Beren and Lúthien
by J. R. R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $30.
Beren and Lúthien stands out among the posthumous Tolkien publications of the last decade or so. Unlike The Children of Hurin, The Fall of Arthur, Sigurd and Gudrún, and the rest, Beren and Lúthien contains no previously unpublished material. For all this, it is an important volume, tracking one of Tolkien’s “great stories” from its inception to near-completion.
All versions of the legend tell of the love of the hero Beren for the semi-divine elf Lúthien, their quest to win the bride-price demanded by her father, and their eventual marriage. The newly edited volume weaves together a handful of sources—most prominently the Tale of Tinúviel, the poetic Lay of Leithian, and the Quenta Noldorinwa—to show the tale’s evolution over time. The presentation is largely successful, and we see the growth of the story from a wild fairy tale to a more somber episode in Tolkien’s great sprawling epic. As we see the story grow, we see the growth of the author’s imagination as well: no other Tolkien publication gives us quite so intimate a view of the author at work over the course of his career.
Despite the book’s importance, it is not without significant flaws. Some of these are merely annoying: the lack of a real table of contents makes it difficult to navigate so complex a book; puzzling editorial conventions blur the line between quoted text and original commentary; the absence of chapter headings make it hard to remember which account, precisely, one is currently reading. Aggravating as they are, these flaws could be forgiven as signs of a hasty publication. Others, however, are real defects, such as the presentation of the Lay of Leithian. The original poem, though unfinished, is massive: fourteen cantos and over 4,000 lines. Fewer than 2,800 of those lines are given here, scattered throughout the book; as a result, it is difficult to get a sense of the Lay as a coherent whole. Part of this may be explained by appeal to the editor’s expressed purpose in the book. He intends to track the growth and development of the Lúthien legend over time; evidently the cut passages were not sufficiently illustrative of change. But does that really excuse the decision to excise the poem’s account of the first meeting of the lovers (IV.511-757), the most developed version of the most important scene in the tale? It is hard to believe that it does.
This lack of unity is the volume’s greatest flaw: it gives the reader snatches of many various versions of the legend, but no complete, unified treatment of the legend itself. The result is that the book is unlikely to satisfy either those deeply versed in Tolkien’s legendarium or those just beginning to move beyond The Lord of the Rings. The former is, perhaps, not too great a loss, as the experienced can always return to their well-thumbed copies of The Silmarillion or The History of Middle-Earth. But the latter is a tragedy. Narratively and thematically, the story of Beren and Lúthien lies near the heart—if not at the heart—of Middle Earth; understanding it is essential to fully understanding Tolkien’s world. The great tales do go on, as Samwise Gamgee noted. Will Beren and Lúthien bring readers along with it?
Ben Reinhard is an assistant professor of English Language and Literature at Christendom College, where he teaches courses in classical and medieval literature. His current research interests include Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, medieval saints’ lives, and modern translations of Old English poetry.