History of J.R.R. Tolkien: A 100-Year Love Affair
Beren and Luthien
I’m reading J.R.R. Tolkien‘s latest book published in June, Beren and Luthien which he began writing 100 years ago. How is that possible, when he died in 1973?
His youngest son and literary executor — Christopher Tolkien who is now 93 — has been publishing his father’s unfinished works over the last 40 years, starting with the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, namely the epic pre-history, The Silmarillion back in 1977. Indeed, he published more of his father’s books after his father died in 1973 than his father brought to printed form while he was alive. This summer, perhaps for the last time as he recounts in the intro to this book, he brings his father’s works to life one more time. This time, it is Tolkien’s most beloved romance.
Christopher Tolkien has taken other stories from the legendarium and turned them into books. Most notable was The Children of Hurin, which J.R.R. had written back in the 1950s. The book is a heartbreakingly poignant tragedy, and I previously reviewed it here.
Tolkien’s epic fantasy of Middle-Earth was not the first fantasy book published, but it launched a popular resurgence of the literary genre of “high fantasy.”
The story of Beren and Luthien echoes Tolkien’s own romance with his wife, Edith. One of the earliest tales in the Middle-Earth legendarium, “Of Beren and Luthien” tells of two star-crossed lovers. So too were Tolkien and Edith. He was 16 when he moved into a boarding house where she lived. She was three years older. He was an orphan at this time but had been entrusted by his mother to her parish priest. His guardian, the Catholic priest Father Francis Xavier Morgan, believed that Tolkien’s association with Edith was the reason for his doing poorly in his exams. He forbid the boy from meeting or even corresponding with Edith, a Protestant (!) until he was 21. Tolkien obeyed his guardian, and the evening of his 21st birthday, he wrote her a letter of proposal to Edith and they later married.
The Love of a Woman
A little over 100 years ago, in 1916, a young Second Lieutenant Tolkien had been serving at the Battle of the Somme on the Western Front in France during WWI when he contracted trench fever. Returned to hospital in England in November he spent a year in convalescence in the Yorkshire countryside. There he spent time with his wife Edith whom he had married the year prior.
While recovering in 1917 in a cottage in Little Haywood, Stratfordshire, Tolkien began working on some of the stories of Middle-Earth. While still on military duty at Kingston upon Hull in Yorkshire, Tolkien and his wife went for a walk in the woods when Edith began to dance in a clearing among the hemlock that was in bloom at that time. He later recalled:
I never called Edith Luthien — but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing — and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.
His memory of Edith dancing among the trees of the woodland glade in Yorkshire stayed with him as the inspiration for the initial meeting of Beren and Luthien; he later explained to his son Christopher in a letter almost a year after Edith’s passing.
The story of Beren and Luthien is described in The Silmarillion and recounted in brief in The Lord of the Rings. It appears in an earlier form in The Book of Lost Tales as the Tale of Tinuviel published in 1980. In the film The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn sings a song in Elvish about the story while camped beyond Weathertop. He never mentions that these two were his direct ancestors.
However, it foreshadowed Aragorn’s own story. In the same way that Luthien the elf maiden forsook her immortality to marry the mortal man Beren, so too would Aragorn’s elvish lover Arwen give up her immortality to marry him. If you think the story of Aragorn and Arwen in the Third Age of Middle-Earth was a long time ago, those of Beren and Luthien took place 6,500 years before that in the First Age.
The story tells how Beren fell in love at first sight with Luthien as she was dancing in a woodland glade. Her father, an elf-lord, forbid her to marry Beren unless he could obtain a Silmaril jewel from the Iron Crown of Morgoth, the original Dark Lord, of whom Sauron was but a servant. The narrative recounts Beren and Luthien’s adventures to capture the priceless Silmaril from the Enemy’s fortress through many trials and dangers.
The Love of a Friend
The almost 40-year close friendship between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis is well known, though it wasn’t immediate. Lewis had been teaching at Oxford for only a year when he met at Merton College the older Tolkien who had already been the Chair of Anglo-Saxon.
Lewis described Tolkien in his diary after their meeting as
“a smooth, pale fluent little chap — no harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”
Nevertheless, the two discovered their mutual love of myth, especially of “true myth.”
Their friendship extended beyond their professional association. They’d go on long walks together in the hills and talk. Tolkien had been brought up a Roman Catholic since his youth and was profoundly Christian in his thinking. Lewis credits Tolkien with his own return to the faith he had abandoned in his youth. They talked about their love of fairy-tales and faith.
A Fateful Conversation
After a months-long conversation it was on an early Sunday morning, September 20, 1931, when three 30-something English professors took a stroll together on Addison’s Walk along the River Cherwell in the grounds of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford:
- 32-year-old C. S. Lewis (Fellow and Tutor of English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford)
- 39-year-old J. R. R. Tolkien (Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford)
- 35-year-old Hugo Dyson (Tutor and Lecturer at Reading University)
While their time talking together had begun the Saturday evening before while at dinner, their conversation went late into the night. Tolkien left around 3 a.m., but Lewis and Dyson continued talking until they retired at 4 a.m.
The following Tuesday (September 22), Lewis recounted the scene to his longtime friend and correspondent, Arthur Greeves:
We began on metaphor and myth — interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would.
We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship — then finally drifted back to poetry and books.
Later in the letter, discussing the writings of William Morris (a 19th-century English novelist, poet, and textile designer who had greatly influenced Lewis from his youth.) Lewis notes:
These hauntingly beautiful lands which somehow never satisfy, — this passion to escape from death plus the certainty that life owes all its charm to mortality — these push you on to the real thing because they fill you with desire and yet prove absolutely clearly that in Morris’s world that desire cannot be satisfied.
The following month (October 18), Lewis wrote to Greeves again about their conversation:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.
Lewis wrote, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”
The Love of Authors
Tolkien was acquainted with several writers during his time at Oxford. They had formed an informal literary discussion group known as the Inklings. They would read their work-in-progress to each other and obtain criticism and encouragement. It lasted some two decades from the early 1930s until late 1949. Among the members were:
C. S. Lewis, Warren Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Lord David Cecil, Nevill Coghill, and Christopher Tolkien himself.
Warren Lewis, C.S Lewis’s older brother and also a writer and an Inkling, wrote that,
“Properly speaking, it was neither a club nor a literary society, though it partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections.”
Now a local tourist destination, the group met for many years at the pub The Eagle and the Child in Oxford in a back room called the Rabbit Room. Today there are pictures on the walls of the room remembering the members. They’d gather on Tuesdays and share a pint and a reading.
Of all the Inklings, it was Lewis most of all who greatly encouraged Tolkien on his mythic tales that he’d written primarily to his family and private audiences. The first was an early draft of what would become the cornerstone of Middle-earth, the story of Beren and Luthien. Lewis suggested he finish and publish his stories. Tolkien later admitted he would never have completed The Lord of the Rings without Lewis’ encouragement:
“The unpayable debt that I owe to Lewis was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.”
When Lewis died a decade ahead of him, Tolkien was devastated. He wrote:
“So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age — like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: This feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”
The Love of Readers
While Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings became popular in the 1960s, long before the filmsemerged, people could not get enough. They devised games that let them immerse themselves in the mythical world of Middle-earth and relive the world of wizards, elves, and dwarves. It was called Dungeons and Dragons. It spawned many alternatives.
Among Tolkien’s readers, many writers have publicly shared their admiration of the author and their indebtedness to him. This is reflected in their own writings which show the unmistakable inspiration of Tolkien. Many of these I’ve read:
- Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series
- Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara
- Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever
- Guy Gabriel Kay’s (who assisted Christopher Tolkien on The Silmarillion) The Fionavar Tapestry
- Stephen King’s The Stand
- J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
- George Lucas’ Star Wars
- George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones
The Love of Mine
It was more than half a century ago that Tolkien’s Middle-earth captured my imagination and has never released its hold on my heart.
I came to it the hard way. A friend of mine in an English class had encouraged me to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. She told me of the fantasy world of elves and dwarves and dragons. I declined by saying, with youthful hubris, I was interested in more believable themes, like science fiction. But she would not let it go. I bought the Hobbit and the Trilogy and began to read through them. Initially, I was dismayed by the multitude of foreign-sounding names, but by the fourth chapter of The Hobbit, I was hooked. I devoured the remaining books, including the Appendices.
As I read the book with its many languages, I was especially impressed by the sense of history behind it, for Tolkien had written it to explain the history of his invented languages. It hinted at untold origins, backgrounds, and creation. I would have to wait years for The Silmarillion to learn about the beginnings of Middle-earth, and the story of creation and the angelic powers who played a part in it. Though I was studying science, it created a longing in me to understand history. Eventually, I would do my undergraduate and graduate studies in history.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy depicted the world as it should be, as indeed it really is if you have eyes to see: the true myth. After you read it, it colors everything you see in the here and now. Each re-reading reveals something new because you are at a different stage in your life. It cast its spell upon me and has never let me go.
As I mentioned, the story Beren and Luthien is the central romantic myth that ties together Tolkien’s entire legendarium from first to last.
Divine and Mortal
It is the story of the union of the divine and the mortal. Luthien’s mother was Melian, one of the Maiar. The Silmarillion describes the Maiar as angelic spirits who began before the world and took physical form to come to Middle-earth to aid the Valar, the Powers. The Maiar were of the same order as the great Valar but of lesser degree and power. Therefore, Luthien was more than an elf princess; she was the daughter of a divine being. But Luthien chooses mortality to be with the man she loves.
It is part of Tolkien’s Christian understanding of the world, and perhaps appropriate as I write this during the Christmas season, to mention that Jesus was both divine and human.
Tolkien coined a word that gives a unique understanding of the beauty of tragedy. The word is eucatastrophe. He added the Greek prefix eu meaning good, to the word catastrophe meaning down turning and used in literature to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. He meant it to describe the sudden turn of events when the hero does not meet the seemingly inevitable impending doom. It was true of Frodo at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy when all hope was lost who appeared to fail in his mission to Mount Doom, but for the sake of pity shown to Gollum, the quest succeeded. It was true of Beren and Luthien who seemed forever lost but returned. And it was part of Tolkien’s understanding of the New Testament Gospel, or evangelium. Tolkien calls the Incarnation of Christ the eucatastrophe of “human history” and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. As Tolkien describes it:
“It denies universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
And so, the ending of Beren and Luthien is tragic, yet beautifully eucatastrophic.
P.S. When Tolkien’s wife died, he added to her tombstone the name Luthien. When Tolkien himself died two years later, to their shared tombstone was added the name, Beren.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian