their father Húrin was captured by Morgoth, who wanted to know where the hidden Elven city of Gondolin was. Húrin refused to tell him, so Morgoth imprisoned him on a volcano and cursed his children, keeping Húrin alive so he could see just how effective the curse was. And boy, was it effective.
Túrin’s first sister Urwen died young and his mother sent him away before his second sister, Niënor, was born, trying to protect him from Morgoth. He nearly died on the way, but was rescued by an Elf called Beleg. He was adopted by King Thingol but accidentally killed one of Thingol’s counselors and ran away. Túrin became the leader of a gang of outlaws and his friend Beleg eventually joined him and rescued him from Mîm the Petty-Dwarf, only for Túrin to accidentally kill Beleg with his own sword.
It got worse. Túrin ended up living in Nargothrond where the Elf Finduilas fell in love with him. While fighting the dragon Glaurung, Túrin was tricked into thinking his mother and Niënor – who he had never met – were suffering back home, so he abandoned Finduilas as she was captured and dragged away, calling for help. Finding his home empty, he killed an Easterling lord – whose wife burned herself to death in response – and went back for Finduilas, but she was already dead.
It got even worse. He went off to live in the forest of Brethil, where he found a young woman lying sick on the grave of Finduilas and unable to speak, so naturally, he married her. He even managed, eventually, to kill Glaurung – but while Túrin was unconscious, with his dying breath, the dragon told his wife her true identity: Niënor, Túrin’s sister, who had been given a bad dose of amnesia by the same dragon. On realizing they were full brother and sister, Niënor killed herself, and when Túrin eventually found out, he killed himself too, and was buried near Finduilas.
Húrin was released, found his wife dying, and having outlived his whole family, threw himself into the sea. In other words, if you’ve just finished reading The Children of Húrin, go and read Game of Thrones to cheer yourself up.
For all that The Hobbit is a children’s book that is much lighter in tone than most of the rest of the legendarium, Thorin Oakenshield is actually a pretty “dark” character. Take Bilbo the amusing Hobbit out of the story and you’re left with the leader of a group of refugees trying to reclaim their homeland against insurmountable odds, who was eventually corrupted by his desire for treasure and died at the end of the book along with his two young cousins.
And Thorin’s father Thráin II has an even worse time of it. Morally, he seems to be pretty upstanding, but the suffering this poor Dwarf is put through would definitely be at home in any grimdark tale. He fled the destruction of their home with his father Thrór, and fought a war against Orcs in which he was blinded in one eye, permanently injured his leg, and one of his sons was killed. Then he was captured and tortured by Sauron, lost the last of the Seven Rings of Power of the Dwarf-lords to the Dark Lord, and was left to die. By the time Gandalf showed up in his dungeon, Thráin II could no longer remember who he was, so he gave Gandalf his last two possessions (a map and a key) and died.
Contrary to popular belief, there are some morally gray characters in The Lord of the Rings – Boromir and Denethor, to name but two misguided Men. But by far the most complex in terms of “darkness” is of course Sméagol. He was clearly something of a wrong ‘un from the beginning, since the Ring corrupted him into murdering his poor cousin Déagol within a few seconds of looking at it, never mind actually touching it. If Frodo had been like that, Bilbo would have been offed and all his treasure and his nice hobbit hole nicked by his nephew years before.
But there’s something not entirely evil about Sméagol. He appears to feel some level of affection for Frodo even though Frodo and Sam kidnap and hold him using rope that burns his skin. It is his feeling of having been betrayed by Frodo when they are captured by Faramir that really seals his fate. And as Bilbo, Frodo, and eventually Sam all see, he is also pitiable in the extreme. In the end, it it’s that pity that saves the world despite Frodo’s last-minute (and brief) turn to the dark side. Sméagol’s fate, cast into a volcano with the Ring he wanted so badly, may seem like just deserts, but it is a pretty grim one as well.
Saelon is a human character who appeared in the sequel to The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien started but abandoned after a few pages called The New Shadow. Introducing the character as a member of a secretive cult, Tolkien explained in a letter that the story would have involved “revolutionary plots” and a “secret Satanistic religion.”
This, it seems, is where Tolkien’s appetite for “darker” tropes ran out. He abandoned the story, finding that he did not want to write what he said would have been a “thriller.” Dark cults and human plots, in the end, simply were not his thing.