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Catherine McIlwaine, Beren and Lúthien

‘[Sauron] cast them therefore into a deep pit, dark and silent, and threatened to slay them cruelly, unless one would betray the truth to him. From time to time they saw two eyes kindled in the dark, and a werewolf devoured one of the companions; but none betrayed their Lord.’

‘Of Beren and Lúthien’, The Silmarillion, ch. 19

In a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien to the publisher, Milton Waldman, he explained the central role of the tale of Beren and Lúthien in his legendarium:

‘The chief of the stories of the Silmarillion, and the one most fully treated is the Story of Beren and Lúthien the Elfmaiden. Here we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown. Thus he wins the hand of Lúthien and the first marriage of mortal and immortal is achieved. As such the story is (I think a beautiful and powerful) heroic-fairy-romance, receivable in itself with only a very general vague knowledge of the background.’

This story was one of the three ‘Great Tales’ of The Silmarillion and also the one with the greatest personal resonance for Tolkien. The immortal elven princess, Lúthien, was inspired by his wife, Edith, as they walked together in a ‘small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire’ in the early years of their marriage. When she died, over fifty years later, Tolkien had the name Lúthien inscribed on her gravestone. He explained why in a letter to his son, Michael:

‘In [1909] I met the Lúthien Tinúviel of my own personal ‘romance’ with her long dark hair, fair face and starry eyes, and beautiful voice…But now she has gone before Beren, leaving him indeed one-handed, but he has no power to move the inexorable Mandos, and there is no Dor Gyrth i chuinar, the Land of the Dead that Live, in this Fallen Kingdom of Arda, where the servants of Morgoth are worshipped.’ 

It was a work that also had a special resonance for his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, providing one of his earliest memories of his father’s powerful storytelling, as he recalled:

‘It goes back a long way in my life, for it is my earliest actual recollection of some element in a story that was being told to me – not simply a remembered image of the scene of the storytelling. My father told it to me, or parts of it, speaking it without writing, in the early 1930s. The element in the story that I recall, in my mind’s eye, is that of the eyes of the wolves as they appeared one by one in the darkness of the dungeon of Thû.’ 

In this new edition of the tale, Christopher Tolkien has attempted ‘to extract one narrative element from a vast work of extraordinary richness and complexity’ and also ‘to show how this fundamental story evolved over the years.’ He has set out each new iteration of the tale, allowing the reader to follow its development but also to appreciate the distinctive style and vivid imagery of each version.