Note, 2 June 2017: Since writing this, Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien has been published, so the speculations below regarding its content are out of date. My New Statesman review of the book as published can be read here.
In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw as the ‘kernel’ of his mythology. A century on, in 2017 the love story of Beren and Lúthien will finally appear as a book in its own right.
Potentially a landmark among Tolkien’s many posthumous publications, it will appear in May from HarperCollins in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US with a cover and illustrations by Alan Lee. I am astonished and delighted, not least because its editor, Christopher Tolkien, is now approaching his 92nd birthday.
J R R Tolkien’s experiences and development as a writer in 1914–18 are traced in detail in my book Tolkien and the Great War. I’ll only mention here that he had married Edith in March 1916, fought from July for four months in the terrible Battle of the Somme – losing two of his dearest friends – and been invalided home in October. The walk in the wood near Roos, East Yorkshire, came after a winter of sorrow, lingering nightmare, and creative catharsis.
The central scene of the story he then wrote, in which the battle-worn warrior Beren sees the elf-princess Lúthien Tinúviel dance in a wood, has been known to readers ever since 1954 and the publication of the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. In the Appendices, Tolkien promised that ‘the full tale’ would be told in The Silmarillion – the legends and history that give Middle-earth its unique sense of depth and credibility.
Readers had to wait until 1977 to hear more about Beren and Lúthien – at about 12,000 words, a substantial chapter of the whole Silmarillion. By then Tolkien had been in the grave for four years alongside Edith. There can be no more eloquent testimony to the personal importance of the story than the fact that on their headstone, along with their own names, those of Beren and Lúthien are carved.
Only the work of their son Christopher saved The Silmarillion from oblivion. As an editorial contruct from multiple overlapping texts written between the 1930s and 1960s, it is a marvel of consistency. Even more marvellous – considering its gestation – is that it stands as an extraordinary work of literature. The full complexity and labour behind it will only be apparent to readers of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth, which appeared in twelve volumes during the 1980s and 1990s.
Given all this, what might actually appear in a standalone Beren and Lúthien?
The primacy of this story, together with the Alan Lee jacket, makes this reminiscent of The Children of Húrin, published in 2007. That book enabled us to read the tragic story of Túrin and his sister Nienor as fully as possible, straight through without interruptions, as a work of literature. The Children of Húrin accords in detail with The Silmarillion, but contains much else. It also matches The Silmarillion in construction, as the best text that could be pieced together from multiple overlapping and ever-varying portions. But it reflects Tolkien’s urge to write Túrin’s story in a form much fuller and richer than The Silmarillion would accommodate.
To judge by information available now, however, a rather different method of presentation has been chosen for Beren and Lúthien. Here is the HarperCollins press release (as quoted on the blog of Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond):
[Christopher Tolkien] has attemped to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterwards lost.
[Edit: The full official description has now been drawn to my attention, though it does not fully resolve the questions I discuss here.]
So Beren and Lúthien will, like The Children of Húrin, include a narrative with beginning, middle and end. However, this will not be a ‘best text possible’, edited from multiple texts. Rather, what is called ‘its original form’ will be used as the basis for an account of the evolution of the story, illustrated by extracts from later versions.
On the face of things, ‘its original form’ must refer to the 1917 version – or rather the second version in ink written over it soon afterwards. Publication of Beren and Lúthien marks the centenary of the original writing, so that would be an apt choice. It would also permit the evolution of the story to be presented in order from its very beginnings.
Still, there might be reasons to use one of the later versions for the main text. Whatever their vigour and freshness, the ink ‘Tale of Tinúviel’ has already been published in full in The History of Middle-earth as part of The Book of Lost Tales – a collection of stories very different from the later Silmarillion in mode, manner, rationale and nomenclature. Lúthien is not yet called by that name, and the mortal–immortal pairing of lovers is not yet fully realised. As for the demonic opponent who holds Beren captive, in this earliest text – a tribute to medieval beast fable – he is not Sauron lord of werewolves, but instead Tevildo, prince of cats.
Though the Beren and Lúthien publicity also mentions the verse versions (1925–31 and c. 1951), I imagine these will only be presented in small samples, because they appear in full in The Lays of Beleriand (volume 3 of The History of Middle-earth).
Both the 1926 ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ version and the somewhat fuller 1931 ‘Qenta Noldorinwa’ versions of the Beren and Lúthien sequence might be reproduced in full, but I don’t think either would stand as the main Beren and Lúthien text: they are transitional, synoptic and quite brief (and both appeared in The Shaping of Middle-earth, volume 4 of The History of Middle-earth).
In volume 5 of the History, titled The Lost Road and Other Writings, we reach the latest form Tolkien gave the Beren and Lúthien story – a retelling for the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ of 1937. This was the version used by Christopher as the basis for the chapter ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ in the published Silmarillion. Rather than reproduce all that text again, The Lost Road refers us to The Silmarillion and simply provides a list of significant differences from the editorial form it takes there. So we don’t actually have Tolkien’s unedited version – and it would be most welcome if it were to appear in Beren and Lúthien. However, there is clearly no way to interpret ‘its original form’ to mean the final form Tolkien gave the prose story.
There is another possibility, though it seems a slight one. In his efforts to produce a version of the story for ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ in 1937, Tolkien started a prose version (Christopher labels this rough draft ‘A’) of the long verse Lay of Leithian. He soon gave up, realising he was including so much detail that it would be wholly out of proportion as part of the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’. There followed a series of texts by which Tolkien eventually achieved the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ form. But Tolkien did still envisage writing the story more fully as a standalone tale, separate from The Silmarillion – as he did with The Children of Húrin. The first full-length version of the Beren and Lúthien story in the 1937 phase (labelled by Christopher ‘B’), though a rough draft, is indeed told in more detail than in the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’. It is, in Christopher’s words, ‘the basis for’ the final forms.
At a stretch, ‘its original form’ might refer to this, the first recounting of the story of Beren and Lúthien as a full prose narrative. If that is planned for Beren and Lúthien, there will still be scope to illustrate later developments with extracts from other versions. Publication of this fullest 1930s prose version of Beren and Lúthien’s story would give us a wholly unseen narrative – and one which accords fairly closely with how Tolkien left it when he began The Lord of the Rings.
There, the key scene in their tale is sung by Aragorn to the hobbits on the hill of Weathertop – a song of joy amid darkness, and one filled with historical consequence for the singer and the world at large. All too fleetingly, it helps ward off the oppressive fear of the Ringwraiths who hunt Frodo’s ring (they attack later that night). Later we learn that Beren and Lúthien are ancestors both of the mortal Aragorn and of Arwen, the elf-woman to whom he is secretly betrothed.
In an even larger scheme, the story links the entire Silmarillion – the legends and histories of the remote past in Middle-earth – with the events of The Lord of the Rings. It tells how one of the holy jewels, the Silmarils, is liberated from the hands of the satanic enemy Morgoth. That jewel passes to the mariner Eärendil and effects his transformation into the Evening Star, Venus – a story conceived even earlier than ‘The Tale of Tinúviel’, in 1914, when it appears in a poem that stands as the very first expression of the creative impulse that built Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings, the light of Eärendil’s jewel fills the star-glass that helps Frodo and Sam pierce the shadows of Mordor.
Whatever appears in May, Beren and Lúthien stand ever in the background to The Lord of the Rings, and as the keystone to the entire edifice of Tolkien’s legendarium.