Beren and Luthien: Review

Long before there was One Ring to rule them all, adorable Hobbits, and the exiled heir to Gondor’s throne, there was Middle-Earth’s greatest love story. It faced even greater odds than Aragorn and Arwen’s did. There was an ordinary mortal man, an immortal, semi-divine, elf princess, and the most powerful evil being in the world. This was the basis for the tale of Beren and Luthien.

Beren and Luthien: The Book

In 2017, the now-late Christopher Tolkien compiled his father’s tales of Beren and Luthien into a single, standalone book for the first time. The book shows the evolution of the tale throughout J.R.R. Tolkien’s lifetime. Tolkien never managed to publish it while living, but his son did so in the Silmarillion. The problem is that even for Tolkien fans, the Silmarillion is hard to read. There was a reason why his publisher rejected it.

Fortunately, the new book that Christopher put together is far more approachable. Indeed, it’s easy to read. It also comes with illustrations by Alan Lee, the acclaimed illustrator of all things Tolkien.

Christopher places notes and commentary on his father’s writings in some places in the book. These might not interest the general reader. But they are unintrusive and instructive about his thought process. Professional writers will take note.

The Tale of Tinuviel

The book begins with “The Tale of Tinuviel,” which J.R.R. Tolkien got to work on in 1917, making it one of his earliest writings. The basic structure of the Beren and Luthien story was laid down here.

Beren came through the woods, hard-pressed by Morgoth’s armies. There, he met and fell in live with “Tinuviel.” Her father, “Tinwelint,” however, was not appreciative of his suit, and sent him on a seemingly impossible quest: to steal a Silmaril from “Melko’s” crown.

Beren finds himself in captivity, but Tinuviel, after escaping her father’s confinement by using magic on her shadowy hair, devises tricks to save him. She does so with the help of Huan the dog, and eventually, they succeed in the theft, only for the wolf Karkaras to devour the gem and Beren’s hand with it. On returning to Tinwelint’s lands, Beren slays the wolf but dies in the process. Tinuviel dies too, but sang so beautifully that she moved Mandos, the lord of the dead, to send them back to the world as mortals.

Beren and Luthien review

Those familiar with Tolkien and his legendarium will see the basic structure of the Beren and Luthien story in this tale of Tinuviel. There are some major differences, though.

In this story, Beren is an elf rather than a man. Beren’s captor is not Sauron, but Tevildo, “Prince of Cats.” Tolkien’s later works have erased this character, but it adds a wrinkle to his world that I find charming. Luthien also has a brother who acts as an obstacle in her love story.

The Lay of Leithian

The Lay of Leithian dominates most of the book. J.R.R. Tolkien began working on this epic poem in 1925, writing it in spurts between then and 1931. He never finished it, cutting it off at the moment that the wolf Karkaras bit Beren’s hand off while he was holding the Silmaril.

The Lay of Leithian completed most of the Beren and Luthien story that Tolkien readers now know. Beren is a man, not an elf. The characters got their present names in the Lay. Tevildo is gone, replaced by the necromancer Thu, the character that would become Sauron. Luthien’s brother is also gone and her family have their canonical names.

The two sons of Feanor, Celegorm and Curufin, take their central place in the story with the Lay of Leithian. Feanor was the creator of the Silmarils and these two had sworn a blood oath with their father to retrieve the gems. When they encounter Luthien they are naturally entranced. It is one of the better parts of the poem:

Lightly he lifted her, light he bore

his trembling burden. Never before

had Celegorm beheld such prey;

‘What hast thou brought, good Huan say!

Dark-elvish maid, or wraith, or fay?

Not such to hunt we came today.’

‘Tis Luthien of Doriath,’

the maiden spake. ‘A wandering path

far from the Wood-elves’ sunny glades

she sadly winds, where courage fades

and hope grows faint.’ And as she spoke

down she let slip her shadowy cloak,

and there she stood in silver and white.

Her starry jewels twinkled bright

in the risen sun like morning dew;

the lilies gold on mantle blue

gleamed and glistened. Who could gaze

on that fair face without amaze?

Long did Curufin look and stare.

The perfume of her flower-twined hair

her lissom limbs, her elvish face,

smote to his heart, and in that place

enchained he stood. (pg. 148)

Every man knows this feeling as surely as we all desire it. It is the same reason why Paris chose to claim Helen of Troy rather than all the wealth of Asia and wisdom with undying glory. He made the wrong choice. This we know, but who could gaze on that fair face without amaze?

And we all seek to come across our Luthiens and our Helens in life. To deny this part of our nature is to deny our existence as men. To not live in accordance with this arguably most powerful part of our nature, is to not be happy. In On Moral Ends, Cicero tells us the importance of living as our nature intended. We see in this passage why Paris chose to bring the world to disaster and why Beren would agree to the “impossible” task of robbing Morgoth.

Men need a mission and there are few better motivators than this.

See or imagine such a “fair face,” “lissom limbs,” and “flower-twined hair” and you will do those extra reps, put in that extra effort on the job, or go that extra distance to do that thing you thought impossible. It will help you get through the pain barrier. Just like Beren.

Obviously, impressing women should not be your primary motivation (that should be your vision of self). But there is a comical denialism among men on the internet who try to act like these things don’t matter. They’re full of shit. Let them come across a woman who invokes such feelings as Luthien and such posturing will melt as fast as ice cream on the sun.

The trick is to go about your business from a place of pride and power that expresses the best parts of your nature, in line with the virtues Sallust discusses glowingly and Cicero describes in detail in On Duties. Beren is a good example. Paris is not.

Such are the powerful real feelings Tolkien’s fantasy world evokes. The Lay of Leithian was one of the better expressions.

Final Parts

With the Lay of Leithian’s premature end, Christopher Tolkien needed to reconstruct the end of the mature Beren and Luthien story through his father’s scattered drafts. It was painstaking work and we should commend him for it. Near the end, we are told that the choice which Beren and Luthien both had in the Tale of Tinuviel – to remain in the Halls of Mandos or return to the world as mortals, was now Luthien’s alone:

Luthien may still leave Mandos and dwell until the end of the world in Valinor, because of her labours and her sorrow, and because she was the daughter of Melian; but thither Beren cannot come. Thus if she accepts the former, they must be separated now and for ever: because he cannot escape from his own destiny, cannot escape Death, which is the gift of Iluvatar and cannot be refused.

The second choice remained, and this she chose. Only so could Luthien become united with Beren ‘beyond the world’: she must change the destiny of her being: she must become mortal, and die indeed. (pg. 230)

Luthien loved her man so much she gave up her immortality for him. The choice anticipated Arwen’s romance with Aragorn over 6,000 years later. Both were her descendants. She is one of the best wives or girlfriends in fiction.

And every man longs for his Luthien. That’s why the story is so powerful. Tolkien based it partly on his own life, as he had to jump through a few hoops to marry his wife Edith, who gave up her religion to marry him.

Truth be told, I bought this book by an accidental twist of fate, but I’m glad I read it. You will too. You can find it by clicking here.

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