Approaching Tolkien: Beren and Lúthien

Beren and Luthien

It took me a while to pick up and read Beren and Lúthien, but I finally got there. Now, I  finally present you with this new post under the “Approaching Tolkien” series.

The story as presented in The Silmarillion of the two lovers who dare impossible deeds and venture beyond the confines of the mortal world, is beautiful in its own right. However, one must not expect this new publication of Beren and Lúthien to follow the same style, structure and purpose of The Children of Húrin, released back in 2007.

There is no standalone, cohesive narrative here, but rather a collection of early drafts, fragments of writing and published material collated together by Christopher Tolkien. The author’s son outlines the progression and evolution of the Tale of Beren and Lúthien over the course of over a quarter of a century.

Suffice to say, there is no new material to be gained from this publication. Much of what lies within its pages can be found almost entirely in either The Silmarillion or The Lays of Beleriand (Volume III of The History of Middle-earth series), but Christopher Tolkien’s notes are justification enough to own a copy of the book.

The commentary is, as always, illuminating. Christopher Tolkien provides the necessary background and history behind the successive pieces of the puzzle from his father’s writings. In addition, he demonstrates yet again his unparalleled ability to cross-reference and provide a concise and chronologically solid account of what must have been an accumulation of years and years of convoluted, complex and conflicting writing material.

The main highlight of the book is, in my opinion, a substantial part of the Lay of Leithian in which Tolkien attempted to write this story in verse. I’ve remarked in several posts my admiration and praise at the author’s poetic skill, and here it shines once more.

However, Beren and Lúthien‘s fragmentary approach, where the book fluctuates between prose and poetry, feels odd. Its structure, although straightforward, leaves much to be desired in terms of a solid narrative that begins and ends as one unending piece, with a commentary or appendix provided after the main text.

Personally, I would have found it much more satisfying had the almost 3,300 verses from the unfinished Lay of Leithian (still available in The Lays of Beleriand) been transposed to a single book with the illustrations included.

Speaking of illustrations, Alan Lee’s exquisite drawings and paintings are extraordinary. As ever, Lee manages to convey the right atmosphere and emotion in Tolkien’s writing within a visual canvas, and such publications always seem to me to warrant at least a few more illustrations.

Having said all this, Beren and Lúthien is still a worthy contender in a long list of posthumous publications. This being the second book dealing with Tolkien’s “three Great Tales”, one only wonders whether it is only a matter of time before we hear news about an imminent release on The Fall of Gondolin.

I wait with bated breath…

3 thoughts on “Approaching Tolkien: Beren and Lúthien

  1. I read this when it came out, and while I enjoyed it, I really wanted this to be like Children of Hurin. In that regards, I feel let down. I’m not really sure what Christopher was thinking, because, as you mentioned James, there really isn’t all that much new material here. Yes, the notes are interesting, but I believe most fans wanted an expanded and cohesive prose narrative. The Children of Hurin was a bestseller because it was an expanded prose narrative. Beren and Luthien wasn’t a bestseller, probably for that very reason.

    The day of the release, when I bought it, the Barnes and Noble I bought it from had only two copies squirreled away with the rest of the Tolkien books, of which there were few. When I bought Sigurd and Gudrun at Barnes and Noble years ago, they had it out front and center in a special display with copies for everyone and their dog, and it wasn’t even a Middle Earth book. No such presentation for Beren and Luthien.

    In the end, this was a mediocre presentation of one of Professor Tolkien’s favorite stories. If this is really going to be his last publication of his father’s work, then this is a sad swan song for Christopher.

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