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Beren and Lúthien Hardcover – 1 Jun 2017
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Beren and Lúthien
Painstakingly restored from Tolkien’s manuscripts and presented for the first time as a fully continuous and standalone story, the epic tale of Beren and Lúthien will reunite fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with Elves and Men, Dwarves and Orcs and the rich landscape and creatures unique to Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
The tale of Beren and Lthien was, or became, an essential element in the evolution of The Silmarillion, the myths and legends of the First Age of the World conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien. Returning from France and the battle of the Somme at the end of 1916, he wrote the tale in the following year.
Essential to the story, and never changed, is the fate that shadowed the love of Beren and Lthien: for Beren was a mortal man, but Lthien was an immortal Elf. Her father, a great Elvish lord, in deep opposition to Beren, imposed on him an impossible task that he must perform before he might wed Lthien. This is the kernel of the legend; and it leads to the supremely heroic attempt of Beren and Lthien together to rob the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy, of a Silmaril.
In this book Christopher Tolkien has attempted to extract the story of Beren and Lthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father's own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterwards lost.
J. R. R. Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on the 3rd January, 1892 at Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, but at the age of four he and his brother were taken back to England by their mother. After his father’s death the family moved to Sarehole, on the south-eastern edge of Birmingham. Tolkien spent a happy childhood in the countryside and his sensibility to the rural landscape can clearly be seen in his writing and his pictures.
His mother died when he was only twelve and both he and his brother were made wards of the local priest and sent to King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where Tolkien shone in his classical work. After completing a First in English at Oxford, Tolkien married Edith Bratt. He was also commissioned in the Lancashire Fusiliers and fought in the battle of the Somme. After the war, he obtained a post on the ‘New English Dictionary’ and began to write the mythological and legendary cycle which he originally called ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ but which eventually became known as ‘The Silmarillion’.
In 1920 Tolkien was appointed Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds which was the beginning of a distinguished academic career culminating with his election as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. Meanwhile Tolkien wrote for his children and told them the story of ‘The Hobbit’. It was his publisher, Stanley Unwin, who asked for a sequel to ‘The Hobbit’ and gradually Tolkien wrote ‘The Lord of the Rings’, a huge story that took twelve years to complete and which was not published until Tolkien was approaching retirement. After retirement Tolkien and his wife lived near Oxford, but then moved to Bournemouth. Tolkien returned to Oxford after his wife’s death in 1971. He died on 2 September 1973 leaving ‘The Silmarillion’ to be edited for publication by his son, Christopher.
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This book was not what I expected. I must not have read the pre-order description carefully enough. I was expecting another “Children of Hurin”. A narrative built from existing Beren and Luthien sources. But it was not that. It was several versions of the prose and verse story along with commentary and notes by Christopher Tolkien. Had I understood what was contained in the book I still would have ordered it, I just would have had different expectations. And I still will give it five stars.
“The Lay of Leithian” is my favorite of Tolkien’s poems, and the fact that it remained unfinished is, to me, a great tragedy. It is actually my favorite of Tolkien’s posthumously published works. This includes “The Children Of Hurin”, which I thought was very well crafted from the various sources. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy “The Children Of Hurin”, I did. But I just liked “The Lay of Leithian” better, both as writing and as a story.
But the fact that Christopher Tolkien did such a good job assembling “The Children Of Hurin”, raised my hopes that this new volume would be just like that: a prose story assembled from various sources, including the unfinished “Lay of Leithian”, with minimal editorial commentary.
It was not.
That is not to say that it wasn’t well done. Because of the story and the material it is certainly going to be a well written and a well plotted story. And that it was. The highlight is the section culled from the “Lay of Leithian” (the 1930s version). These verses are magical to me. Of course I can read this at any time in the previously published “The Lays Of Beleriand”, and I do periodically read through it.
The original story, where Beren is an elf, is nice to read, since I was not as familiar with it. And it was interesting to see how many changes the story went through over the various versions. Tolkien seemed to have it in for cats, at least based on this early version of the story. But Tevildo was not quite as menacing as Thu (Sauron). Nonetheless, it was very entertaining.
The main characters, Beren and Luthien, are fairly well fleshed out in the poem, at least with respect to their personalities. There’s very little in the way of physical description of Beren, but Luthien is described a little more fully, usually referred to as “the most beautiful” elf-maid ever. But her determination comes through much more than Beren’s. She is the one with the magic and ability to mesmerize even Morgoth. Luthien Tuniviel is just as much a hero in this story as Beren.
The characters of the hound Huan and his evil counterpart the wolf Carcharoth, were well developed in the limited space. The description of Carcharoth’s whelping and growth were sufficiently grim and greatly added to the atmosphere around the Gate of Angband. It is a much fuller description than the one in the Silmarillion. And the fact that we occasionally seem to get in to Carcharoth’s head is a nice touch.
The ending, as we know it from various notes or short narratives, is possibly the most happy of any of the major First Age stories. Certainly there is tragedy, but nothing on the scale of Turin’s tragic story or the fall of Gondolin. And Beren and Luthien, after their tragedy, explicitly get to live out their days in relative happiness. In spite of the curse of the Oath of Feanor. In Middle-Earth terms this is a very happy ending indeed!
As I mentioned above, the story is one of Tolkien’s major stories of the First Age of Middle-Earth. It is foundational to much of what we glimpse in “The Lord Of The Rings”, especially the Aragorn/Arwen love story, which it somewhat parallels. This makes the new volume a very good addition to any Tolkien library. So now the whole story (as it exists) is available in one book, rather than searching through various other volumes.
And then there are the Alan Lee illustrations. Starting with the cover, which is a great depiction of Luthien riding Huan with Beren at their side, they are very evocative of the First Age of Middle-Earth. Everything is grim and grey – which is to be expected throughout most of the journey. Though I would have hoped for a little more color in Doriath. But these compare favorably to the illustrations in “The Children Of Hurin”.
I would say that this is a worthwhile purchase, if you are looking for a single source for all versions of the story. It is not, however, a stand-alone narrative like “The Children Of Hurin”, which is what I was expecting and hoping for. But that’s on me and doesn’t prevent this from earning five stars.
One thing I would point out as a shortcoming (to me) is the lack of a map. It's not like there doesn't exist a map of Beleriand that could easily have been inserted in the back of the book. It would have made the journey of Beren and Luthien that much more real to me.
This is apparently going to be the last of his father’s work that Christopher Tolkien publishes, so unless there is a new literary executor, this may be the last we get from JRR Tolkien. Perhaps what I was expecting, a completed prose narrative, is impossible to do with the writings that are left.
As always. beautiful colour artwork from Alan Lee throughout with a lovely illustrated dust jacket.
This book is for Tolkien fans. If you enjoyed The Silmarillion, better still The unfinished tales, and especially if you stuck with the History Of Middle Earth, then this will be a wonderful addition to your collection.
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