In his review of Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien’s colleague and close companion C.S. Lewis concluded, “[T]he most obvious appeal is also of the book is perhaps also its deepest: ‘there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds not wholly vain.’ Not wholly vain – it is the cool middle point between illusion and disillusionment.”
Though widely (and rightfully) regarded as his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings was for Tolkien a tangent to the more foundational tales from the First Age of his Lengendarium, the most central of which is inarguably that of Beren and Lúthien. It was among the first of his writings in the world of Middle-Earth, begun brief years after the mythology’s primordial poem, “The Voyage of Eärendil the Evening Star,” and mere months after his 1917 composition “The Fall of Gondolin.” Fittingly, a full century later, it is the final of his works to find posthumous publication, his son Christopher till the Old Took-like age of ninety-three having faithfully executed his father’s wishes for the multitude of manuscripts left behind. But it was not for a century forgot; Tolkien returned to the tale of Tinúviel time and again throughout his life, and even at its end, engraving as epithets upon the tombstone of him and his wife, “Beren” and “Lúthien.”
This eponymously titled work chronicles the development of that central thread throughout the author’s illustrious life, across several prose and poetic manuscripts, some complete, some aborted, and some mere excerpts. In that respect, it mirrors more closely the twelve volume “History of Middle-earth” than the straightforward narrative from “The Children of Húrin.” Within its pages are words written when Tolkien was in his twenties up through his mid-sixties. What strikes the reader of Beren and Lúthien– perhaps more so even than the full History – is both the relative consistency of his vision for his personal sub-creation, so fully realized seemingly from the start, and also the maturity of his motifs and style, striking the same tone at twenty-five as he’d evidence when writing Lord of the Rings as many years later. From the very beginning, his were tales of sorrow and valor and great deeds not wholly vain.
If there is a notable maturation evidenced by Tolkien’s various re-tellings of Beren and Lúthien, it is in the gradual abandonment of the pseudo-euhemerisms which peppered his earlier writings. Readers of the Hobbit will recall the story of Bandobras Took having cleaved the head off a goblin with a club, the decapitated crown having landed in a rabbit hole, as Tolkien’s euhemeristic explanation as to the origin of golf. Such anecdotes abound in the earliest version of the myth, The Tale of Tinúviel. Some, such as the hatred between the heavenly hound Huan and Tevildo Prince of Cats being the cause of enmity between canine and feline kind forever forth, were rightfully excised from later drafts; even the far fewer times in which Huan speaks in the Lay of Leithian still reek to much of the talking-beast fables which Tolkien in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories” barred from inclusion into the genre of fairy-tales proper.
Others, such as Lúthien’s escape from the tree house – Tolkien’s “true” origin for the tale which would come down to us as Rapunzel – demonstrate a different claim of his from the same essay, namely that “it is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really counts.” It is thus not in its obvious similarities to Rapunzel, but rather in all the deliberate differences, in which the particular Tolkien-esque flavor is most acutely tasted. And while the incident is briefly sketched in the later Lay of Leithian, the Noldorinwa, and the Silmarillion, nowhere is it as uniquely and wonderfully detailed as in the original Tale of Tinúviel.
If Tolkien tended to shed his euhemeristic tendencies, in their place he gained clearer philosophical and metaphysical insights into his sub-created world. The transformation of Beren from a Noldor elf to mortal Man (thus making his love for Lúthien all the more star-crossed and tragic), and the many revisions to their mode of resurrection both evidence such. Indeed, for the last decade of his life Tolkien’s interests became primarily theological, as seen in such late writings as the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” and “The Story of Finwe and Miriel.” That transition is seen already by the final retelling of Lúthien’s appeal to Mandos, wherein the spiritual distinctions between Elves and Men had reached its final, most pronounced development, leaving the question solely upon Tinúviel herself as to whether she and her beloved would be united in resurrection as mortals or whether she’d remain immortal but forever parted from him, as Tolkien had by then decided that Men (who share a single anthropology, whether in fantasy or reality) could not refuse God’s Gift of Death. Nor was this pure invention on his part, but rather a grounding of his sub-creation in his religious understanding as to the reality of the primary Creation. Per Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth’s Ring: “But this surely is not a parody, nor even a parallel, but an extension – if only represented as a vision, hope, or prophecy – of the ‘theology’ of Arda into specifically, and of course centrally, Christian belief.”
Those later years spent reexamining the metaphysics of Middle-earth resulted in some of Tolkien’s best writings, but came at the expense of prolonging, past the point of completion, his lifelong vision for the Legendarium, which, much like Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, was to be comprised of the prosaic Silmarillion in addition to three longer, narrative poems: The Tale of Túrin Turambar (Narn i Chîn Húrin), The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, and the Fall of Gondolin. The first was sufficiently sketched in prose for Christopher to rescue a novel from the notes, and the last was but briefly begun, abandoned at a mere hundred and thirty verses.
The Lay of Leithian, however, evidences Tolkien as every bit the equal as any English language poet of the Twentieth Century. In addition to his well-documented skill for crafting euphonic names, Tolkien demonstrates a commanding use of meter and end-rhymes. Moreover, these strict regulation, rather than constraining the story to fit the form, improve the same story over its straightforward prose rendition (having both side-by-side in the same volume makes the comparison of forms inevitable, and readers of both will inevitably agree that the most popular novelist of the last hundred years was an even better poet). Per Peter Kreeft in The Philosophy of Tolkien, “Music is not ornamented poetry, and poetry is not ornamented prose. Poetry is fallen music, and prose is fallen poetry. Poetry is not the original language; it is poetry made practical.”
In Leaf by Niggle, the allegorical and autobiographical short story which serves as the companion to On Fairy Stories, the painter Niggel is seemingly forced to leave forever unfinished his life’s work of a pastoral painting of a great tree, dragged away on a journey which he is unprepared and unwilling to undertake, but on which all men must go at their appointed time. After much hardship along the way, he comes into the very landscape of his painting, not as he left it, but as he envisioned it, staying to fully finish the work which he’d begun, for the enjoyment and edification of all who’d pass that way after him. Despite being a Deist these day, never is the Christian hope of a future state more strongly reawakened in me than when I read Tolkien, firstly because his own beliefs about death and immortality are so central to all of his work, but also for the simple desire to see his sub-creative works completed, not the least among which would be the tale of Beren and Lúthien. And if not, if – as the Norse believed – neither gods nor men survive the day of Ragnarök, then this mortal life was nonetheless made more beautiful for those writings Tolkien left behind:
More fair than mortal tongue can tell.
Though all to ruin fell the world,
And were dissolved and backwards hurled
Unmade into the old abyss,
Yet were its making good for this –
The dawn, the dusk, the earth, the sea,
That Lúthien on a time should be!”