A review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s (edited by Christopher Tolkien) ‘Beren and Luthien’

Christopher Tolkien has watched over his father’s work, elucidating it, making sense of his father’s scrawled notes and battered note-books and translating them into works like his ‘History of Middle Earth’ which has long been a bulwark against misrepresentation of his father’s work.
Here he takes one of the foundational stories of ‘the Silmarillion,’ another being the recently published ‘Children of Hurin,’ and shows, through his craft as an editor, how the story has evolved.

Beren and Luthien is an important story in the Legendarium, as it has at its heart the union of man and Elf (Eldar), the bringing together of mortal and immortal, part of the grand design of the God of Middle Earth. It has many fantasy staples; an impossible quest, mythic objects (the Silmaril, jewels of celestial power), a dark lord (Morgoth), spells, monsters and heroic beasts. It has moments of cinematic grandeur; Beren leaping at horse-bound baddies, the dark lord toppling from his throne under a spell and the crown rolling across the floor, the unbearable tension of Beren’s knife blade breaking taking a jewel from said crown and the shards grazing Morgoth’s face, and then all the monster’s blinking slowly open, a rescue by Eagle, and more…

The tale has had a fascinating evolution. An early form has Sauron, Morgoth’s lieutenant, replaced by Tevildo, a monstrous cat reigning over other bewitched cats in a cat-palace that puts captives to work in the kitchens and catching mice. Some mock this, but it has a narrative power of its own. Then Tevildo becomes a sorcerer called Thu, basically Sauron in all but name, and then Sauron himself.

The principal versions are ‘the Lay,’ an epic poem, and prose versions that condense the narrative as in the one eventually appearing in ‘The Silmarillion.’ Christopher Tolkien jumps from one to the other, better to illustrate how the story has evolved, and the versions influenced each other, as well as the impact of events in J.R.R. Tolkien’s life such as return from war, the success of ‘the Hobbit’ and writing ‘The Lord of the Rings.’

There are also some wonderful illustrations by Alan Lee, colour plates and line drawings of images and scenes from the narrative.

It is an awesome, enchanting read that immerses you in the magic of Tolkien’s world, and also illuminates the writing process and the larger narratives that surround the tale. My feeling is that it is not the best jumping on point for those new to Tolkien, because, for example, of the discussions on the interactions between the different narratives that may be a bit much for newer readers. It would help if you have read some of the popular works and even better the Silmarillion, but is not essential, as this is a tale that has power to stand on its own.

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