October 16, 2018
eren and Lúthien provides a unique glimpse into J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing process. It reveals how Tolkien wove the tapestry of one of his most cherished stories over the course of his lifetime. We are guided through this new standalone edition of the tale by a figure arguably as well equipped to do so as the author himself—his son Christopher.
Christopher Tolkien has devoted a large part of his life to editing, compiling, and making sense of the many manuscripts his father left unfinished. J.R.R. Tolkien was an incurable perfectionist who loved to rework his stories. He almost always required external deadlines to complete his manuscripts, and so much of Middle-earth’s most detailed and wide-ranging history was consigned to filing cabinets and desks upon his death.
Christopher includes a version of Beren and Lúthien, which was originally published in The Silmarillion in 1977, in The History of Middle-earth, his later multi-volume series. The History of Middle-earth was not simply a compilation of previously-unpublished material, but an attempt to systematize and reconcile storylines that differed among manuscripts. This newly published retelling of the tale contains several versions of the story, some in prose and some in poetic form. Close readers of The Silmarillion—Tolkien’s published history of Middle-earth—will see references to, or hear echoes from, parts of the tale they are familiar with, as well as older versions in which fundamental details have been changed. In the original telling, for example, Beren was an elf, not a man, which alters the history of Middle-earth and characters in The Lord of The Rings fundamentally. But some of the story’s most ubiquitous changes are in Tolkien’s terminology.
Understanding Tolkien’s language in Beren and Lúthien requires understanding his philosophical background. Tolkien was a philologist not a linguist in the modern sense, but quite literally a “lover of words.” He strove to find the exact word—not merely for expositional purposes, but out of reverence for language’s power and majesty. This love of language drips from Tolkien’s every line, from lengthy descriptions of scenery and battles to Middle-earth’s many whimsical poems and songs. In Beren and Lúthien, Christopher gives the timelines and reasoning behind Tolkien’s multiple iterations of word usage, many of which gesture back to Old English and Germanic folklore. The reader is given a glimpse into the larger story of Northern European myths and fantasies which Tolkien imbibed from an early age and later used to craft his own mythos.
Critics have claimed Tolkien’s stories portray women as unimportant, or at least less so than their male counterparts. The Hobbit lacks any female characters and The Lord of the Rings, with only a couple exceptions, is dominated by men. But the depth, complexity, and beauty of Tolkien’s larger world, glimpsed in works like The Silmarillion and Beren and Lúthien, undermines this claim. Lúthien is initially portrayed as timid, but she shows a vibrant spirit once called upon to stand up for Beren in the sight of her father, the king. Beren’s heroic quest to recover a stolen Silmaril (or jewel) from the evil Morgoth would have failed without Lúthien’s aid and she exhibits an emotional depth that no misogynist could have captured.
Tolkien recounted that his inspiration for The Hobbit came after he had graded one particularly boring set of papers. He flipped one over and wrote: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” before he knew what a Hobbit was. That flash of inspiration led to the world of Middle-earth. One can suppose that the scene that birthed Beren and Lúthien’s tale might have been when Beren wanders into an enchanted wood and sees the incomparable beauty of the dancing Lúthien. The power of that image and the character that came out of it can be seen in Tolkien’s use of the name Lúthien as a nickname for his wife Edith. Lúthien was more than a character in his world: she captured his imagination and he used her to express the many noble and beautiful qualities of women in general, and of his wife in particular.
Before each section of Beren and Lúthien, Christopher offers a brief description of the context, timeline of Tolkien’s writing, and key differences in the tale’s evolving versions. Across all versions, Lúthien is the daughter of King Thingol of Doriath, one of the great three Elven kingdoms. Lúthien’s mother is Melian, a Maia, the angel-like beings in Tolkien’s mythology (Gandalf, Saruman, and Sauron are Maiar as well). In the story’s first draft, Christopher reveals several key differences between the story’s oldest versions and the later editions. The first version is more childlike and archaic in its diction and the natures of the main characters—including Lúthien, Beren, Thingol, and Melian—are less complex and variegated.
In the second iteration, Lúthien’s tale is largely recognizable to readers of The Silmarillion. In place of Tevildo, the secondary villain of the first version, we now meet Thû, the Necromancer who survived the destruction of his master. This version also introduces the elf king Felagund, who is related to many of The Silmarillion’s important characters and is brother of The Lord of the Rings’s Galadriel. Christopher ends by recounting the final poetic version of Beren and Lúthien’s story that Tolkien abandoned in 1931 along with the final prose version largely used in The Silmarillion.
Beren and Lúthien offers a glimpse into the mind of an author whose lasting influence has inspired many attempts at imitation. The success of Game of Thrones, for example, is a testament to both Tolkien’s influence as well as readers’ hunger for epic battles between good and evil. Beren and Lúthien exemplifies Tolkien’s unique storytelling approach. Often accused of “escapism” by his cynical post-WWI contemporaries, Tolkien’s tales are anything but childish attempts to ignore reality. On the contrary, he described his work as concerned with the themes of “Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.” The melancholic end of The Lord of The Rings, in which Frodo sees his beloved Shire ravaged by the very evils he left to eradicate, shows Tolkien’s grasp of life’s tragic nature. In the end, Frodo realizes that “there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured.” Yet, in the mythos of Middle-earth, there is the ever-present knowledge that this world is not all that there is. An undying land where sufferings are mourned and healed and sacrifices and bravery are celebrated awaits the loyal servants of the good.
Tolkien’s stories do not leave the reader with cheery false hope or cynical despair, but a solemn appreciation that there’s good worth fighting for in the world. Even though Beren prevails in his quest (albeit in a Pyrrhic sense), the hoped-for resolution is not found. The final note is not a fairy tale ending, nor is it a banal debunking of fairy stories—the sort which C.S. Lewis wrote against in The Abolition of Man. For Tolkien, one can overcome evil and yet still bear the scars of the effort. Beren and Lúthien is not the first or second of Tolkien’s works that a new reader should explore, but once the taste for his legendarium is acquired through his better-known works, it gives the audience a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the thought process and genius of his storytelling.