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.