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. 

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