Beren and Lúthien – J. R. R. Tolkien (and Christopher Tolkien)

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Book blurb: Painstakingly restored from Tolkien’s manuscripts and presented for the first time as a fully continuous and standalone story, the epic tale of Beren and Lúthien will reunite fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with Elves and Men, Dwarves and Orcs and the rich landscape and creatures unique to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. 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.

My take:  I didn’t realize it until I opened the book, but I was expecting a long tale in the style of The Children of Húrin.  Instead, Beren and Lúthien is a series of fragments tracing the origin of the myth through J. R. R. Tolkien’s entire lifetime of scribbles, with Christopher Tolkien’s thoughts and explanations leading you from one piece to the next.

Once I had adjusted my perspective, I enjoyed reading the book/fragments very much.  Beren and especially Lúthien have long held a special place in the corner of my heart dedicated to Middle-earth.  She is so very heroic, and most of the story is concerned with the part of the tale after Beren and Lúthien meet, and how he rides off to steal a Silmaril, and she rescues him, twice, with the help of the oft-forgotten hound Huan.  The tale should more accurately be called LÚTHIEN (And Beren and Huan).  What I find so courageous about her is that she is very afraid each time she mounts a rescue operation, but goes ahead and does it anyway.  Her vulnerability is a key part of her heroism, and that, I think, is a boost to all quiet and timid people out there.  Just because you don’t wield an oversized weapon doesn’t mean you can’t hoodwink the evil overlord.

I found those parts where she faces off against Tevildo (a heretofore unknown Melkor underling), Sauron and Melkor especially enchanting.  Most of the book is in rhyme, told via ‘The Lay of Leithian’, the Elvish poem describing the tale of Beren and Lúthien.  If you don’t like poetry, don’t let this scare you off; it’s very readable stuff.  It adds to the mythical element of the tale, somehow.

In the end, Beren and Lúthien is a slightly more detailed and expanded version of the chapter in The Silmarillion (and I was glad I reread that a little while ago, it really helped to have all those Elvish names and places so fresh in my memory!).  I was hoping for more story regarding their time after they return from the Halls of Mandos, and their life together really finally starts, but it appears that there simply isn’t any more detail.  J. R. R. never wrote it down, in any case, or Christopher would have found it by now.  It’s a pity, because I would have liked to have known more about Dior and Elwing.  The book does discuss them a little bit at the end, but The Silmarillion has approximately the same level of detail.  Such key figures in the genealogy, but they will remain forever hazy.

Two final notes: the book could have done with a map and a family tree!  Also, and I will be kicking many shins with this, but I hope I will live to see the day when the Middle-earth books get republished with a different illustrator.  Alan Lee is a lovely man, but I’ve never been a fan of his style of art.

(I’ve just reread the book blurb again, and especially the first half is really quite misleading.  It gives you the impression that it is a continuous story.  It also states that the tale is ‘never changed’ which is also wrong; in the earliest versions, Beren is an Elf, of the Noldor, as Christopher Tolkien patiently explains.  This strengthens my belief in never reading book blurbs but just diving straight into the story!)

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