Book Review: “Beren and Luthien” (by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Anyone who’s ever read anything about Tolkien knows the story of Luthien, the tale of an Elf maiden who fell in love with the mortal man Beren and ultimately sacrificed her immortality to be with him. Their sage is, of course, intertwined with those fantastic gems known as the Silmarils, one of which they managed to steal from the crown of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord. Shadows of this tale appear in The Lord of the Rings (and the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen is modeled upon it), and it is told in relatively full form in The Silmarillion.

Now, however, Christopher Tolkien has brought us this marvelous book, which details the evolution of this tale from its beginnings, showcasing both its prose and poetic forms. Throughout, we get to see again how complex, and often frustrating, Tolkien’s composition process was. Given the many permutations this single narrative underwent over Tolkien’s creative life, it’s small wonder that he was never able to craft it into a form with which he was ultimately satisfied. 

Unlike other recent volumes of Tolkien’s posthumous work (such as The Children of Hurin), Beren and Luthien is not a cohesive narrative. Instead, it is more of a hybrid, part narrative and part textual history.

In it, when learn a great deal about how Tolkien’s conception of the story changed throughout its development. For example, in one early version Beren is imprisoned by a cat king (yes, you read that right). While we all mourn the excision of this fascinating character from the Beren/Luthien narrative, it does come across as being a little more whimsical than The Silmarillion proper. We also learn that Beren was not originally a Man was instead an Elf (which, as you can imagine, quite changes the dynamic between him and Luthien).

What is truly remarkable, however, is how much remains the same, both thematically and narratively. The fundamentals of the story of a pair of doomed lovers that nevertheless strive to remain together are there for the beginning, as is the profound sense of melancholy that is so much a part of the Elves’ existence. Again and again, we find them fighting against defeat and contending with the one inescapable fact of their reality: their immortality. What makes Beren and Luthien such a fascinating tale is precisely that Luthien was willing and able to transcend that immorality in order to be with her.

It is also striking–and worth noting–that in each iteration of the story it is Luthien who possesses the traits we most associate with the male hero of the epic. It is she who must repeatedly rescue Beren from his imprisonment, and it is ultimately her actions that make the claiming of the Silmaril from Morgoth’s iron crown possible. While Tolkien wasn’t always able to craft female heroes with the same sort of depth as his male ones, there’s no question that Luthien is the more compelling of the two heroes of this tale. 

I have one small quibble with the volume, and it’s the same one that I have with a lot of Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work. I’ve written elsewhere that we owe a tremendous debt to the younger Tolkien for his excavation of his father’s work, but man, does he have the most lumbering prose I’ve ever encountered. In this particular volume, this sometimes leads to a bit of repetition, as he tends to cite his work in the very volume that we’re reading. Nevertheless, when it comes to knowledge of his father’s manuscripts and the mindset behind them, no one holds a candle to Christopher.

Overall, however, I tremendously enjoyed reading Beren and Luthien. I’ve always found this tale to be one of the most profoundly moving in the entire legendarium, and it’s a fascinating experience to see how it grew and changed. While casual fans of Tolkien might find this volume a little rough to read, those of us who are a little more invested will find this a truly delightful treat. 

Advertisements

What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am both a fan of Tolkien and an aspiring writer of epic fantasy. In fact, it was first reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that in part inspired me to try my own hand at not just writing an epic fantasy, but undertaking the work necessary to create an entire world–with its own histories, mythologies, religions, etc.–in which to set that epic. Even now, so many years later, I continue to find much about Tolkien’s process that I find inspiring and motivating. 

Those who have read the History of Middle-earth published by Christopher Tolkien know that he has laboriously and meticulously excavated his father’s voluminous manuscripts no doubt know how much LotR changed as Tolkien fiddled with it, often clinging to names long beyond the point where they didn’t match the characters to which they belonged. Reading these history books, one also sees just how complex Tolkien’s process was, how he allowed the story to grow and develop rather than adhering to some strict vision.

What’s more, you have to admire the profound depth of Tolkien’s legendarium. This is a man, remember, who created a world with its own internal consistency: replete with languages, histories, genealogies, and the like. And, taking a rather meta stance for a moment, it’s also true that his work has a textual history as rich and varied and contradictory (and frustrating) as any real-world mythology. There are still vagaries and inconsistencies that trouble those of us who like things to arrive in neat packages.

For the past two years now I’ve been working on an epic fantasy novel, and you know what that entails. Not only do you have to keep multiple plot-threads straight in your mind–for both the novel you’re working on and for the series as a whole–but you also have to develop your own world and make sure that it is both internally consistent and that it comes out properly in your novel. Neither of those is very easy to do, let me tell you, but the rewards are so satisfying. 

Just as importantly, you have to make sure that your characters have a depth and richness to them that makes them become something more than stand-ins for epic archetypes. While some have criticized Tolkien for not giving his characters a great deal of interiority or self-reflection, I think that grossly underestimates how much we get to see into the minds of the hobbits, particularly Sam and Frodo. 

In the end, I suppose that the greatest lesson I’ve taken from learning about Tolkien’s process is to allow yourself the time to revise what you’ve written. Very rarely does an epic spring fully-formed from its creator’s mind. There are going to be missteps, and that’s okay. At the same time, I’ve also learned that there comes a time when you simply have to let it go, that no matter how much you revise you are not going to reach a state of perfection (trust me, that is much harder than it sounds).

I’m now reaching what I believe to be the end of the first draft of my first novel, and I hope one day be worthy of following in Tolkien’s footsteps. Only time will tell!

The Pleasures of Re-Reading “The Lord of the Rings”

Much as I love reading (and books), there are very few works that I read more than once. I’m not really sure why that it is; maybe it’s just my relentless desire for something new, some exciting frontier to explore. There are a few books, however, that I return to again and again (and sometimes again and again). 

The Lord of the Ring is one of those.

Ever since I read it way back in…’95 or ’96…I’ve repeatedly returned to Tolkien’s magnum opus, losing myself in that fantastical world of Elves, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits, and Rings of Power. Going over these familiar words and chapters is oddly comforting, a ritual of sorts that not only brings me pleasure, but also inspires to continue working on my own fantasy writing adventures. There’s just something deeply satisfying about the established patterns that I know so well that I can recite parts of it in my sleep. 

In recent years, I’ve endeavoured to do a full re-reading of LotR in its entirety, and while I don’t always succeed, I never cease to find myself experiencing some of the same emotions over and over again. I still feel the same shudder of fear when the Hobbits first hear the wail of the Nazgûl, the chill when the Ringwraiths are revealed in their spectral glory when they are attacked on Weathertop, the same sense of devastation when the Fellowship meets its ultimate end at the Grey Havens. 

I’m currently in the midst of my umpteenth reading of The Lord of the Rings, and as always I am astounded by the ability of Tolkien to evoke a landscape. No matter how many times I read it, I continue to feel that sense of wonder at the world of Middle-earth, which we encounter in the same way that the characters do. This is a world that has deep roots (in many different senses of the phrase). 

At the same time, each time that I read it, I find new things to enjoy, new facets of the history, the languages, and the lore that I didn’t fully appreciate before. As you read more of the history of the composition of LotR (courtesy of the exhaustive work of Christopher), you come to realize just how much work went into the creation of this world and everything connected to it. Sure, you can enjoy it on its own, but how much sweeter and richer and deeper is that pleasure as you see more of Tolkien’s mind and the sheer scale of his creative genius.

There’s a subtlety to this, I think, that you really do miss if you only read it once, or if you read it in isolation. I don’t want to cast aspersions on those casual Tolkien fans who have only read Lord of the Rings, but I would definitely encourage you to explore some of the other work. For those who don’t necessarily want to take the real plunge and read The Silmarillion, I would suggest instead Unfinished Tales, which contains some fascinating material germane to Frodo and Company.

I have to confess, sometimes I worry that re-reading Tolkien’s work will reveal that I’ve grown bored with it, that somehow I’ve managed to outgrow it and lost that sense of wonder and magic that I first encountered all those years ago. And every single time, it manages to cast its spell over me. Maybe some of this stems from my own tremendous emotional investment in the work, but an equal part I think is due to the power of the work itself. 

Of course, on the flip side of all of this, re-reading Tolkien’s great work also reveals some layers of complexity that are not quite so pleasurable. There’s no question that there are aspects of The Lord of the Rings that do read as distinctly racist (to take just one example). As a devoted fan of Tolkien’s, it does require a level of negotiation on my part, but to me that is one of the benefits of reading our fan objects as critically as we do anything else. 

So, no matter how many times I read The Lord of the Rings, I find new and varied reasons to keep coming back. Tolkien has taught me so much about writing and about my love of the fantasy genre, and I continue to learn from it, all these years after my initial reading. I look forward to keeping up the tradition.

So here’s to the pleasures of re-reading The Lord of the Rings.