🖇 skin-changer. thorin oakenshield x male reader headcanons
summary: a lion skin-changer that meets dwarf king, and your love adventures
warnings: sexual themes and mentions (nothing serious). kissing. pure fluff.
🖇- thorin almost immediately knew you were a skin-changer, he has a good sense for those things. and while you weren't exactly hiding it, it was clear you didn't want too much attention drawn to you. your kin were dwindling, after all, and to have unnecessary attention wouldn't do any good.
🖇- but to have thorin know... wasn't exactly a problem.
🖇- from joining this band of misfits to get the dwarf's home back, it was clear he was a great leader, someone you could count on and trust. he knows boundaries when he sees them and mostly doesn't have the heart or care to overstep them, especially with you, and you soon realize he goes over his way to make sure you're comfortable.
🖇- he defends you from the group, even when their joking. he keeps you close and makes sure you eat and drink. he gives you things to look after, like an interesting bone or feather, sometimes small flustered compliments go with the items. he's shy and underexposed from showing emotion, he only does small things, but you love it nonetheless.
🖇- he definitely has a big thing for praise, so whenever he gives you something you go all-out. you applaud him and tease him until he smiles or laughs. you make sure he's as comfortable as you are, always.
🖇- though you're also a lion skin-changer, your tough and hardy and sometimes overconfident, so while he does do little things for you, you won't shy away and do more for him. you hunt for him in your lion form, you make sure he sleeps when he starts to overthink at night, you leave him warm by laying against him as a lion. you remember small details he's said, you've braided his hair and saved his hide more than one could count. you tease him endlessly, you make sure he's blushing when you're around.
🖇- you're like an overbearing puppy. you make sure he's watching when you do something cool or bring him gifts of dead animals. you just need his attention all the time, you want to feel appreciated and you want him to know you love him at the same time.
🖇- while he's more reserved about his feelings for you, you definitely aren't afraid to show it, and the rest of the group knows.
🖇- sometimes they joke with him about it, sometimes they give him sex advice, or sometimes they're genuinely happy for him and show him that. ("we aren't even together, for fucks sake!")
🖇- they are... a bit more afraid of you, if they're honest. you can be a force to be reckoned with, in your lion form or not, so it's easy to not talk to you. but some aren't and like to know you, they ask about what your kin is like and what it feels to shift into something else. you like the attention, you'll gladly answer when their polite about it. but they don't really tease you about your crush on thorin, is the point i'm getting at.
🖇- when you did eventually tell him that you want to be more than friends, it was in the mist of an orc attack. well, you all were running from the orcs. but the orcs were on some kind of nasty wolf and incredibly faster than a dwarf. thorin was at the back of the group as usual, trying to make sure everyone was safe instead of himself, when you all eventually found a cave opening to squeeze into. it was tight but you all made it except thorin, who was lacking energy and strength to keep up.
🖇- making sure everyone else was safe, you transform into your lion-self, easily startling the orcs. in their disadvantage, you leap to thorin, grabbing his fur cloak and helping him on your back. you were faster than the wolves and quickly got to the mouth of the cave with him, shrinking into your human body and into the tunnel.
🖇- "thank you." "of course, my love."
🖇- you didn't mean to call him "my love," it just slipped out, and you didn't really regret it either. but you still just... froze, not really knowing what to say or do. you didn't want him uncomfortable or for your relationship with him to falter. but as he gazed into your eyes you didn't see anything but fondness for you, that spark that he always has when around you shone brighter than before.
🖇- the group got thorin's attention before you could discuss anything more, before you could tell him you love him.
🖇- the days that follow were spent with flirting and a sexual atmosphere around both of you. more than usual, that is. you could see him grow more confident with your relationship and on some occasions he would be more brave and catch you off guard with a random flirt or dark talk.
🖇- "careful, kitty." "you're just a pussycat, aren't you?" you would absolutely rip anyone to shreds if someone called you anything close to a house cat, but when thorin does it... you still get riled up, just in a completely different way. it's easily the fastest way to get you flustered and he knows it. he does it so unexpectedly too, and he also knows that a warm growl from you means it's definitely affecting you.
🖇- also the group can not take it anymore. "get a room, you two!"
🖇- luckily after a couple nights pass, it's just you and thorin awake and sort it out.
🖇- you're overall bigger than an average human, so next to thorin he shrinks, and he likes to be close to you for your body heat. it's one of those times, him practically sitting in your lap and you purring while watching the stars. your arms lazily drape over him and your back curled into his silhouette, you both feel so connected and content. your purrs rumble under his back from your chest, and his hands slide up and down your arms subconsciously.
🖇- he hesitates before speaking, "did you mean it, when you called me that?" you don't need any clarification, you know exactly what he's talking about.
🖇- your purrs falter for a second, but immediately start back up, heavier and deeper than before. it's all the answer he needs, but he waits for you to say it. he needs to hear it.
🖇- for once you're not scared to admit your feelings, these past days with your flirts have been bliss and you know he reciprocates your love, he has to. so you say it, full of emotion and true, "yes." and thorin relaxes against you. he sighs of happiness, the kind he never thought he'd have.
🖇- "will you kiss me?" he says like a prayer, a wish. you don't respond at first, only you grab his hips and turn him to face yourself, eyes bright in the starlight and face flush. you're nervous, you both are, and he awaits your answer.
🖇- he'll do anything you ask, he thinks, in that moment. you think the same thing.
🖇- "please." your whine is quiet in the night, and yet he feels the vibration through your chest and under his hands, the desperation on your tongue. he's never seen you like this, like putty in his hands. you both watch each other for a second, looking for any doubt or regret and see none but adoration, worship.
🖇- the kiss it slow but sloppy and pure love. every emotion you both feel gets carried through it, along with your purrs that open into deep whines of neediness. soon enough he's straddling you stronger and you try to touch every surface of him. it's hot breaths and blushed skin, saliva and rough hands along hips and arms.
🖇- when you finally part, it's easy to say it.
🖇- "i love you, thorin oakenshield."
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Is the Silm Grimdark?
In which I discuss this, for fun, and explore the idea. This is not an essay or a sophisticated thinkpiece, this is me collecting information and then thinking aloud at myself. There might be quotes! There might not! I don’t know yet. I am aware that Tolkien would not have intended it to be read as grimdark. I am aware that thematically, this is not what jirt was about. I’m not really trying to convince anyone of anything so much as I am trying to convince myself, or just take these and see what conclusions I end up at and examine this from a bunch of different angles, since I’m chronically incapable of doing it any other way. Since this is like 5,000 words, it’s under a read more. It...ballooned.
To preface, I don’t think that grimdark fiction is necessarily a bad genre, and I definitely don’t mind it when it’s done well. I also suspect that my definition of grimdark fiction might be a little unique, so I won’t just be basing this on my own subjective views- at least not at first. This goes for the characters as well; while I’ve tried to stick close to canon, there is little doubt in my mind that both fanon and my own headcanons will seep in when I’m discussing some of them- particularly the Feanorians.
The definitions are quotes from the Wikipedia article on grimdark, since they summarize it well; actual sources are included down below if you want to take a closer look at them! 3/4 are actually book reviews, the Roberts one is a book. So! Let’s get going: what is grimdark, and do any definitions of it fit the Silmarillion?
Might is Right
Definition: Adam Roberts describes grimdark as a genre "where nobody is honourable and Might is Right.” To him, it is "the standard way of referring to fantasies that turn their backs on the more uplifting, Pre-Raphaelite visions of idealized medievaliana, and instead stress how nasty, brutish, short and, er, dark life back then 'really' was". But this comes with the caveat that grimdark is not interested in re-imagining historic reality, and focuses instead on the sense that our world is a “cynical, disillusioned, ultraviolent place".
Does this jive with the Silmarillion? I would say emphatically not. While lives are certainly cut short, and while the world has been marred/darkened, it would be incorrect to say that all of the characters’ lives to follow that Hobbesian philosophy, or that any of them in-universe felt this way about themselves. At least, not textually, but fanon and headcanon will do what they will, I think. Perhaps if you were an orc, or a thrall in Angband, or an unnamed elf with little plot importance, it would be different. The Edain certainly did suffer- but even in these cases, the focus is not on how miserable they are when they’re alive. The story does not dwell on these minutiae, even if we can extrapolate that it exists. Certainly, characters are not disproportionately rewarded for being powerful- the elves that are very skilled combatants do not have this set out as the only thing good about them. It’s not a redeeming quality, and even with characters like Rog, who are counted as the strongest of the Noldor (at least he was in the Book of Lost Tales), it’s not the strength that matters, it’s what he does with it. Similarly, Maedhros is noted for his daring deeds during the Siege of Angband, but the details on those are sketchy- instead, the Silm tells us that Morgoth was penned in, and that there was peace for a time because of those deeds- they were more an act of protection, than anything else. (And, arguably, prudence, so no Feanorians started any shit with others.) And, well. The greatest and rather most obvious repudiation of might is right is simply that Morgoth does not win. Morgoth is not glorified in an inappropriate way- he is, after all, one of the Valar, so he’s incredibly powerful, and he is the mightiest of the Valar. He kills Finwe and gets the Silmarils, but this isn’t treated as an impressive thing, rather an evil one. Even in Beleriand, when the Bragollach breaks the Siege, his triumph is cut short by Fingolfin wounding him. And that’s important, too, because it shows that he is not invulnerable, that he can be hurt, and his wounds troubled him for- well. Pretty much ever, after that.
Might and power are not what the Silm emphasizes as good traits, and powerful characters who do morally grey (or straight up bad!) things are not rewarded accordingly. You might argue that Tolkien had a fairy tale view of what was Good and what was Evil, but I think that the Silm does blur those lines. And even in those not considered good, what Tolkien values and praises about them- at least in characters described as great- is creation, and then later, preservation. Evidenced by Feanor (greatest of the Noldor, despite eveything!), evidenced by Celebrimbor and Galadriel and Elrond, and the use of the Three. This is not particularly grimdark.
Dark Realism and Psychology
To Genevieve Valentine, grimdark a "shorthand for a subgenre of fantasy fiction that claims to trade on the psychology of those sword-toting heroes, and the dark realism behind all those kingdom politics". As the source for this quote is a review, she says “the Land Fit for Heroes is as grim and as dark as it gets [...] the structure of the books allows for nothing else.” She does make a note that the book in question states that power corrupts absolutely, and- I have not read The Land Fit for Heroes, but that not entirely out of line with what Tolkien stated (especially power taken for the dominion of others, rather than given, and used lightly). She also notes that it focuses on hyper-violence and cycles of violence treated casually, the same with sex and sexual violence. Which, while it may be specific to the work being reviewed, the realism element is present in other definitions and so is being included here.
Once more, this does not agree with the Silm. It’s actually somewhat difficult to elaborate on, given the narrative style of the Silmarillion. It focuses so much on big events and reads as myth that there is little room for a focus on the details of politics- beyond isolationism in Doriath and Gondolin, and tensions over the Kingship of the Noldor- and even that reads as a brotherly conflict between Feanor and Fingolfin, and is then resolved...simply. Maedhros abdicates, the kingship passes to Fingolfin’s line for the sake of unity, and no Feanorian is recorded as having tried to scheme to take it back like we might see in a more contemporary, darker setting. It’s simply given away, and this is accepted.
Similarly, the story does not give very much insight into the psyche of many characters- a lot of what we have is extrapolation from a few lines, from events. There’s no angst in the sense of getting a blow-by-blow for what a certain character is thinking at a given time, especially when they’re suffering. It simply tells us that they are being tormented, and that’s that. Even in CoH, where Turin has a bad fucking time all the time, every single moment of grief and horror is not put under a magnifying glass for our viewing pleasure. Certainly, there is a lot of grief, a lot of darkness and torture and awful, awful things, but it does not treat them casually, or as so normal in this world that they can be considered par for course. They happen, but they are condemned in universe.
As to the sex- well. That’s a non-starter as well, and I do not think the NoME would shed any light on that beyond some seriously confusing math that was probably never meant to see the light of day.
Realism, Darkness, and Agency
According to Jared Shurin, grimdark fantasy has three key components: a grim and dark tone, a sense of realism, and the agency of the protagonists. Heroes are flawed, kings are useless, and rather than a sense of pre-destination and how the characters will prevail, they actively have to choose between good and evil, and are “just as lost as we are.” He goes on to say, “But with grimdark, the future is mucky and undefined - evil could very well win. Perhaps that's the most realistic part of the genre. Or perhaps that's the grimmest - there's no longer a cosmic safety net for either the characters or the readers. Anything can happen [...] Characters weren't being rewarded as the tradition demanded, instead their decisions - whether Good or Bad - brought them the appropriate, in-world consequences. This is the randomness of real life, coupled with a sort of karmic brilliance: there's a casual link between choices and conclusions.”
Now this is where we start to see elements that are present in the Silmarillion. From the second that they enter Beleriand, from the second that Feanor just dies- and he’s been set up as the protagonist of that part of the Silm, in a way, we are to an extent on his side and rooting for him-, things start to go wrong. Right then, the future becomes undefined, the traditional narrative of a hero (a morally grey one, at that) defying the odds to achieve his goal is stopped in its tracks. Feanor is set up as so much, and he dies, just like that, before he does anything- and that’s where this element of uncertainty comes in. Feanor dies, Maedhros is captured, and things go wrong immediately. There’s no real safety net for the characters or the readers anymore.
But it’s what happens next, that contradicts this, doesn’t it. Fingon rescues Maedhros. He saves Maedhros from Thangorodrim, and yes, Maedhros loses a hand and is not the same person he once was, but he survives. The Noldor go, regardless of the Doom, but this isn’t seen as a bad thing by the narrative. Of course- the narrative in question is quite literally called the Noldolante, so that might be difficult to discern. And Maedhros abdicates, Fingolfin becomes king, and there is hope again. But only for a time. Because the Siege of Angband ends, and no matter how hopeful the elves are, it does not change the fact that Morgoth is much, much mightier than them. He doesn’t win, of course, because might is not everything. But the world is a dark place- literally, since Ungoliant consumed the light of the Trees-, and it will get darker. This is a losing battle and not all the Noldor accept it, and this brings us to the Doom.
Shurin says that part of grimdark literature is about agency and choice, that characters must make decisions, and face the consequences for them. And this is true, but in a world like the Silmarillion, where the question of fate versus free will almost always is answered by fate, how much agency do these characters have? The Doom of the Noldor outlines the woes to come right at the beginning- and agency or not, there is the sense that there is going to be no hope there. There’s going to be no help from the Valar, the gods are quite literally not listening to any prayers. And the Noldor, Finarfin’s host excepted, do not care. They accept this fate, they say ‘not today’, and they go forth to their doom- some more immediate than others. Arguably this too is grimdark in a sense- they use their agency and they make a choice, and they suffer for it with their destiny hanging over their heads.
Now, where does the Oath fit into this? It is not a prophecy, but it shapes the Feanorians in an undeniable way. Their fate is that their deeds will be twisted to bad ends, and that’s exactly what happens. It causes them to do awful things, it turns them from heroes to villains, and it does this in a way that makes their agency questionable. Fans (myself included) like to characterize them as being tormented by the Oath, as not having a choice about it, but the text does demonstrate that they’re able to choose to some extent- they try diplomacy with Dior, they do not attack Luthien while she has the Silmaril. And they choose to go after the Silmaril that Beren had gotten, instead of the other two that are in Morgoth’s crown. Is this really a choice? I don’t know. Is it a choice between good and evil? Between bad and worse? Between certain death and evil deeds? Probably all of the above. But Shurin points out that the characters in grimdark stories are to an extent lost, and must actively choose between good and evil (although not what they will choose), and. A choice of which Silmarils to go after is made here. Certainly, they were way more likely to get that than the other two.
Either way, there’s certainly realism and realistic consequences to it- they decide to try for the Silmaril in Doriath. But why should Dior give this up? He’s not going to see that the guys who imprisoned his mother for a time deserve what’s now an heirloom of his. Fuck them, right? And they want the gem, so badly that they’re willing to kill for it- and they do. But it would be ridiculous if they all survived, so they don’t. What does this attempt at capture entail? Definitely innocents getting caught up in it too, like Elured and Elurin. But if it’s chaotic enough to lose two children, it’s chaotic enough to lose more than that. The Silmaril and Elwing escape the this final ruin of Doriath, and of course they’re going to chase after it, that’s only logical. Just as it makes sense for Elwing to make the same choice as her father and not give the Silmaril up to the people who murdered her family. Every character makes choices, in this case, and in-world, the choices have consequences. And, well. In this case, none of them are exactly good.
By this definition, the Silm is in fact grimdark, which is not the conclusion I was expecting to draw here.
Nihilism and Overturning Heroism
In a review of the same Land Fit For Heroes trilogy, Liz Bourke posits that grimdark is “a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness's sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action ... as either impossible or futile.” It “values its gritty realism” and “attempts to overturn long-established heroic tropes.” She also says that the nihilism is something that many people find comforting: if everything is terrible and no moral decision can either be meaningful or have any lasting effect, then it rather absolves one from trying to make things better, doesn't it?)”
There is no doubt that the Silm is morally grey. With the exception of Beren and Luthien (who are of course perfect, and rock their happy ending), almost every character- yes, even the ‘good’ ones, has done something bad. Almost all the Noldor who were in Beleriand either participated in the first Kinslaying or stood aside and implicitly condoned it by expecting to use the boats that were gained from it, although they likely later condemned it. Their personal feelings on the matter are unknown. And that’s the best of the lot. The Feanorians do much, much worse thanks to their Oath; while they might be the ‘protagonists’ in the sense that the Quenta Silmarillion centers around their quest to regain the Silmarils, they do terrible, terrible things for the sake of this goal. There’s two more kinslayings, after all, and after the Bragollach, and then the Battle of Unnumbered Tears when the Siege is broken, it goes downhill quickly. From Celegorm and Curufin’s actions in Nargothrond (both wrt Finrod and Luthien), to Doriath to Sirion, the worst of the three, where they killed those who were refugees from Gondolin, elves they may have fought with or known before, it just gets darker. And they die, too, at each of these. Celegorm, Curufin, and Caranthir die in Doriath at the Second Kinslaying, and Amrod and Amras die at the Third. By the time the War of Wrath comes along, they’re so far reduced from what they were- that Maedhros is not the same one who was the Lord of Himring, and that Maglor is not the same as the one who held the Gap. They’re not the heroes that they might have been, that’s for sure.
But there are plenty of heroic characters- Finrod, Fingon, Fingolfin (lots of Fins)- that fall into the more traditional mold. And, importantly, they all die, the latter two as a consequence of their heroic/valorous actions, while Fingon dies in battle. None of these heroes meet a good end; in the tradition of the Silm, their deaths are pretty fucking awful, actually.
...And then there’s Turin. His story is arguably the one that best repudiates the idea of a hero, in the traditional sense. If that doesn’t do it, then nothing will, right? Because if anyone wanted to argue that CoH is the darkest story in the Silm, I wouldn’t protest it. A lot goes on. Turin’s lot is a fucking miserable one, he’s cursed by Morgoth, and it starts bad, ends worse, and he either kills or causes the deaths of everyone that he loves. Misery chases this man for the entirety of his life, starting from the death of his younger sister and- well. Also ending with the death of another sister. He flees Doriath, he falls in with outlaws, he gets betrayed and accidentally kills Beleg (his lover/best friend, who followed him from Doriath). He gives himself edgier and edgier names, going from The Wronged (Neithan) to Dread-Helm (Gorthol) to Blood-Stained, son of Ill-Fate (Agarwaen, son of Úmarth) to Black Sword (Mormegil). None of these titles would be out of place in a more grimdark novel, I’ll tell you that much. And despite having killed Beleg, when he’s in Nargothrond, things are not all bad. He’s influential, he has power with Orodreth, Finduilas loves him. And then the dragon comes, in part because he convinced Orodreth to abandon secrecy, although Nargothrond would likely have been found out anyway, if we’re being fair. The dragon comes, and Turin falls under its spell, and he leaves to rescue his mother and sister (who are fine), abandoning Finduilas to her fate. He goes home, finds it changed, finds an Easterling lord and kills him, ostensibly to save his kinswoman, but he seals her fate as well, because she burns herself alive, and things are made worse for the House of Hador. He goes back, finds out Finduilas has died, but he manages to recover, and he calls himself the Master of Fate. He decides that his curse is over, except it’s not, because he marries his sister, the dragon comes back, and she kills herself when she realizes what happened. He slays Glaurung, refusing to believe the truth, and kills the one who tells him. It’s only when Mablung repeats it, that he believes it, and we know how this story ends, too. So- dark in tone, miserable, and awful. Turin is no classic hero- everything that he does goes wrong, no matter how good his intentions are. Nor is it his curse that he will do evil, the real curse is that regardless of what he does, evil will come of it. No matter what he chooses- and he chooses a lot-, bad things happen because of his agency. And agency is an important thing, as per the previous section.
He still has hope through the entire thing- important to note, because he still tries, he still wants to do some good, he does not stop trying, but in the end, he gives in to his curse, and to despair. It is, of course, important to note that Turin is not deliberately cruel, nor does he relish in the things that he’s done, or what has happened because of him. He’s not amoral, and he certainly is not a villain. So while he fits the mold of overturning the idea of the classical hero, his tale is- despite its grimdark elements, given the ending and the contents- more of a tragedy, than anything else.
Tone, Rewards, and Punishment
That’s all well and good, but I don’t think that any one of these really encompasses what grimdark is, although they do provide very good guidelines. So I’m going to go with a far more subjective definition- ie, mine-, and definitions graciously provided by folk over at the SWG.
Grimdark fantasy is, to me, when bad things happen to good people, ostensibly because they are good, or are trying to be good and do the right thing. It is cynical, as in Roberts’ definition, but there is nihilism involved, in knowing that whatever you do, it will not end well, as in Bourke’s. For me, it’s more about the tone, about how characters are rewarded and punished in universe, and why. Are good acts punished solely because they’re good? Is the only way to survive and thrive to be wholeheartedly awful- and is this glorified? Is it rewarded as an in universe reason, that makes sense, or is it simply ‘yes, they were the worst so of course they’re going to come out on top’, with no consequences whatsoever? If they give up their humanity, is it praised as the only right decision, or is there a sense of loss surrounding it?
I will admit that the Witcher books have shaped my definition of grimdark considerably- and I would absolutely consider them grimdark, rather than GRRM’s work (and not just because we don’t know how ASOIAF will end, or what will happen. I don’t think it will have a happy ending, but I also don’t think that gory details and ultraviolent realism a grimdark story makes. But that’s a discussion for another day.) This definition is expanded by insight from the SIlmarillion Writer’s Guild server- Anoriath made the excellent point of “whether or not there’s any hope. Bad things happen. They can be explored in graphic detail. There doesn’t have to be a happy ending. The angst and awfulness can be unrelenting. But is hope part of the narrative? Even if not for yourself, then for other people after you? Or is despair and meaninglessness the only position taken by the narrative- rational or not?” Chestnut used ASOIAF and GRRM (yes! I know I said I don’t find it grimdark but the point is an important one) as an example and brought up that it has to do with “the narrative stance on human worth and meaning [...] at no point does the narrative tell us that to have done good once, have tried ad failed to do good, to have done what seemed to be good but turned out to be harmful, is worthwhile; indeed, that stance is laughable. [.... ] GRRM says that pain and suffering and evil are meaningless and negate human worth in perpetrators and victims.” They also point out that it is “fundamentally antipolitical” and “elevates cynicism and stasis over the potential for meaningful changes, however small.”
So. Does this happen in the Silm?
Again, kind of. There absolutely are characters who are punished, narratively, for doing the right thing and being good- and this is very much an in universe consequence of their actions. Fingolfin goes to fight Morgoth- and he dies. Finrod keeps his promise to Beren, goes to help, and he dies. Glorfindel fights for the refugees leaving Gondolin, he kills a Balrog- but at the last minute, he too dies. Elwing, likely thinking that her sons are dead, knowing that the ones who killed her parents are now here for her and for the Silmaril, tries to prevent them from taking it the only way she knows how- and Earendil, who journeyed West to find his parents, eventually ends up with the Silmaril (and his wife!) but they aren’t able to meet their children again (presumably until Elrond sails). But- yes, that’s shaky, so who else is there? Maglor does the right thing and casts the Silmaril away, knowing how much death it has caused, but he’s still left alone, all his brothers and his father dead, fated to either wander the shores or fade until he’s nothing but an echo on the wind. You could argue that’s selfishly motivated, though, but there are still two strong examples of this: Celebrimbor, and Manwe.
I’ll discuss Celebrimbor first, because his is the clearest example. It’s a new age, the troubles of the First Age are over (allegedly), and the last descendent of Feanor is out here, trying to crawl out from under the weight of that name. He’s rejected his father, he managed to come out the other side of the First Age, and what does he do? He creates. He decides to hell with secrecy, he decides to share his knowledge with whoever wants it, and work to make the world a better place. And it works, until Annatar comes along, until Rings are made, until he’s betrayed and the One is forged, he dies a horrible death, and another evil is unleashed. His choice to be different- to try to be better than his family- is considered as the reason he was fooled when everyone else vetoed Annatar coming to them. This is kindness, is an open hand and heart, being punished for just that.
Manwe too, is punished for his kindness, or his naivete, however you want to frame it. I know there’s many different takes on him, some much kinder than others, but this will be in the lens of how I see him. That is, as a character whose nature is to be good, to be just, to see the world in the best possible light. He is very much lawful good aligned, to say the least. So when he unchains his brother, he cannot conceive that Melkor is lying to him. The idea of this is foreign, and- why should he not believe Melkor, when he claims to have repented after so long? When it is clear that he can be put back in chains by Tulkas when needed? And, maybe more to the point, he doesn’t want Melkor to actually be evil forever, to the extent that he’s willing to overlook what any of us would consider common sense. But he lets Melkor loose, and the consequences are astounding in how they snowball.
We see this type of character over and over, someone trying to do good or remaining good/faithful in circumstances that are all against them, whether they know it or not. Celebrimbor, Turin (for different reasons), even Maedhros, at the Nirnaeth, and Tar-Miriel, in Numenor. Though importantly, none of them are mocked for their initial mistakes. It’s spoken of with regret, with foreshadowing, weary and maybe a little bitter, but there’s no gotcha moment that flips it on the reader.
And, speaking of Miriel, there’s the Akallabeth. Which is not framed as a grimdrk story (although this makes it all the more horrifying in a way, because it outright says ‘they deserved it, there is nothing wrong with everyone, even innocents drowning’), but has the elements of almost all the definitions. Might is in fact right, because it’s Pharazon’s armies that bring Sauron to heel. There’s political scheming and sacrifice and the acceleration of a slow corruption, abandoning the gods and seeking out immortality because why should the Elves have it, and not the Men? Who’s the hero of that tale, anyway? Not Tar-Miriel, who dies, and suffers as one of jirt’s nebulous female characters. Sauron? Ar-Pharazon? There are certainly more mentions of politics and imperialism here than anywhere else, given the state of Numenor at the time, although again, the same caveats apply with respect to Pharazon’s characterization. I will say that we learn more about him- and about the Men of Numenor, and why they want to live forever. There’s a sense of entitlement to it (one more fascinating when you realize that they were gifted long life because they straight up asked for it, after the War of Wrath, at least in one of the notes in the NoME), and this idea that if they want it, they can have it, all they need to do is take it. However, they don’t succeed, and this is framed as ultimately wrong, and bad, because we all know that Hubris Very Bad, and the narrative does not sympathize with Pharazon in the slightest, but condemns him. It condemns all of Numenor, in fact, because it highlights specifically the decline from the time of Elros, straight down to Ar-Pharazon, and shows their corruption. It is also fascinating that Eru appears twice to act directly- once in the Ainunindale, and another here. Once to create, and again to destroy. But, again, food for thought another time, because that’s not grimdark, although it straddles the line of nihilism without the context of the Music of the Ainur from earlier on. But in terms of tone, the Akallabeth is dark, to be sure, but there’s no mockery in it, just censure. It is a treatise on why these people deserved it, and one that ignores the horror of what actually happened,. It doesn’t relish it, not even in a karmic sense. It’s more of a warning, than a victory ode. Still, is that a surprise, given that it was in-universe written by the survivors?
And that, perhaps, is why it isn’t grimdark. There are survivors. The Faithful, the good Numenoreans, they survive, and they go on to found Gondor and Arnor and so on. Manwe does not change, because he still represents the good and justice in the world, Authority as it should be. Celebrimbor holds out and the Three remain hidden. Hope, yet again.
The world itself is dark, there’s no question about that, but as the narrative does not choose to focus entirely on that, it’s difficult to call the Silm truly grimdark? It would not be incorrect to say that the setting is grimdark, that events are, that bad things happen to good people, but the narrative (despite Pengolodh’s best efforts to be smug at Maeglin’s fate) does not delight in it, or try to hammer this home as a lesson. It does not say ‘don’t try to be good, don’t try to be a hero, because you’ll only ever meet a bad end and it won’t make a difference, anyway.’ No one told Finrod that, and it his end was bad, but it made a difference; no one told Glorfindel that, nor any of the Lords of Gondolin, their deaths were heroic, and tragic, and it made a difference; and certainly no one told Fingon that, but he believed, right to the end. Tolkien has written many of his characters as fundamentally good, if flawed (extremely flawed) in some cases, though their deeds end in tragedy- and though they do terrible things.
Arguably in other hands, this could be treated as grimdark. There would be much more dwelling on the Oath and what it did to the Feanorians; the three kinslayings would be more detailed- or perhaps treated much more casually, rather than having characters know that this is wrong; there would be no Silmaril for Elwing to take the Earendil, and that star would not light the skies as a very real point of hope, a literal light in the darkness. What went on in Angband would become torture porn, more like than not, especially with respect to Maedhros, Gwindor, and Maeglin- and even Hurin, if you consider it.
It is dark, both tonally and thematically, and arguably there are some elements of grimdark in it, but Tolkien’s lack of interest in detailed battles and glorification of war prevent it from going all the way there. He doesn’t relish these things; the narrative does not relish it. The Silm is a tragedy, but it doesn’t savor its tragic nature. It doesn’t point and laugh at the reader for hoping that it could be different- because the characters hope, right to the last minute. The work grieves for them, and so can we. Not all the characters are heroes, but the heroes are there- Glorfindel and Finrod are both reincarnated relatively quickly, Fingon quite literally rescues Maedhros from the heart of darkness when all hope is lost, the dragons Glaurung and Ancalagon are slain, and Morgoth and Sauron both defeated. Hope’s baked right into that narrative, baby, and the idea of estel as foolish hope, beyond any logic, is a defining trait of Tolkien’s work and the antithesis of grimdark.
Citations for the Grimdark Definitions and another thing that was super interesting:
The Adam Roberts definition comes from his book via Wikipedia: Roberts, Adam (2014). Get Started in: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Hachette UK. p. 42. ISBN 9781444795660. I did not read the book, I just wanted the definition.
https://www.npr.org/2015/01/25/378611261/for-a-taste-of-grimdark-visit-the-land-fit-for-heroes (Genevieve Valentine’s definition)
https://www.pornokitsch.com/2015/01/new-releases-the-goblin-emperor-by-katherine-addison.html (Jared Shurin’s definition)
http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/the-dark-defiles-by-richard-morgan/ (Liz Bourke’s definition)
https://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/on-grittiness-grimdark/ (A really good read on why grimdark often goes wrong)
I would also like to give a huge shoutout to the SWG server for providing both a great, nuanced discussion and much more information about the history of the term ‘grimdark’ as satire in Warhammer (thank you janeways!).
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