But First a Song of Beren and Luthien

Lost Civilizations and Found Adventures:

But First a Song of Beren and Luthien

Beren and Luthien, by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 2017. HB

“Let me be gone to seek him whom all others have forgot.”

— Tinuviel

We are going to embark on a tale of faerie magic and grounded mankind, of beauty and horror, of immortality and destruction, of love and redemption.  This is also a bittersweet moment of triumph and tragedy, both for the characters and for the readers. You see this is a centennial celebration of a life well lived and an entire alternate reality well created.  Let us read the tale of Beren and Luthien, created by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1917, as now published in a beautifully illustrated edition edited and revealed by his son Christopher Tolkien one century later.

As those of us who have read The Lord of the RIngs and The Silmarillion are aware, the tale of Beren and Luthien is one of the most famous legends of Middle Earth.  This tale is foundational in so many ways, and a key to unlocking events throughout the many ages of Middle Earth.  It is perhaps the greatest romance of that reality, as it is a tale that first entwines humans and elves for the rest of time.  One might go so far as to say that The Lord of the Rings was merely an echo of Beren and Luthien’s song. 

Beren was a human and Luthien Tinuviel was a half-elf.  Luthien, the daughter of an immortal, divine being known as Maia, and an elf, was considered the most beautiful elf in creation.  Because of this she was called the Morning Star and she acts as somewhat of a savior of humanity (which is an interesting flip of the human myth of Lucifer, also called Morning Star, who was supposed to be the most beautiful and powerful of the angels, but not a savior.)  Her descendent, the elf Arwen who was one of the characters in The Lord of the Rings and likewise marries a human, is such an echo of Luthien that she is called Evenstar or Evening Star, as one who reflects the glory of the Morning Star.  The timeslip of this echo covers thousands of years of Middle Earth history, during which empires and continents rose and fell, and entire Ages came and went.

As you can tell, just by trying to thumbnail sketch who these characters are, the depth of the world of Middle Earth begins to be readily apparent.  We run across many familiar characters and places in this great tale, such as the Eldar and Morgoth, or the Ents like Treebeard, or daemonic balrogs and the great spiders of the woods, alongside elves, dwarves, and humans in places like the Blue Mountains or Iron Hills of lost Beleriand or Ossiriand, while seeking things like silmarils — names and things that have all become so familiar over the decades that they now seem a concrete reality.

This is the power and the gift of J. R. R. Tolkien.  His creativity is boundless and at times hard to even grasp.  His son, Christopher, the greatest living scholar of Middle Earth, has literally spent a lifetime trying to fathom the depths of Tolkien’s genius.  This is one of the great tragedies I mentioned earlier.  Because, to me, this aspect of this book was the most gut-wrenching.  Christopher Tolkien is now ninety-three years old.  He states in the introduction that, realistically, this will be his last book exploring his father’s creation.  It is also his most important book and the one he has wanted to write for decades.  Even though this tale has appeared numerous times in various ways, from The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion to The Lost Tales and places in between in both poetic and narrative forms, this is the first time that the entire narrative has been extracted from greater works and collected whole, in its various forms, so that they can be enjoyed like the many facets of the jewel that they are.

One of the beautiful things about Tolkien arises from the depth of time he puts into his writings.  Much like his beloved elves, who lived for ages and acquired lore over time, Tolkien’s tales evolved over his lifespan.  This is a tale that Tolkien conceived of and began writing in 1917 on leave during the Great War.  He then spent the rest of his life revising it and adding to it so that it grew and evolved and intertwined with The Silmarillion and other lore of Middle Earth in an organic way.  It was a living body of work.  To give an idea of the depth of creation Tolkien engaged in, this tale, in the timetable of Middle Earth, happened six-thousand-five-hundred years before the era of The Lord of the Rings and took him a lifetime to write, though of course it was all left unfinished.

It was a paramount tale, though, as Christopher explains, because it was simultaneously about Beren and Luthien, but about JRR’s love for his wife, his own Luthien.  There are touching recollections in here from Christopher about his parents.  When he relates the way the widow Tolkien reminisced about his wife, you can still feel love vibrate from the page:

This tale is chosen in memoriam because of its deeply-rooted presence in his own life, and his intense thought on the union of Luthien, whom he called ‘the greatest of the Eldar.’ and of Beren the mortal man, of their fates, and of their second lives.

It goes back a long way in my life, for it is my earliest actual recollection of some element in a story that was being told to me– not simply a remembered image of the scene of the storytelling. My father told it to me, or parts of it, speaking it without any writing, in the early 1930s.

 In a letter to me on the subject of my mother, written in the year after her death, which was also the year before his own, he wrote of his overwhelming sense of bereavement, and of his wish to have Luthien inscribed beneath her name on the grave.

This book then is a triple love affair.  It is about the earliest love affair of an elf with a human.  That story is the mythologized version of the author’s love affair with his own wife.  Of course, this is also only the latest book documenting Christopher Tolkien’s lifelong love affair studying the vast archive of his father’s lore.

One of the other heartbreaking items that struck me from the introductory chapters was when Christopher lamented that the first copy of this great tale is now lost:

“This primary version of The Tale of Tinuviel, as he called it, written in 1917, does not exist– or more precisely, exists only in the ghostly form of a manuscript in pencil that he all but entirely erased for most of its length; over this he wrote the text that is for us the earliest version.”

However, this problem now has a solution. There has been a revolution in technologies in recent years that are allowing historians to recover more and more lost texts from the ancient past which have suffered damage, fading, overwriting/overpainting, or other erosive effects.  Upon reading this I was instantly reminded of the Archimedes Palimpsest.  Thirteenth Century monks erased the original Archimedes text and then wrote a prayer book over it.  It was considered fully lost until ultraviolet, infrared, X-Ray, and “raked-light” technologies recovered the original text beneath the ink of the copy.  The Archimedes Codex is a great book to read on this amazing subject.  I propose that similar technologies be used on the Tolkien manuscript to recover the lost original 1917 text of The Tale of Tinuviel.

Now, with all those real world issues resolved, let’s ponder briefly the glory of this magical myth.  As we all know, Tolkien is a master of the craft. The beauty of this particular book lies not just in the beautiful story, but that we also have the tale told in different styles, from poetry to narration, as Christopher Tolkien drew these portions intact from the varied sources.  So it is a textured and nuanced read that constantly shifts from page to page and is all the richer for it.  Here is an example of a tale being woven within this story which captures some of the spellcasting of which the wizardly Tolkien was capable:

“Whom do you serve, Light or Mirk?”

“Thu laughed: ‘Patience! Not very long

Shall ye abide. But first a song

I will sing to you, to ears intent.’

Then his flaming eyes he on them bent

And darkness black fell round them all.

…He chanted a song of wizardry,

Of piercing, opening, of treachery,

Revealing, uncovering, betraying.

Then sudden Felagund there swaying

Sang in answer a song of staying,

Resisting, battling against,

Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,

And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;

Of changing and of shifting shape,

Of snares eluded, broken traps,

The prison opening, the chain that snaps.”

This story snaps us along with boundless action.  There are monsters galore and magic, too, from elven light to the deepest depths of Morgoth’s dark, from mighty dwarves to werewolves and vampires.  There is so much detail and unique asides that each page could spawn its own myth.  Stories grow out of these pages like leaves on a tree.  One favorite example of a fable within a myth is when Luthien is on the quest for her lover Beren and casts a spell on her own dark hair to grow and weave a cloak of shadows and slumber.  She thus is able to move throughout the abodes of evil unseen and also putting opponents to sleep.  Beren is being held by the evil Prince of Cats, the gigantic Tevildo, and Luthien is able to both infiltrate the lair of these giant cats via her cloak, and then also make a deal with the devil, per se, in the form of a giant hound Huan in the mirky forests beyond.  Much subterfuge ensues, but the result is that Beren is freed and Tevildo’s reign is broken. Thus these giant cats are punished and shrunk to small size (as in the world today), and “…that tribe has fled before the dogs ever since….”

What a mythmaker Tolkien was!  The above story was just one small aside in the greater tale and yet shows the incredible richness and density of his works.  There are so many kernels of great myths embedded in this story that it is hard to even grasp on the first, or second, or thirty-second read.  This though is what makes Tolkien immortal.  He was a true weaver of myths. If Beren and Luthien is to be the last book Christopher Tolkien is able to produce, I am glad this was it.  This is truly the heart of Middle Earth and of the Tolkiens themselves.  What a beautiful edition for such a beautiful tale.   I am so thrilled that we have been able to journey with him on his quests for a century now. But I do not think it will end here or that he will be forgotten.  He, like his immortal elves, has crossed the Western Sea beyond death and will dwell in us all forever.