12 June 2017
While people are most familiar with his tales of hobbits, one of the most prominent tales of Tolkien's legendarium was that of Beren and Luthien.
So "Beren and Lúthien" separates this tale from the rest of Tolkien's work, exploring the different aspects and earlier drafts of the story, which have some notable differences (Beren was originally an elf referred to as a "Gnome"). It's not so much a cohesive telling of the tale as it is a collection of Tolkien's ever-evolving drafts, but they all revolve around the love story between a semi-divine elf maiden and her stalwart suitor.
* "The Tale of Tinuviel, in which the beautiful "fairy" princess Tinuviel is spotted by a Gnome named Beren, but her father's scorn for him sends him on a hopeless quest to steal a Silmaril from the crown of the evil Melko. The heartbroken Tinuviel, kept prisoner by her father, devises a way to escape and save Beren, but the danger and cost for them both will be enormous.
*Extracts from "The Lay of Leithian" and "The Quenta Noldorinwa," in which Tolkien made a number of important changes: the insertion of the elf Felagund, Beren's switch from an elf to a human, larger-scale conflicts with the evil Morgoth, and alterations to Beren and Luthien's fate. A great deal more of Middle-Earth's mythos is interwoven with these stories.
*Analysis of the "Quenta Silmarillion," which was what the final version of the tale was ultimately derived from.
*The story of the Nauglafring, a Norse-legend-like tale of Beren's actions that are fleshed out more expansively, and "The Morning and Evening Star," which follows Earendil and Elwing.
It's hard to overstate the importance of Beren and Luthien's tale in Tolkien's legendarium. Not only did it have massive personal resonance for Tolkien himself, but it also had ripple effects across the rest of his Middle-Earth mythos, including the kingship of multiple nations, the lineage of Elrond and the Dunedain, and the love story of Aragorn and Arwen. So its importance as a tale in Tolkien's world can't be overestimated.
It's also simply an entertaining, vivid story, full of forbidden romance, sparkling magic (Tinuviel's spell to make her hair grow AND become a sedative), werewolves, giant talking dogs, bitten-off hands, resurrection, and malevolent gods with shining crowns. There's something almost primally appealing about a tale of against-the-odds lovers whose devotion cannot be stopped.
And "Beren and Luthien" is in some ways a highlighting of the evolving tale, and partly an exploration of how the story evolved over time. The first rendition of it is fanciful, but it's also rather like a child's storybook. Just consider the giant evil cats. The later retellings are far more complicated, both in character development (more of Luthien's angst over her star-crossed romance) and in the world-building (Morgoth's increased influence, the more implicit bittersweetness of their fate rather than outright tragedy, and the involvement with outside elements of Middle-Earth).
And as always, Tolkien's writing is the star of the book -- his prose is hauntingly beautiful, with the quality of being much older than it actually was, as if he had dug up and translated an old legend ("Thereafter Beren was named Erchamion, which is the One-handed, and suffering was graven on his face"). His poetry is perhaps more beautiful ("Thus long they spoke with heavy hearts/and yet not all her elvish arts/nor lissom arms, nor shining eyes/as tremulous stars in rainy skies...").
"Beren and Luthien" is an intriguing look at the evolution of a legendary fantasy tale, and how Tolkien's skill spun it from a simple fairy love story into the heart of a vast epic. A must-see for fans of Tolkien's life's work.