Christopher Tolkien presents the various narratives that evolved become the story of Beren and Lúthien who, together, faced the dark lord Morgoth in his own halls and attempted to wrest a Silmaril from his crown. Illustrated by Alan Lee.
The story of Beren and Lúthien is one of the most famous episodes in The Silmarillion. It is the story of a mortal man who falls in love with an immortal Elf. And to win her he must do the impossible–bring her father a Silmaril from the crown of the dark lord Morgoth himself. Lúthien, however, will not let her lover face certain death alone. She is accounted not only the most beautiful of the Elves but also the most fearless. Tolkien had the names of Beren and Lúthien inscribed on the gravestones of himself and his wife, a testament to enduring love.
In this volume, Christopher Tolkien does not present any previously unpublished material. Instead he attempts to take the story of Beren and Lúthien from its place within the greater narrative of the Elder Days of Middle-earth and present it as a standalone title while also showing the various forms the story took throughout his father’s extant drafts. His hope is twofold: to show the evolution of the tale while also allowing readers intimated by The Silmarillion to experience Tolkien’s great love story.
Like many of the recently published Tolkien works, then, this book is written for a strangely divided audience: a scholarly one devoted to understanding Tolkien’s drafts and a general one hesitant to read The Silmarillion. I have never been convinced that writing a book to such two very different audiences can be entirely successful. I remain unconvinced here.
Christopher Tolkien seems hesitant to present too much background material for the story, even though he admits that it’s almost impossible to separate the tale of Beren and Lúthien from the larger history of Middle-earth. So he provides a few short notes on Morgoth and some place names, still without entirely explaining who Morgoth is or why the place names are important. The drafts, too, are confusingly (at least to me) arranged. They begin with the early draft in which Beren is a Gnome and the short-lived Tevildo Prince of Cats holds Beren as a thrall. But they are randomly interspersed with notes on the drafts and the evolution on the drafts and notes that, well, seem somewhat irrelevant and ad hoc. And then the drafts themselves are sometimes cut apart with one draft being interrupted with the insertion of another one before the original resumes. This is apparently so the story can be told in a coherent manner (not all drafts are as complete as others). But it can feel disorienting.
I, like many others, am enchanted by the story of Beren and Lúthien. It is a beautiful and a powerful tale, one that celebrates courage, integrity, and service to others. It is the type of tale that pierces the heart. But I do wonder if readers unfamiliar with The Silmarillion will be able to access the story in this new form.