I don’t think I have ever read anything better than the tale of Beren and Lúthien.
It is a bold statement, so allow me to give some context.
One of the things that readers love about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is that they are tales drawn from a weighty world. A lot of the Tolkienesque high fiction of the past 50 years has failed not because of poor writing–though sometimes that is the case–and not even because it is derivative. Often fantasy fails because the fictional world is thin.
In fantastic realms, the greatest examples of adventure, romance, heroic quest, or self-sacrifice in the face of evil are placed within the context of a subcreated world that is both vast and expansive in terms of scope and imagination, as well as rooted in the depths of history, myth, and legend. In high fantasy, the story only resonates when it is set within a speculative universe created by the skillful hands of a true myth-maker. Stripped of fictional worlds that are both deep and wide, and the stories might as well be soap operas or Hollywood copy-and-print CGI blockbusters.
The reason we read and reread great fantasy literature is the reason we keep going back to the same mythological sources: there is a resonant authenticity to the secondary world, for true myth always carries with it core truth that is relevant to our primary world.
As Tolkien reminds us again and again in his letters, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not truly stories on their own. Instead, they are drawn from a vast library of materials that encode the history, mythology, legends, songs, and other source materials that are the literary remains of three great ages of the prehistoric past. Even when we read The Hobbit, whimsical and humorous and in the pattern of a fairy tale, as the tale slowly transforms before our eyes into an epic, we feel that Middle-earth has no edges in time or space. Even in that children’s tale, we can feel the weight that is the Legendarium–even though it is almost entirely hidden from us.
Which is why nothing is random in the Legendarium. Nothing is careless–not even is the appearance of the great eagles. They are not a deus ex machina, for the god in the machine of Tolkien’s world is the internal logic of the thousands of pages and millions of words that are an entire universe in outline form.
After The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, readers turn to The Silmarillion. Tolkien had originally wanted to publish The Silmarillion with LOTR, for he feared his epic would make no sense without the myth and history behind it. Forty years ago, less than four years after his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien prepared a novel-length version of The Silmarillion, with the help of fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay.
Though filled to the brim with technical languages, etymologies, chronologies, geographies, and complex relationships between characters and their evolving place names, the success of The Silmarillion is a testimony to the insatiable appetite of Tolkien readers. In the decades that followed, Christopher Tolkien, aided by only a few trusted editors, has published the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth, as well as a number of one-off volumes, including The Children of Húrin from the Legendarium, as well as a number of books that are linked to Tolkien’s oeuvre in more sophisticated ways, such as The Legend of Sigurn and Gudrún, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, The Story of Kullervo, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf and his incomplete version of The Fall of Arthur.
Truthfully, I have been one of the victims of The Silmarillion. I have read all of the auxiliary books and various parts of the History of Middle-earth. And though I have read much of The Silmarillion, each time I try to read it through in earnest, I fail. My PhD supervisor, a published Tolkien scholar, called The Silmarillion “the Bible for Tolkien geeks,” and I struggle in reading it in the same way that I struggle in reading the Bible: I love mythology, but I get lost in the complex interweaving of genealogy and geography.
In the end, it was rugged discipline that helped me come to a working knowledge of the Bible, and the same can be true of The Silmarillion. With extensive use of reading resources (lists, maps, etc.), I am now two-thirds of the way through. I am fairly confident I will finish in earnest, so I will no longer be a Silmarillion cherry-picker.
Right at the centre of my second edition paperback is the tale of Beren and Lúthien. This is the prose version of the tale, and complete in its telling. There are other versions, including the “Song of Beren and Lúthien” as Aragorn tells it in chapter 11 of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve attached Tolkien’s reading of the song below, but the beginning of the poem captures both the premise and the flavour of the story:
The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinúviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.
There Beren came from mountains cold,
And lost he wandered under leaves,
And where the Elven-river rolled
He walked alone and sorrowing.
He peered between the hemlock-leaves
And saw in wonder flowers of gold
Upon her mantle and her sleeves,
And her hair like shadow following.
Enchantment healed his weary feet
That over hills were doomed to roam; …
Here the man is caught by the beauty of an elf-maiden, enchanted and drawn into a world filled with curses, mythology, and the pride of men. Shaun Gunner at the Tolkien Society Blog has given an excellent background to the Beren and Lúthien cycle, which I won’t retell. It is, however, no mere trifle of a Romeo and Juliet tale. Beren is a great hero who dared to test the strength and cunning of Morgoth himself. Lúthien is one of the most powerful women in Tolkien’s work, and in this tale it is her critical interventions of power to win fidelity and cast shadows of doubt and sloth over evil that make success possible.
Beyond the evocative and beautifully written tale itself, both the mortal, Beren, and the immortal, Lúthien, are essential to The Lord of the Rings. Historically, Lúthien is the cousin of Galadriel, oldest–and, according to Gimli the Dwarf–fairest of elf-maidens in Middle-earth. The children of Beren and Lúthien are the first creatures to live on the knife’s edge between the immortal life and the fate of all men, death. The Númenoreans and the great kings of old choose mortality. Their legacies, both good and ill, sit in the breast of Aragorn. Elrond, Lúthien and Beren’s great-grandson, chooses immortality and shepherds Middle-earth through each of its subsequent ages. Arwen, in her love for Aragorn, much choose her path, and in their tales they echo the story of Beren and Lúthien.
Aragorn is not merely recounting history or providing the hobbits with a campfire tale. In his song he is evoking myth’s great power to inform the actions of the wise. In the Beren and Lúthien cycle, the question of doom resounds. While myth can inform and the resounding echoes of narrative are portents for the future, these tales can never work as prophecy. Arwen and Aragorn must reckon with fate themselves, and their choices are critical to the destiny of Middle-earth.
This evocative tale that occupied a half-century of Tolkien’s life is now being published with other material from the Beren and Lúthien archive. Alan Lee illustrates the volume, and although I do not know how much new material is included, if any, any chance to get more of this greatest of tales is welcome by me. Be sure to reserve your copy for July 1st.
The tale of Beren and Lúthien was, or became, an essential element in the evolution of The Silmarillion, the myths and legends of the First Age of the World conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien. Returning from France and the battle of the Somme at the end of 1916, he wrote the tale in the following year.
Essential to the story, and never changed, is the fate that shadowed the love of Beren and Lúthien: for Beren was a mortal man, but Lúthien was an immortal elf. Her father, a great elvish lord, in deep opposition to Beren, imposed on him an impossible task that he must perform before he might wed Lúthien. This is the kernel of the legend; and it leads to the supremely heroic attempt of Beren and Lúthien together to rob the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy, of a Silmaril.
In this book Christopher Tolkien has attempted to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterwards lost.
Published on the tenth anniversary of the last Middle-earth book, the international bestseller The Children of Húrin, this new volume will similarly include drawings and color plates by Alan Lee, who also illustrated The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and went on to win Academy Awards for his work on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
I absolutely adored your post! Just reading again of this amazing universe Tolkien created was just EPIC!
Thanks so much for the nice comment! I love the epic world too.
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Last Saturday afternoon I was on a busy train going into Birmingham, England and found myself standing by a family of four who were clearly readers given the number of books on the table between them. Of itself alone this fact gave me great pleasure and I commented warmly on the copy of a Rick O’Riordan Percy Jackson story lying face up in front of me knowing that this series had begun a passion for the Greek and Roman classics in my younger daughter that continues to this day. The father replied with equal warmth and then added that he and his son were currently reading The Lord of the Rings together. I guess that his son was about 11 years old and I rejoiced in thinking about the rich world of the imagination that the boy must be living in. I confess to a certain envy too knowing that I could never travel through Middle-earth for the first time again as he was doing. As we spoke the man standing beside me spoke up, “But have you managed to read The Silmarillion?” And my joy was multiplied! I had not anticipated a conversation about Tolkien’s legendarium between three men on a busy train coming into the city where Tolkien grew up (and, by the way, they were very much aware that we were entering Tolkien’s city) with an eleven year old boy and his mother and sister quietly listening on.
I tell the story partly because your piece gave me the chance to share it and partly because I cannot think of any other writer capable of inspiring such a conversation between strangers but when it comes to Tolkien I am delighted but not entirely surprised. I thought it would be showing off to say that I have read The Silmarillion and that I often dip into it. You know I am sure that an Englishman must never appear to be too knowledgeable unless you are a member of a quiz team. So I dropped in a thought occasionally that was informed by The Silmarillion and generally gave myself to appreciation of their remarks.
I now look forward to reading Beren and Lúthien and give you my thanks for drawing my attention to it. I rather think that Tolkien’s ponderings on mortality and immortality will occupy me until the end of my days just as I believe they did Tolkien himself. I think that the relationship between Elves and Men is profound in every respect and the more I ponder it myself the deeper it seems to lead me into the mystery of life itself. And then there is a love story too and I go deeper yet.
Thank you for writing this beautiful review.
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Thanks for this note, Stephen! Readers of Tolkien are certainly a unique camp, and I am only a beginner. You Brits can downplay your knowledge base (we do that in Canada, except for hockey and how much we are different than Americans), but you have produced an incredible history of literature.
Do you agree with me about the beauty, depth, and importance of the Beren & Lúthien story?
Even if I haven’ gotten any one of Tolkien’s threads, a theological training with an appreciation of Catholicism helps. I have a Tolkien academic project planned for the late 2020s–if I can get his corpus read in time through this particular lens.
I’m no Tolkien scholar, that’s for sure, but I love his work and look forward to learning more and more of it as time goes on. To me, the most beautiful thing about Beren and Luthien is that (so I’ve read) he was inspired to write it by an experience he had on a picnic with his adored wife. She was dancing about in the woods and he thought she was so beautiful, he felt he was a mortal and she divine. I about die every time I remember that! It’s such a beautiful testimony to the real power love has… it inspired an integral part of one of the greatest literary works. Have you heard this story before? I read it in a special magazine about the Lord of the Rings and I assume it’s accurate, although, you never know! I enjoy your blog a great deal, by the way. Like I said, I’m no scholar but I do aspire to be one. Lewis and Tolkien are two of my greatest heroes and I love reading your learned insights into their lives and work!
This is a nice note, and yes I have year that tale too. People who tell it are surprisingly responsible, not embellishing much. The tale shows one of those wonderful links between fiction and an author’s life. It does make me sad, though: we are a culture who no longer really dances. It is hard to find Tinuviel when everyone has heads bent over phones.
Thanks for the nice comment on the blog!
I feel rather pessimistic about where Britain is right now. Pessimistic about where the world is too. Tolkien’s reflection upon Nordic pessimism (I read a wonderful review this week by Ursula Le Guin on Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse Myths. For Le Guin Gaiman fails to be pessimistic enough!) combined with Catholic hope is pretty potent. Surely Beren’s meeting with Lúthien after his escape from disaster is in itself a eucatastrophe, though in itself like all mortal experience, even at its best, merely a pointer to the final word that belongs to God. The end is no Ragnarok.
It is the great, Yes, to hope that I love in the story of Beren and Lúthien. From the moment they say yes to each other their lives are given to love, to beauty, to truth and to goodness. And the gift is so radically given that the actions of every other character are exposed by the light of who they are. No one can be indifferent to them once they have met them. The stories of Felagund and Curufin exemplify this principle.
So yes, I agree with you entirely and I look forward to reading their tale. I think I need the encouragement to hope that Beren and Lúthien are.
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I understand your pessimism, but do not lose hope. These things are only happen because we are involved in a long-term collapse of civilization that will degrade the value structures that created for the breadth of diversity, security, and innovation that defined the Anglo-American West. Other than that, things are okay.
That’s a great note about LeGuin reading Gaiman. I haven’t reviewed the Norse Mythology, but it had (for me) the tone of the Poetic Edda, which is far lighter that the others. The Legendarium is Catholic, for there is God in flesh and hope in despair.
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Tolkien is much like the Beowulf poet he so loved. He stands in and values both worlds, and his work unites them. Without the eucatastrophe of Christ, the ultimate defeat that the Norse Gods and Beowulf face awaits us all. That defeat may be no refutation, as Tolkien, following Ker, put it, but it is defeat nonetheless. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien also raises up the tale of the legendarium beyond defeat. The Silmaril they win rises in the West as the star that brings hope beyond defeat and beyond refutation, the same star that is seen by Maedhros and Maglor at the end of the first age is seen by Sam above Mordor two ages later, and is seen by Tolkien in the Anglo-Saxon “Crist.”
Sorry I missed this Tom, and I believe you are right about Tolkien-Beowlf. I am surprised that Tolkien could even write about Beowulf–his connection seems so intimate. I am kind of in the Tom Shippey camp about the importance of Beowulf to the Hobbit and LOTR, but I have not thought through the entire Legendarium (which I haven’t all read) in this way.
And I love the way that Tolkien’s ministories come in waves throughout his books.
I haven’t tackled The Silmarillion yet, it’s a bit intimidating to me, to be honest. But this was a lovely post, thanks for sharing with us your insights into this beautiful love story.
It is intimidating, but there are batches of brilliance. (Note: I could also put the word “and” where I put “but” there. Some of the brilliance is the complexity). It is evocative, though, drawing me not just deeper into the LOTR realm, but into the world behind as a world in an of itself.
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