Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien
Beren and Lúthien. These two names are engraved on the tombstone beneath the names of John Ronald Ruel Tolkien and Edith Bratt Tolkien. They met when he was 16 and she 19. His father did not approve of the match so they did not marry until age 24. A year later, Tolkien was in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme, an abattoir of war. Fortunately for generations of readers to come, he contracted trench fever and was seconded back to England. The next year he began “The Lays of Beleriand” in which the characters Beren and Lúthien appear as part of a great series of tales. These stories came long before Tolkien, while bored reading a student’s exam and finding a blank page, wrote the famous lines, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit,” but there is more than a little of that Tolkien story in the present mythological account.
Christopher Tolkien, now 92, has made it his life’s work to reveal his father’s extensive unpublished oeuvre. Turning notes and bits and pieces of long essays into a coherent whole has resulted in many “new” Tolkien books long after his death in 1973. Among the many of his father’s works that he has edited are The Silmarillion, The Fall of Arthur, and the Lays of Beleriand. Unlike modern dead authors who have ghost writers (Robert Parker : Ace Atkins; Ian Fleming : Jeffrey Deaver, et al), these books are distinctly works by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Christopher (to distinguish him from his father) has consistently demonstrated remarkable scholarship in bringing Tolkien’s lesser known work to an admiring public. “In my ninety-third year this is (presumptively) my last book…of my father’s writings, very largely previously unpublished, and is of a somewhat curious nature. This tale is chosen in memoriam because of its deeply rooted presence in his own life, and his intense thought on the union of Lúthien, whom he called the ‘greatest of the Eldar’, and of Beren the mortal man, of their fates, and of their second lives.”
Do not expect Beren and Lúthien to have the same grip on our conscience as the more famous Tolkien volumes. At just short of 50 pages, it is a small piece in a much longer and less accessible story (Christopher remembers his father “speaking it, without any writing, in the early 1930s”). It remains, at its heart, a simple and oft-told tale of great love and sacrifice. Beren, a mortal man, and Lúthien, an immortal Elf, fall in love. Her father, of course, opposes the marriage and settles an onerous task onto Beren before allowing their union. He must steal a Silmarillion from Melko, also called Morgoth or the Black Enemy. Wolves, snakes, goblins and orcs “fared abroad doing [Melko’s] evil work…” and Beren must avoid them to escape capture and death. Hunger and thirst torment him but the thought of Lúthien buoys him onward. So many elements that came to grand fruition in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are present in this small tale, dated three decades before their subsequent publication. It is a simple tale elevated to mythic proportions in the hands of a literary giant.
The second way to approach Beren and Lúthien is to read its varying versions and Christopher’s cogent commentary. For example, he tells the reader that in a 1951 letter Tolkien called this story “the chief of the stories of The Silmarillion.” Beren, he continued, is the “outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarills from the Iron Crown. Thus he wins the hand of Lúthien and the first marriage of mortal and immortal is achieved.” This description barely scratches the surface of the gems of information available herein.
The casual reader of Tolkien may not appreciate this volume, and may consider the small story enough and all that surrounds it superfluous. Those of us who have long been readers of Tolkien will be most appreciative of all the interpretation that brings us a deeper understanding of the story and the context into which it fits. A glossary and list of names helps recall the legions of characters that inhabit these tales. In Beren and Lúthien, Christopher Tolkien has once again paid an elegant tribute to his father.