Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien
|Book Name:||Beren and Lúthien|
|Author:||J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Christopher Tolkien|
|Publisher(s):||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (US) HarperCollins (UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook|
|Release Date:||June 1, 2017|
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien contains echoes of Romeo and Juliet, Rapunzel, and the Orpheus and Persephone myths. In it, Lúthien—a demigod elf princess whom Tolkien refers to both as a “mere maid” and “the greatest of the children of Iluvatar”—singlehandedly defeats Morgoth, the Big Bad of the First Age of Middle Earth.
The story first appeared in The Silmarillion as a prose recap of the Lay of Leithian, one of Tolkien’s long epic poems that he never completed. In the recently published book Beren and Lúthien, Christopher Tolkien has collected various drafts of the story, including parts of the poem, and shared them as a fascinating window into his father’s creative process.
Tolkien was famous for his rewrites; he revised The Hobbit, which was originally published in the 1930s, after the release of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, to reverse engineer continuity between the two stories. “Leaf by Niggle” is an allegory featuring an artist who spends his entire life on one vast painting of a tree. The artist Niggle constantly reworks (niggles at) the picture, scraping away old paint and applying new layers, but he fails to capture the tree’s life and beauty except for a single, perfect leaf. In Beren and Lúthien, we see Tolkien at his canvas, sketching out the story, adding color and details, then changing them, slowly revising a stand-alone adventure into part of a larger landscape covering the history of Middle Earth. Through this process, a lighthearted romance involving star-crossed lovers and the rivalry between a talking dog named Huan and a talking cat named Tevildo evolves into the heart—literally the center—of The Silmarillion.
The Silmarillion is about the love of things, particularly three magic jewels called the Silmarils, which Morgoth stole from the Elves. Morgoth is a fallen Valar and among the most powerful of Middle Earth’s gods; after stealing the jewels, he built a fortress and raised armies of Orcs, dragons, and balrogs to protect his loot. The elf who made the Silmarils, his sons, and their allies mounted a near millennium-long campaign to retrieve the jewels. They failed, utterly, but their lust and greed for a trio of gemstones lie behind a long history of war, betrayal, murder, and suicide by both Elves and Men.
The only antidote to all this misery—Beren and Lúthien—is a love story, one that begins with all the usual romance tropes. Beren is a stalwart hero, unflinching in the face of danger, and Lúthien is the most beautiful of everybody, ever, in the history of the universe. Flowers grow in her footsteps in winter, and the girl even smells good (a fact which betrays her true identity when she’s disguised as an evil fairy). Naturally when Beren first sees her, dancing in a hemlock grove, he is instantly smitten. We are never told (even in all the versions of the story Christopher Tolkien has reproduced) why Lúthien falls for Beren. He is a renowned Orc-slayer who can talk with animals, so presumably these accomplishments stand in for a lovable personality the same way Lúthien’s physical beauty and dancing prowess do.
Also true to the romance form, they are an unlikely couple. Beren is a human vagabond, the lone survivor of a people whose lands were overrun by Orcs. Lúthien is the daughter of an Elven king and a Maia, which is a type of lesser deity in Middle Earth’s pantheon (Sauron is also a Maia). When Lúthien brings Beren home, the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scenario doesn’t go well. Lúthien’s father laughs at Beren and says he’ll allow the pair to marry only if Beren brings him a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown. In the king’s mind his request is as absurd as a common mortal man wedding a demigod Elf princess. (Typical of many parents, Lúthien’s father sees no irony in the fact that he, a “mere” Elf, married a goddess.) Of course, Beren accepts the suicide mission, and true to romance form, Lúthien runs away to help him. First she has to escape from a treehouse where her father imprisons her, which she does by growing her hair long enough to weave into a rope and a magic cloak that puts people to sleep.
At this point, the tale leaves the standard romance tropes behind as Lúthien assumes the hero’s role and becomes the story’s main doer of great deeds. With the help of Huan the talking dog, she defeats Sauron and rescues Beren from captivity in his tower. She twice heals Beren of mortal wounds, and she transforms herself into a bat and Beren into a wolf so they can sneak into Morgoth’s fortress. She sings Morgoth’s giant lupine door guard to sleep, then does the same to Morgoth and his court so Beren can cut a Silmaril out of his crown.
Beren, meanwhile, becomes her hapless sidekick. He gets himself imprisoned, a dozen companions killed, and very nearly blows their mission when he tries to take a second Silmaril. Lúthien saves him time and again, even from death itself when she goes to the Blessed Lands and begs for his soul. Because she is uniquely awesome, her wish is granted, and the pair go back to Middle Earth and set up housekeeping in “the land of the dead that live.” They also begin the line of Elves and Men that leads to Lord of the Ring’s Arwen a few Elf generations later, and Aragorn many, many human generations down the road. So Aragorn and Arwen are kissing cousins, a fact that always makes me chuckle.
A lot happens in Beren and Lúthien’s story, and the chapter in The Silmarillion gives only the surface of it in fairly bland prose. When I bought the new edition, it had been several decades since I’d read it, and I frankly didn’t remember stuff like the transformation into bat and wolf or indeed that it’s Lúthien who wins the day. In the new edition, many of these events are fleshed out so you see, for instance, the epic ninja-like Leap of Beren with which he rescues Lúthien from a treacherous and lustful Elf (okay, one time, he saves her). You hear the couple’s anguish as they argue over their options: Should Beren go on his own to certain death? Should Lúthien go with him, also to certain death or captivity in the stronghold of Elvendom’s most powerful enemy? Or should they should run off together and live dishonorably without fulfilling Beren’s oath?
We get most of these details in verse, as Christopher Tolkien has reproduced large sections of the unfinished Lay of Leithian within the new edition. I prefer reading prose, and in the past have found epic poetry pretty challenging. But as I read, I remembered that Tolkien was a scholar of ancient oral traditions such as Beowulf, and I began reading the verse sections aloud (often muttering them under my breath so as not to befuddle family members). Reading aloud helped me get into the verse, and I ended up enjoying the Lay of Leithian excerpts the most of all the versions in the new edition.
Amazon has announced they will be making a streaming series set in Middle Earth, and there’s a lot of speculation that the earlier stories, including Beren and Lúthien and the Children of Hurin (which is chock full of murder, madness, and the dreadful consequences thereof), will provide the source material. I would love to see Beren and Lúthien brought to life—years ago I imagined it would make a wonderful opera, because music is central to Lúthien’s powers as well as other key conflicts (Sauron and an Elven king who accompanies Beren on the first leg of his quest hold a sing-off!). Meanwhile, Children of Hurin rivals A Song of Ice and Fire for grimdark action. Whatever Amazon does, I’m glad I reread Beren and Lúthien because it inspired me to reread all of The Silmarillion as well. Even though the larger work’s prose is rather dry and superficial, it still inspires the same ticklish excitement in my belly that I felt when I first read those stories long ago in my teens.
As Samwise Gamgee says on Mount Doom, “Those are the stories that stay with you.” Beren and Lúthien is one of those tales—a great story of undying love and faithfulness that inspires hope in dark times.