Beren and Luthien by JRR Tolkien
Book of the Year 2017 (see all)
One of the great joys of my life is reading anything (and everything) by (and about) J.R.R. Tolkien. Ever since the release of The Fellowship of the Ring in cinemas back in 2001, which was immediately followed by a week-long plunge through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I have been an avid and obsessive fan of Tolkien. I won’t bore you with the extent of my Tolkien library, suffice to say that it is extensive and absurd.
But even I was taken aback when I heard that they would be publishing Beren and Lúthien, for surely that story had already been told, yes?
In theory, that is an accurate assumption; the story of Beren and Lúthien is told often – hinted at throughout The Lord of the Rings and expanded upon in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, as well as in The Book of Lost Tales Part II and The Lays of Beleriand.
However, what was published as a standalone book entitled Beren and Lúthien is essentially one-part literary history, one-part historical fantasy literature.
Christopher Tolkien, who has for most of his life tended to the care and publication of his father’s work, presents what will (likely) be his last published work. It serves as a progressive revelation of the history of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing of the tale of Beren and Lúthien. We start out with the earliest version of the tale – a prose form from its earliest extant form. Then – with Christopher’s own interpretations and descriptions of his father’s process and ancillary notes – we are taken part-by-part through the evolution of the story of Beren and Lúthien, occasionally in prose form, but primarily in verse.
It is worth noting at this point that even though the majority of the story of Beren and Lúthien is told in verse form, this should not be a detractor or a hindrance to anyone. Even when writing in verse, Tolkien was as intricate and detailed as he was in his lengthier prose style, but his verse nevertheless carries an inherent meter to it that helps anyone who may not love poetry or verse. This should not be a hindrance to anyone.
What might be a hindrance for some is that this book exists almost exclusively for existing fans of Tolkien’s work and the stories that are so important to his Legendarium. I do not know how a new Tolkien reader would react to this book, as it is highly reliant upon an interest in barely-mentioned characters. This is a book for fans of The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth.
As luck might have it, that describes me, and I cannot help but highly recommend this to even the most casual Tolkien fan. It is a beautiful glimpse into the mind of Tolkien, and a stunning return to one of the most extraordinary fantasy worlds ever conceived. This book comes at just the right time to renew one’s love with Middle-earth, and all those who have populated it throughout the Four Ages.
Joshua S Hill, 10/10
Straight from the pages of The Silmarillion, this tale has been given new authority and the chance to finally stand on its own.
And such a story it is. It’s about a mortal man who fell in love with an immortal elf. Unlike the romance between Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, this relationship foregrounds the narrative: it is the main story of the work. Given an absolutely impossible task to prove his devotion, no less than stealing a Silmaril from the crown of the Melkor (Morgoth - the first dark lord), Beren sets off on a seemingly hopeless quest. Fortunately, he is not without allies. When a man displays such courage, conviction and fortitude other honour bound individuals feel compelled to assist him in his task.
Indeed, none other than Huan the mighty hound of Valinor steps forward. What follows is a tale as epic and fantastical as any you would expect from Middle Earth. Sauron even appears in several different forms, as the loyal servant of Melkor, in a time long before he took up the mantle his fallen master would eventually drop. What I found really interesting about the story here is that Aragorn and are Arwen are both distant descendants of Beren and Lúthien. It’s an apt repeat of such a familiar theme, one Aragorn actually recalls in The Lord of the Rings. A strong and complicated as their love was, it was not the first to suffer under the limits of mortality. They understood the pain that could come their way.
Is it worth buying for those who have read The Silmarillion? As with all posthumously published Tolkien works, it really depends on how interested you are in Tolkien as a writer. For me, this edition was worth purchasing. Not only do we get more fantastic (and unrivalled) illustrations by Alan Lee, but we also get a thorough a succinct introduction to the text by Christopher Tolkien detailing how it came about and the reasoning behind his father’s writing. He mentions that this is going to be his last restoration of his father’s work, a true shame, but he is now ninety-three years old after all. He has given much to the world of Tolkien enthusiasts, and this fine edition is his final contribution.
The version in The Silmarillion is very concise and straight to the point. It’s a compelling account, told with a certain degree of distance afforded by such broad historical style writing. This, however, is closer to normal prose. It is the same story again, but it gets to the heart of the matter with more clarity. What this edition also has, and something I have not seen before, is The Lay of Leithian which has only ever before appeared in the History of Middle Earth. Now this is a verse version of the same story. Some fantasy readers may dislike long and complex verse (or at least may find themselves out of their comfort zones) but for me it was the most enjoyable part of the book.
So for this reason I recommend this book to those that have read many of Tolkien’s works. If you enjoyed Tolkien’s poetry editions, such as Beowulf a Translation and a Commentary and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, along with the books set in Middle Earth then this will undoubtedly be for you. However, readers who are expecting to just enjoy a prose story will, ultimately, be disappointed with the content here.
Sean Barrs, 9/10
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