Beren and Lúthien – Review

J.R.R. Tolkien. Beren and Lúthien. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton, 2017. Print.

In the preface to Beren and Lúthien, Christopher Tolkien writes that he is now 93 years old. This will probably be the last piece of his father’s work that he will see to publication.

This tale is appropriate to share in detail with the public. It was apparently one of Tolkien’s favorites—even his tombstone refers to it. Almost as interesting as the tale itself is what Christopher Tolkien writes about his father’s work in this book.

We learn that Tolkien started writing various stories and histories of Middle Earth from 1916 or 1917, the time he returned to England—injured and ill from the Battle of the Somme—and married. He considered The Hobbit a diversion when it came out. Still his publisher either rejected or never read eight Middle Earth stories after that until he sent them The Lord of the Rings. Finally, there was another story about Hobbits!

From his voluminous notes, it appears that Tolkien was more interested in the elves and men than he was with Hobbits. Beren and Lúthien contains the first two, but no Hobbits. There are apparently at least three different versions of the story, and in two of them Beren is human and Lúthien is an elf. Lúthien is also called Tinúviel, the name I recall from The Silmarillion or The Lord of the Rings. In the Middle Earth scheme, they would become the great grandparents of Elrond, a key character in the Trilogy, and great-great grandparents of Arwen, who would marry Aragorn.

The first version of the tale is the most complete from Tolkien’s notes. It is a prose quest, similar in style and approach to many Grimm Brothers stories. Beren falls in love with Lúthien. He nicknames her Tinúviel, which means “nightingale” in the Elven language. Her royal father does not approve of Beren. When he sees how brokenhearted his daughter becomes, he relents—at least technically. He gives Beren permission to marry Lúthien, but only if he can complete an impossible quest. He must bring him a Silmaril stone from the crown of the evil lord Morgoth.

This reminded the reader of similar quests in enchanted castles from the Grimms. Here, though, there are interesting twists. An important figure in all versions is Huan, large enchanted wolfhound who is a skilled hunter and is impervious to most weapons.

The prose version takes up approximately a third of the book. The other two thirds is divided between two partially completed poetic versions of the story taken from longer pieces that Tolken wrote. The older version with short rhymed couplets reminds the reader of an Old or Middle English style. Christopher Tolkien believes the second version from another tale written in longer couplets is better poetry. Most readers would probably agree.

Like the other Tolkien works edited by his son, such as The Silmarillion or the exhaustive History of Middle Earth, Beren and Lúthien is more of a compilation. The narrative may not “flow” the way his novels do, but the stories are well worth sharing. Because of the renown of Lúthien/Tinúviel in some of his other stories, Beren and Lúthien was an excellent way to complete the Tolkien oeuvre.

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