J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife Edith are buried at Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford. Inscribed below their own names on their headstones are the names Beren and Luthien.
Tolkien gave us the fantasy classics The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, but these were mere snapshots of the whole world and mythology he created for Middle-earth.
Years after his death, his son Christopher compiled some of his father’s earlier writings and notes, and together with Guy Gavriel Kay – the Canadian who is now a successful fantasy writer in his own right – got The Silmarillion published.
This was, in essence, Middle-earth’s “Bible”, recounting its creation myth and the history of the First Age, or the Elder Days. (The events of Tolkien’s two more famous books, by contrast, took place millennia later in the Third Age).
The Silmarillion was an eye-opener for many Tolkien fans because it gave so much more depth and substance to the references to bygone eras only hinted at in The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.
In fact, for some of us, it was Tolkien’s best work. If you can get past the elegiac tone that he chose – or, because of it – it is an awe-inspiring collection of stories that practically sing of high heroism, myth, magic, tragedy, and sorrow.
Some caveats: If your only exposure to Tolkien is the Peter Jackson silver screen adaptation, this book would not be of any interest to you. If you came to Tolkien’s writing later in life, after having waded through hordes of copycat fantasy books and thus did not see anything particularly unique in The Lord Of The Rings, then you would want to give this a skip too.
Two of the longest chapters in The Silmarillion are “Of Beren and Luthien” and “Of Turin Turambar”, but it’s obvious that it was the former that most resonated with Tolkien’s own life and love.
It is also a keystone of Middle-earth history, and a love story of which the tale of Aragorn and Arwen in the Third Age – collected in an appendix in The Lord Of The Rings and also seen in the Jackson movie trilogy – is merely a pale echo.
Tolkien first met his wife-to-be when he was a mere 16, and she, 19. Both were orphans then, and their guardians were against the relationship. But Tolkien and Edith persevered in their courtship, and finally got married five years later in 1913.
He never made it a secret that the raven-haired Edith was his muse for both Luthien and Arwen.
In the version of the tale in The Silmarillion, Beren was a mere man while Luthien was an immortal – her father was the great elven king Thingol and her mother was Melian, a veritable demigoddess.
And yes, Thingol was against the relationship, and demanded that Beren prove himself by getting one of the three “silmarils” – gems that carried the light of creation within them – held by the original dark lord, Morgoth. The consequences of that quest would echo through millennia.
In 2007, Christopher Tolkien stitched his father’s notes into a new novel, The Children Of Hurin, which recounts the tragic tale of Turin Turambar in full form.
Most readers were expecting something similar when HarperCollins announced more than a year ago that it would be publishing Beren And Luthien, which Middle-earth “historians” will tell you comes from the Elves’ longest poem, the Lay Of Leithian.
The fact that the book would be illustrated by Alan Lee, the artist whose work many feel most accurately reflects Tolkien’s vision, threatened to send fans into a frenzy.
Instead, Beren And Luthien is a collection of Tolkien’s many revisions – both prose and poetry – as well as essays and notes from his son.
That’s disappointing, actually. Firstly, most of the earlier versions cast Beren as another elf, and the mingling of Eldar (the elves) and Edain (the “high men”) blood that forms so much of Middle-earth’s DNA is thus missing.
Secondly, just about all the manuscripts and revisions have been published in the multivolume The History Of Middle-earth (Allen & Unwin, 1983 to 1996), so there’s nothing really new here. Beren And Luthien merely collects them all in one place.
Sure, the Lee artwork – I prefer the sketches to his watercolours here, for some reason – is a selling point.
And sure, the poetry is beautiful and stirring, in an Icelandic saga kind of way, but mostly would only appeal to the most ardent and academic of Middle-earth aficionados.
Not that there aren’t any of those, mind you, but it does mean that one of the greatest tales of Middle-earth – and undoubtedly its greatest love story – has not got its proper and fully-deserved novelisation.
And given that Christopher Tolkien, the guardian of his father’s literary legacy, is nearly 93 years old, it may never get it.
Now that’s a greater tragedy than the tale of Turin Turambar.
Beren And Luthien
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Editor: Christopher Tolkien
Publisher: HarperCollins, high fantasy