Christopher Tolkien, the youngest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s three sons, will be 93 this year. He is his father’s literary executor, and he has spent the years since his father’s death in 1973 poring over papers and files; considering an array of various texts, different versions of stories and poems; staying true to his father’s vision; and helping publish a considerable number of books that represent both wonderful stories and insights into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is because of Christopher that we have The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, many of the lost tales, the elder Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, and many other works.
The latest, and possibly the last, is Beren and Luthien, a love story between Beren, a mortal man in exile after his father and clan are killed, and Luthien, an elf princess (the idea of which was carried over into The Lord of the Rings). Luthien is also called Tinuviel by Beren, and it is by that name we see her part in the story. Beren sees Luthien dancing in the woods and falls in love with her. Her father isn’t exactly pleased, and he agrees to the marriage only if Beren can steal a Silmaril, a jewel in the crown of Melkor, the Black Enemy, also known as Morgoth—and a forerunner of Sauron in the trilogy. He’s captured and enslaved in the kitchen, and Luthien travels to his rescue. With the help of a giant dog (who tricks an evil cat), she succeeds in freeing Beren, and then more adventures happen.
Tolkien wrote Beren and Luthien when he returned to England to recover from illness after the Battle of the Somme in World War I, the longest battle (July 1 to November 18, 1916) and the bloodiest battle of the war (one million men killed or wounded). The story was written and rewritten many times, in prose and verse forms. Numerous ideas found their way into his other works, and especially the trilogy and The Hobbit.
What Christopher Tolkien has done with this publication is something special. He includes the original story, and he also includes various prose and verse sections that his father worked on over a period of some 14 years. This is an insider’s view of the working of a story by one of the most creative minds of the 20th century.
Here is a section from one of the verse amplifications of the story, which explains the beginning of Beren’s exile.
Then Beren walking swiftly sought
his sword and bow, and sped like wind
that cuts with knives the branches thinned
of autumn trees. At last he came,
his heart afire with burning flame,
where Barahir his father lay;
he came too late. At dawn of day
he found the homes of hunted men,
a wooded island in the fen
and birds rose up in sudden cloud—
no fen-fowl were they crying loud.
The raven and the carrion-crow
sat in the alders all a-row;
one croaked: ‘Ha! Beren comes too late,’
and answered all: ‘Too late! Too late!’
Then Beren buried his father’s bones,
and piled a heap of boulder-stones,
and cursed the name of Morgoth thrice,
but wept not, for his heart was ice.
The prose and the verses are the stuff of myth and legend, of stories told and passed down through the generations. They are full of heroism and courage in the face of insurmountable odds, of heroes using trickery when necessary, of love winning in the end even when it loses. Tolkien had the names “Luthien” and “Beren” inscribed on the tombstone for his wife Edith and himself, which suggests some of the deep personal connections he felt to the story he had written.
The volume includes wonderful illustrations by Alan Lee, who has illustrated a number of Tolkien publications.
In a sense, the writings we know as Tolkien’s began with Beren and Luthien, and it takes its place in the grand mythology of the First Age and Middle Earth that Tolkien devoted so much of his life to. It is fitting that this first story may also be the last to be published.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish