Professor Tolkien hails this as the most important of all of this stories. If that’s not enough of an endorsement, there’s probably no point in going any further. After reading the tale, it’s easy to see why. It’s breathtaking. The threads this story are the backbone behind much of Middle-Earth’s eucatastrophe resolution at the beginning of the Fourth Age with the union of Aragorn and Arwen. It’s one thing to get the hints of it while reading The Lord of the Rings. It’s something else entirely to experience this story in its entirety. And it is very much an experience.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remark how Tolkien felt that he always “married up,” an idea that is reflected in the case of Beren and Lúthien, Aragorn and Arwen, and a number of other such marriages in the Legendarium. There are letters that he wrote to his children that tell of his great love for his wife Edith, and the way he describes her is quite similar how he describes Lúthien. Not only is Edith’s inspiration reflected on their joint tombstone, it’s easy to see that the professor was not long for this world after she departed from it.
That kind of love is truly the stuff of legend, the sort that everyone wishes would happen to them, but few believe is possible. I’ve seen it myself in my own grandparents, who left this world a mere three months apart. From experience, I can say that these sorts of relationships don’t “just happen.” It takes effort and commitment the likes of which few could understand, let alone dedicate over a lifetime.
Being what it is, the tale of Beren and Lúthien is an absolute monster. In addition to laying the backbone of many things ahead, many of the touchstones of The Silmarillion that we’ve already gone through come into play. That’s why I decided to dedicate an extra week to it, so I’d have time to explore it in some depth. In any case, it’s impractical to give a completely detailed synopsis in the scope of a blog post. I’ll hit the highlights, but there are things I want to discuss beyond what’s written in The Silmarillion.
The story of how Barahir of the House of Bëor would not forsake Dorthonion. He and twelve companions hit from Morgoth. One of them held steadfast, even when Sauron captured his wife, until he was promised to be reunited. He faltered, and Sauron reunited them in death. It’s a theme found in many staples of popular fiction; its effect is not diminished here. Sauron’s minions then found and killed Barahir’s company until only one remained: his son, Beren. Beren chased down the Orcs, killing them, and claiming the hand of his father, and with it the ring of Felagund.
Wandering for four years, Beren encountered terrors so numberless that he would not speak of them, not unlike Tolkien’s own experiences in World War I. But when Beren first laid eyes on Lúthien, daughter of Thingol, he was enchanted. Tolkien says at one point that he would gladly pay twice what he’d just been through to see her again. And no wonder. We’ve previously learned that she is the most beautiful of the Children of Ilúvatar.
Naturally, one so beautiful would have other admirers. The minstrel Daeron betrayed her secret meetings with Beren out of jealousy. Thingol sent his servants to haul in Beren, but Lúthien brought him in first as an honored guest. When Beren made his desire known, Thingol was determined to see the man die. Even with the tale of deeds and the ring of Felagund, Thingol was unimpressed. He laid out an impossible task for Beren to complete: to bring forth a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown. At that point, if Lúthien so desired, she would be permitted to wed Beren. The task drew all of Doriath into the curse of Mandos and the fate of the Noldor. Melian’s council is once again ignored, and Lúthien would never again sing in Doriath.
With the ring of Felagund as his marker, Beren went to Nargothrond and was brought before Finrod Felagund. The oath of friendship is so honored. Ten came forward to champion their king, and the crown was trusted to Finrod’s brother Orodreth that Finrod might undertake the quest.
Orcs were slain, disguises were taken. When Sauron noticed the odd behavior of some of his “Orcs,” they were brought before him. Sauron and Finrod battled in a duel of song, but their disguises fell away and Finrod fell when Sauron invoked the memory of the Kinslaying. One by one, the companions were cast into a pit to be devoured by werewolves, but none betrayed Finrod. When it was Beren’s turn, Lúthien sensed it and learned the truth from her mother Melian. She sought the aid of Daeron, who again betrayed her to Thingol (way to win points there, bub). Thingol imprisoned her in an impossibly high tree house. Using her powers, she grew her hair to great length, weaving from it a cloak and a long rope, both containing spells of sleep enabling her to escape Doriath that she might aid Beren. The influence here from the story of Rapunzel is obvious, but I think Tolkien’s version is far better. Then again, I’m biased.
Celegorm and Curufin, sons of Fëanor, hunted Sauron’s wolves along with Celegorm’s hound Huan. Though a creature of Valinor, it was prophesied that Huan would die in Middle-Earth before the Noldorin rebellion in battle with the greatest of wolves. Huan found Lúthien and brought her to his masters. The brothers, enamored, betrayed her after offering help, imprisoned her, and took her cloak. Celegorm sent word to Thingol of his own intent to wed Lúthien. His aim was unprecedented power through rule of Nargothrond and ties of marriage to Doriath. Huan, however, was more loyal to Lúthien. He stole back her cloak and helped her escape to Morgoth’s realm where only Beren and Finrod remained of their company. Sauron sent a werewolf for Beren, but Finrod intervened, slaying the werewolf, but died of his wounds in the pit. When Luthien arrived, Sauron sent his wolves after her, which were slain by Huan. Sauron sent the beast Draugluin, who died by Huan at Sauron’s feet. Sauron himself took the form of a wolf and battled with Huan and Lúthien. Lúthien took control of the island and all within, opening the walls and releasing Sauron’s captives. Beren, grieving for Finrod, did not come, but Lúthien found him, resuming their love.
Upon the return of some captives to Nargothrond, Celegorm and Curufin were discovered for their treachery. Orodreth cast them from his realm, and none would go with him, not even Curufin’s son Celebrimbor (remember that name for later, folks!). The two exiles eventually caught up with Beren and Lúthien, but Huan turned on his former masters in service to Lúthien. Lúthien spared them, and Beren took Curufin’s horse and his weapons, including the Dwarven-crafted Angrist, a blade that would cleave iron. As the brothers rode off on Celegorm’s horse, Curufin fires off two arrow. One is caught by Huan, the other hits Beren, who is healed by Lúthien. While she sleeps, Beren trusts her care to Huan, determined to fulfill the quest for the Silmaril.
She returns to him upon Huan’s back, she disguised as a bat, Huan as a wolf. Beren could not dissuade her from coming, so he takes the form of a werewolf, and the trio make their way to the Gates of Angband. There, they encounter Morgoth’s great wolf Carcharoth. Lúthien puts him to sleep, and they pass through the gates, coming to Morgoth himself. Lúthien’s disguise is removed, and she offers her service to the Dark Lord as a distraction. While he delights in the desires she arouses, she disappears and sings a song that quenches the fires of Angband and drops all of Morgoth’s servants into sleep. Lúthien throws her enchanted cloak over Morgoth’s eyes, who succumbs to sleep, the crown falling from his head. Lúthien then rouses Beren, who cuts free a Silmaril from the crown. The touch of the gem fills him with the greed to bring forth all three stones from Angband, but Angrist broke upon the crown as it cut. A shard hits Morgoth in the face, waking him. Beren and Lúthien flee, pursued by Carcharoth. Beren holds forth the Silmaril in defense. (Reminder: The Phial of Galadriel used by Sam to ward off Shelob was filled with water from Galadriel’s fountain which held the light of Eärendil’s star — the light of the Two Trees as preserved in a Silmaril.) Carcharoth bites off Beren’s hand at the wrist. In the madness caused by the pain of the Silmaril’s fire, Carcharoth kills everything in sight that doesn’t run. Lúthien heals Beren with the last of her remaining power as Morgoth’s flunkies awaken. Tolkien hits the “I WIN!” button, sending in three Eagles to bear the lovers and Huan safely from Angband to Doriath.
In Lúthien’s absence, Doriath had fallen into darkness. The people continued to search for her and Daeron. Thingol sent word to Maedhros, but his messengers were slain by Carcharoth’s rampage. When Beren and Lúthien arrive, Beren claims the Silmaril is indeed is in his hand and names himself “Camlost,” the Empty-Handed. Thingol at last feels sympathy for Beren and consents to let them wed. But of course, he also wants the Silmaril, and Carcharoth roamed ever closer. In the company of Huan, Thingol leads a hunting party. Beren is mortally injured, and Huan fights Carcharoth to the death. Mablug cuts open the wolf and places the Silmaril in Beren’s hand as the severed hand, still intact all this time, disintegrates. Upon return to Menegroth, Lúthien bids Beren to wait in the halls of Mandos for her that she may say her final farewell. The last thing he sees is her eyes.
When her spirit flees her body, Lúthien comes to the halls of Mandos, where she and Beren are allowed to meet again. Mandos seeks the will of Ilúvatar in this matter via Manwë. Lúthien is given two options. She can dwell among the Valar, forgetting her grief, or she can return to life with Beren on Middle-Earth, where they would both be mortal and suffer a second death. This latter option is Lúthien’s choice, and through it the kindreds of Elves and Men were joined.
As I said, it’s a monster of a story, perhaps more dense than it is long, which is nothing new in The Silmarillion. Tolkien continues to pack more story into his pages than it seems possible.
Being that this story is of utmost importance, I took it upon myself to read the earlier versions of it for comparisons, which we’ll cover eventually on this quest in its original locations. This was made easier for me due to the recent publication of Beren and Lúthien. This book contains all three versions and Christopher Tolkien’s notes.
Sauron doesn’t yet exist when the first version, The Tale of Tinúviel, is written, and instead is replaced by a great cat creature called Tevildo because Tolkien hates cats and thinks they’re evil. Seriously. The story is unintentionally goofy and hilarious for all the wrong reasons, and it comes down to “this is why cats and dogs hate one another.” The second version, The Lay of Leithian, is the poem that would exist in the lore alongside The Silmarillion‘s final version. It would, according to the lore be completed and expanded upon, which Aragorn would quote in The Lord of the Rings. Alas, this poem version, while actually so much better than the prose account in my eyes, is incomplete, ending when Carcharoth bites the hand from Beren. Even incomplete, it gave me chills to read it, and I really feel that there’s a larger whole to be obtained between the poem and the prose version.
I haven’t yet done it due to time constraints, but my intent in the extremely near future is to dig through Tolkien’s letters and read those regarding Edith and this story of Beren and Lúthien. Suffice it to say, the whole of Tolkien’s Legendarium is forever altered for me in the wake of this tale. As I say, it’s one thing to know of its importance, it’s another matter entirely to experience it. I don’t know that I can express into words what an honor it is to finally read this. All I can say is that if the purpose of great literature is to enrich the world, it can truly be said that this one story is Tolkien’s masterwork. The depth and breadth of it — the tale itself, its history, and its echoes throughout the whole of Middle-Earth … there are no words. Just awe. I’m thankful I didn’t read this story in a vacuum. As good as it may be on its own, the whole of the experience is reward beyond measure.
It’s an experience with the price tag of ruining me for all lesser fantasy. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
“The song of Lúthien before Mandos was the song most fair that ever in words was woven, and the song most sorrowful that ever the world shall hear. Unchanged, imperishable, it is sung still in Valinor beyond the hearing of the world, and listening the Valar are grieved. For Lúthien wove two themes of words, of the sorrow of the Eldar and the grief of Men, of the Two Kindreds that were made by Ilúvatar to dwell in Arda, the Kingdom of Earth amid the innumerable stars. And as she knelt before him her tears fell upon his feet like rain upon the stones; and Mandos was moved to pity, who never before was so moved, nor has been since.”
That, my friends, is the kind of music I long to hear.
As a reminder, we’re taking another two weeks due to Xmas week, so we’ll hit the next chapter post on 12/31.