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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Reading “The Simarillion” Part One

C.S. Lewis once remarked of The Lord of the Rings that:  “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.  Here is a book which will break your heart.”   While LoTR is (perhaps rightly) Tolkien’s most famous work, the work of his heart, as numerous biographers and letters attest, was always The Silmarillion.  Lewis’s words ring even more true for The Silmarillion than they are for LoTR, for though sometimes ponderous, this book is always beautiful, always conscious of the grandness and the significance of its narrative, for it tells the tales of actions and people who will echo down through for the forthcoming ages.

Much as I love (and have long loved) Tolkien’s work in all its forms, my history with The Silmarillion, like many other fans, is somewhat vexed.  My first encounter was with a copy that my Grandma bought me (though not a fan herself, she knew I loved Tolkien’s work).  I have to admit that I had a lot of trouble with it and, being rather young and fickle, I finally gave up.  I returned several times over the years, and gradually made my way through most of the stories  Still, a full appreciation and understanding of the text eluded me.  Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that I usually picked it up after having done one of my periodic readings of The Lord of the Rings, and so my attention would typically shift to something else.

This time, however, I have decided to start with The Silmarillion and only then make my way to LoTR.  So far, I have to say, the experience has been a marvelous one.  Tragedy saturates this work, working at its core, suffusing all that it seeks to portray.  From the destruction and malice wrought by Morgoth upon all things of beauty that the Valar attempt to make, to the ill-fated Feanor and his sons, this work captures the pinnacles and the troughs of the Elves.  Time and again as I have worked my way through it I have found myself as deeply moved, if not more so, than by even the most poignant passages in LoTR.  For all the tales of tragedy and bone-deep sorrow, however, it also contains a great deal of hope, for from the very beginning Tolkien makes clear that even the most hateful and destructive of deeds ultimately work to fulfill the grand purpose of Eru.

There are tales here that evoke and tap into the deep wells of emotion of all myth, and in that respect Tolkien has succeeded in what he sought:  the creation of a grand mythology for England.  His Elves, especially the Noldor (of which Feanor is one of the chief and most notable), are a people high and proud, and rightly so.  They are in many ways the apogee of sentient life in this world, but with that great power and wisdom comes also their greatest weakness.  Beauty in this world always comes with a price, and such is the case with the eponymous Silmarils, whose beauty is the root of the revolt of some of the Elves.  Just as importantly, however, beauty is also transient, which for the immortal Elves remains a source of their greatest sadness.

This is also a world where an oath can have far-reaching consequences, even when those who take it no longer dwell in the mortal world.  Such is the case with Feanor, with the result that he and his sons commit hideous acts of violence and betrayal, forever earning the enmity of some and the displeasure of the Valar.  Though Feanor dies fairly early on–which is itself a tragedy, given that he possesses one of the strongest, most vibrant, and most gifted spirits among the Elves–the oath that he and his sons swore, and the Silmarils they were so desperate to regain, will haunt the rest of the tales of the Elves, a source of inspiration and of destruction, the terrible double-edged sword of unearthly beauty.

It is therefore quite easy to see why this was the work that Tolkien worked on off and on for most of his life.  I’m not going to lie, however.  It is often quite difficult to keep all of the names and relationships straight, in large part because so many of the major characters have names that begin with “F.”  Nevertheless, if you can keep those straight (and in a world in which Game of Thrones is so popular, that may not be as much of a challenge for some), this book is immensely rewarding, a work of exquisite beauty and depth, full of all of the action and betrayal that we seem to desire from our fantastic fiction.  It does not, perhaps, have the same earthy libidinal drive of Martin’s work, but it does possess a grandeur and a splendour that earns it its place in the epic fantasy pantheon.

Tolkien and the Political Pleasures of Sadness

One of the things that always stands out to me upon reading Tolkien’s work, whether that be The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion, is the pervasive sense of sadness and loss that permeates his literary endeavours.   Time and again, the reader is made to realize that victory always carries with it a core of sadness and that, perhaps, this sadness is one of the defining characteristics of the human (and Elven) condition.  Indeed, Tolkien himself suggests as much in a letter to his publisher regarding his aspirations for The Silmarillion:  “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall–all stories are ultimately about the fall–at least not for human minds as we know them and have them” (147).  For Tolkien, the fall, and all of the bitterness and strife that comes with it, remains an essential part of our humanity and is crucial to our way of making sense of the world.

Tolkien builds sadness into the very core of his created world, for it suffuses the ontology of both branches of the Children of Iluvatar, Elves and Men.  For Elves, sadness comes from many sources, not the least of which is their immortality, but also from their love of the world and their agony at its hurts.  For men, sadness is of an altogether different nature, stemming from their finite nature, for though some are blessed with extraordinary long life, they nevertheless remain haunted by the fact that they must one day leave the world of mortals, and it remains unclear in the legendarium (even to the Valar, the chief servants of Iluvatar), what lies for humanity beyond the confines of the mortal world.  At its heart, then, Tolkien’s world is structured by and imbued with a profound sense of impending doom and sadness.

This is not to suggest, however, that it is a fatalistic sadness.  I would argue that it is precisely through sadness that Tolkien’s world offers the hope of salvation; it is through perseverance even in the face of ultimate doom that hope finds its way into many of Tolkien’s larger works.  Thus, Gandalf and Aragorn lead the attack on the Black Gate, knowing full well that they in all likelihood will not survive, but knowing that there is no other choice.  Frodo and Sam continue on their quest to Mount Doom, knowing that they may perish before they go there, but they do so anyway, soldering through the sorrow and despair they feel.

At the same time, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings suggest that, no victory can ever be fully complete.  Sauron may be defeated, but a new shadow will arise to take his place.  What is more, the downfall of the One Ring, though utterly necessary for the survival and flourishing of Middle-earth, will also spell the doom of the Elves and the fading of all that has been wrought with the Three Rings they bear.  Galadriel makes this clear to Frodo, when she passes her own test of temptation, knowing as she does so that she will diminish and go into the West.  The entirety of LoTR is suffused with this great sorrow, that at the end of it all the world of the Elves and all the beauty they bear will at last come to an end.  Even The Hobbit, light-hearted though it is, has in its ending a tinge of that sadness, not only with the death of Thorin and his nephews Fili and Kili, but also in the fact that Bilbo’s quiet life, and that of his beloved Shire, has been fundamentally changed.

Sadness also permeates The Silmarillion.  Even as the Valar endeavour to create things of beauty Melkor/Morgoth brings them to ruin, blighting with sorrow all that should bring nothing but joy.  Likewise, the  enchanted Silmarils, though jewels of surpassing and exquisite beauty, are themselves the source of uncounted sorrows for all that come into contact with them.  Beauty and sadness are constantly intertwined with one another in the connected tales of The Silmarillion; the text even suggests that not only can one not exist without the other, but that they are mutually constitutive.  Beauty can and does smite us with the sorrow of its own fading and failing and becomes all the more precious for  the ability to conjure up so many conflicting desires within us.

Whatever you think about Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien, I believe he has gotten this bit right.  To this day, the ending of The Return of the King, with Annie Lennox’s powerful and piercing rendition of the song “Into the West,” inspires in me an almost sublime sadness, a mingled sense of loss and hope.   That, to me, manages to make up for Jackson’s excision of “The Scouring of the Shire.”  Although I have not yet seen the final chapter of his The Hobbit trilogy, Bilbo’s haunting assertion in one of the trailers that he will tell the tale of those that survived and those that did not, paired with Billy Boyd’s hauntingly lyrical voice, suggests that this film too will into the profound well of sadness that lies beneath the surface of Tolkien’s upbeat novel.

Like Tom Shippey, who suggests that Jackson’s films are in some ways refreshingly different from traditional Hollywood fare, I applaud Jackson for his ability to evoke in us a sense of the sublime sadness that for me characterizes Tolkien’s moral and aesthetic vision.  Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly room for joy and optimism in our world.  But sadness does not always have to be seen in a negative light, for as Gandalf says:  “I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”  It can indeed help us to be more appreciative and more sensitive to the world around us, to the beauty of the nature and its inhabitants.  By realizing the fragility and impermanence, and thus the exquisite beauty, of everything around us, we can hopefully learn not to take things for granted.  Tolkien’s works have much to teach us about how to engage ethically and considerately with the pressing moral and ecological issues of our day, if we but have the wit to see it.