Review: Beren and Lúthien

Beren and Lúthien Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an old review from GoodReads, I just wanted it on my blog so I am posting it here.

This book combines different versions of the story of Beren and Luthien, one of the Middle-earth legends mentioned in LotR, presented in one volume. (For those who haven’t read it, the real-world myths that Tolkien draws on here include the story of Rapunzel and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and he got the idea for the singing duels from the Kalevala.) I loved it! I really think the characters come across much more powerfully when you read all the different versions (especially the Lay of Leithian).

There’s a prologue that explains “the story so far” for readers who haven’t read The Silmarillion. Most of this book consists of “Tale of Tinuviel” and the extracts from the poem “The Lay of Lethian,” which present a more detailed version of the story than appears in The Silmarillion (chapter 19). But there is also some new material — prose versions that add more to the story in The Silmarillion. There are a few things that made more sense to me after reading this book, compared to reading the Silmarillion version.

“The Tale of Tinuviel” was originally part of The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two. It’s more whimsical than either the later prose version, or the poem. Instead of Sauron, Beren and Luthien face down Tevildo the king of the Cats. And the Noldorin kingdom of Nargothrond wasn’t part of the story at this point, so the darkest elements of the tale are missing. And personally I really love that stuff, and the way it contrasts with one of the rare happy endings of the First Age.

I love the little detail that Beren could hear Luthien across the distance between them: “at night time it seemed to him that his heart heard her sometimes weeping softly for him far away in the woodlands of her home: and this was indeed true.”

SPOILER review – I can’t hide text here like I can on GoodReads, so keep reading or not, depending
on how you feel about spoilers.

This bit is interesting, because it’s so different from what happens in the Lay and in The Silmarillion:
“… Tinuviel grew at last to long sorely for Gwendeling her mother and the songs of sweet magic she was used to sing to her children as the twilight fell in the woodlands by their ancient halls. Often she half fancied she heard the flute of Dairon her brother, in pleasant glades where they sojourned, and her heart grew heavy.”

She tells Beren that she wants to return home (!), and Beren is the one who’s reluctant to leave their life in the woods with Huan, This seems like one of the most significant changes to the characters that happens in the later version – in which he’s the one who tries to leave her behind when they reach the borders of Doriath, and she always insists on coming with him.

– Why does Luthien succeed where Finrod fails (vs Sauron)? Finrod had two disadvantages: the doom of the Noldor and Finrod & co’s guilt about the Kinslaying, which they arrived at Alqualonde too late to prevent. (The latter is less explicit, but I think it’s there, and of course the two things are related; I don’t think the Valar would have pronounced the doom of the Noldor in the first place if they had left peacefully.) Also, I’m pretty sure Finrod & his followers (and Galadriel, and their brothers) had intended to board the stolen Teleri ships until Feanor burned them, so they’re not altogether innocent.

– When I read “A Passage Extracted From the Quenta” (p 105) I had a very satisfying aha! moment. The Silm says that when Sauron pierced the disguises of Finrod & co., “their kinds were revealed” but this version has it as “they were revealed as Elves, but the spells of Felagund concealed their names and quest.” I have always wondered why Sauron didn’t immediately know who Beren was, since Beren was famous among Morgoth’s servants for killing a lot of orcs & giant spiders.

– I feel sorry for Carcharoth, who clearly knows that there’s something fundamentally messed up about his existence. The poem is more explicit about this than the prose version, but there is something really sad about his predicament. (“For one brief hour escape the net/The dreadful doom of life forget!”)

I think the extracts from the Lay of Leithian here include the most memorable parts of the story. The version included in The Silmarillion is complete in length, but not in detail; in particular, there’s much more dialogue in the poem.

I think my favorite passages are these two:
[Finrod and Beren in the dungeons of Sauron]

To Felagund then Beren said: 
”’Twere little loss if I were dead, 
and I am minded all to tell, 
and thus, perchance, from this dark hell 
thy life to loose. I set thee free 
from thine old oath, for more for me 
hast thou endured than e’er was earned.’ 
‘Ah, Beren, Beren hast not learned 
that promises of Morgoth’s folk 
are frail breath. From this dark yoke 
of pain shall neither ever go, 
whether Sauron learn our names or no,
with his consent. Nay, more, I think, 
yet deeper of torment we should drink, 
knew he that son of Barahir 
and Felagund were captive here, 
and even worse if he should know 
the dreadful errand we did go.’ 
A devil’s laugh they ringing heard 
within their pit. ‘True, true the word 
I hear you speak,’ a voice then said. 
”Twere little loss if he were dead, 
the outlaw mortal. But the king, 
the Elf undying, many a thing 
no man could suffer may endure…”

[Luthien to Beren, once she catches up to him at the gates of Angband to give him a piece of her mind]

“A love is mine, as great a power
as thine, to shake the gate and tower
of death with challenge weak and frail
that yet endures, and will not fail
nor yield, unvanquished were it hurled
beneath the foundations of the world.
Beloved fool! escape to seek
from such pursuit; in might so weak
to trust not, thinking it well to save
from love thy loved, who welcomes grave
and torment sooner than in guard
of kind intent to languish, barred,
wingless and helpless him to aid
for whose support her love was made!’

Thus back to him came Lúthien:
they met beyond the ways of Men;
upon the brink of terror stood
between the desert and the wood.”

Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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