Beren and Lúthien: an Evolution
Tolkien’s story of the Elder Days hinges on three Great Tales. Beren and Lúthien is one of them, the others being The Children of Húrin and The Fall of Gondolin. Later I learned from The Book of Lost Tales that Tolkien long debated whether to make Beren and Lúthien the first of the three or rather The Children of Húrin, though apparently both were already written at that time. He finally decided for Beren and Lúthien to be the first of the great tales involving both Elves and Men and never changed the sequence again.
While the story of Beren and Lúthien is available in different formats and stages of revision in many book edited by Christopher Tolkien, in 2017 he published a definitive book with most of the material Tolkien ever wrote on this story, including the complete first version of it, The Tale of Tinúviel.
Although the main features are already there, the story sounds more like a fairy tale than the epic story it will become. The main difference is the episode of Tiveldo Prince of Cats, which is subsequent revisions will disappear to be replaced by the confrontation with one of Morgoth’s lieutenants, Thû, who will slowly turn — through years and revisions — into who we know as Sauron.
But what surprised me the most is the lack of the one idea that I’ve always associated with the story of Beren and Lúthien. In several of the earlier versions, Beren is an Elf as well as Lúthien.
I’ve always thought about Beren and Lúthien as an interracial love story. Beren is a mortal Man, Lúthien is an immortal Elf, still they fall in love and they choose to face their faith together, bringing their different weaknesses and strengths to the table. This is what makes their union so powerful. Because they are so different, they complete one another. It’s when they are together — or are trying to get together — that they are most powerful.
Christopher suspects that Beren was indeed created a Man and only afterward his father debated whether to have him a Man or an Elf. In this oldest complete version of the story, Beren is an Elf. He’s also clearly less powerful than Tinúviel, who’s most definitely the main character (as the title implies) and the mover of the story, when instead later there will be a great balance between the two characters.
The Lay of Leithian
As Tolkien started working to the verse version of the story, the Lay of Leithian — the story of Beren and Lúthien as he always intended it to be — Beren had become a Man again.
In this form, Tolkien never went beyond the conquest of the Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown (roughly a third of the entire story) and boy do I regret it!
Readers today might be intimidated by this incarnation of the story. I myself have never been a poetry girl. In general, I don’t understand poetry, but maybe because this is also a story, I completely fell in love with the Lay of Leithian. The way Tolkien expresses it in verses is just a step beyond: The sound, the rhythm, the imagery, everything is so clear and strong, that it sucks you in, adding meaning to a story that is strong in its very core.
Tolkien was of course very accustomed to poetry and epic stories in verses. That was not only his field of academic studies, but also his life-long passion. Only when I read these versions of his stories, I truly understood what he saw in this form of storytelling.
Beren and Lúthien and the power of togetherness
I’ve always understood that the strength of Beren and Lúthien’s story is their love, their willingness to give themselves to the other regardless of their differences and what their differences might mean in their life. Being together is worth it. Being together is the point. It is the strength to do what one alone would never achieve.
Being love or loyalty, friendship or family bonds, trust or camaraderie, being together — accepting the bond, and so in part accepting that we are not completely free and independent — makes us not weaker but stronger.
This is a message worth giving in itself, but as I read Tolkien’s works more at large, I realise this is only a part of a larger view of life.
Throughout all of the Silmarillion, there is a strong idea that what unite us makes us stronger. Being love or loyalty, friendship or family bonds, trust or camaraderie, being together — accepting the bond, and so in part accepting that we are not completely free and independent — makes us not weaker but stronger. It’s only through sharing (a goal, a vision, ideals, feelings and thoughts) that we may hope to go further. Sometimes a lot further than we ever thought we could do.
This is how Beren, a mere mortal Man, could face Morgoth and win a Silmaril from his very crown. This is where Lúthien found the strength to make her ultimate choice.
Beren and Lúthien is the story where this message shines brighter.
Tolkien explored the reverse idea in The Children of Húrin. What happens when these bonds are shattered? When one has to face their faith alone, when loyalty and trust are in short supply and when bonds of friendship and family are broken or severed?
That’s another powerful story.