When he died in 1973, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien left his personal magnum opus largely uncompleted. By 1977, his son Christopher Tolkien had connected enough of his father’s manuscripts and notes to publish The Silmarillion, the story of the myths that created Middle-Earth and preceded Frodo and his friends’ quest. But Christopher didn’t stop there. Over the following decades, he mined more and more texts from his father’s unfinished writings about Middle-Earth, the most recent of which was 2007’s The Children of Húrin. The latest (and, by Christopher’s own admission, probably the last) such book focuses on one of the best stories J.R.R. Tolkien ever came up with: The star-crossed romance of the human Beren and the elf Lúthien.
Like many stories in The Silmarillion, Beren and Lúthien is an echo of a similar dynamic in LOTR. Fans of Peter Jackson’s LOTR film adaptations probably remember the tortured romance between the immortal elf princess Arwen and all-too-human warrior Aragorn. Beren and Lúthien have a similar dynamic, but of even more mythic proportions. Beren isn’t just scorned by Lúthien’s imperious father; he’s ordered to prove himself by stealing a crown jewel from the devil himself. There’s an Isle of Werewolves, a gigantic hound named Huan that only speaks three times, and a journey to the underworld and back. Within the pages of The Silmarillion, Beren and Lúthien’s story adds some laser focus to a book that can otherwise get rather rambling. But with this book, Christopher proves it can also stand on its own — and in many different forms!
In some ways, Beren and Lúthien is a making-of documentary, as Christopher walks the reader through his process of recreating the story from his father’s various drafts. The first iteration of the story, for instance, replaced the role of LOTR baddie Sauron with a fascinating villain called Tevildo, Prince of Cats. Another version is written entirely in poetic verse. From version to version, names change and various characters appear and disappear from the telling, but it’s even more fascinating to observe which threads remain constant. The story of Beren and Lúthien, after all, is one of Tolkien’s most personal creations. It was heavily inspired by his relationship with his wife Edith — their shared gravestone even denotes them as “Beren” and “Lúthien.” This carries over into the story itself, which is imbued with a real sense of love, as well as a deep knowledge of loss (Lúthien must ultimately decide between immortality, and most characters don’t make it out of the story in one piece). Tolkien wrote eloquently but also elementally, and it’s fascinating to watch the story’s primal energies channeled across different versions.
Beren and Lúthien therefore makes a good introduction to LOTR fans nervous about taking on The Silmarillion, and also gives longtime fans a fascinating look at the Tolkiens’ myth-making process.