6.2.17 Beren and Luthien

In the winter of 1916-17, JRR Tolkien was a shattered man.

He had just returned from World War 1, suffering from trench fever. All but one of his childhood friends were dead, mauled by German machine guns at the Battle of the Somme. He was spending his time alternating between hospitals and basic garrison duty. But one day he and his young wife Edith went for a walk through the forests of Yorkshire. In an effort to cheer her husband, Edith sang and danced under the hemlock trees. And it worked. Entranced by his wife, Tolkien was suddenly filled with joy and a sense of purpose, and right there he began to imagine the story of an elf maiden and a mortal man…

…named Beren, of the House of Beor, whose life had been shattered by the Battle of Sudden Flame. All of his kin had been hunted down, tortured and killed by the orcs of Morgoth. As the sole survivor, Beren fled from peril and entered the elvish realm of Doriath. There, as he walked under the trees, he was entranced by Luthien, fairest of all elves, as she sang and danced in a glade, and he named her Tinuviel, which means Nightingale. They fell in love, and together they went to her father, and Beren declared his desire that they be married. And Luthien’s father slyly agreed, so long as Beren could achieve one impossible task: journey north to Angband, and retrieve from Morgoth’s own crown one of the three Silmarils which he had stolen from the elves…

…Tolkien worked on his story for decades. In the 1920’s and 30’s he was an academic specializing in the etymology of Old English words, and translations of ancient texts like Beowulf. After World War 2, he became a Professor at Oxford, and one of the most respected scholars of English language and literature in the world. But throughout these years, during which time he and Edith raised a family of four children, every evening he would write late into the night, crafting what would become an entire imaginary world. He published The Hobbit in 1937. He finished the Lord of the Rings in 1948, but publishers complained that it was too long and it wasn’t until 1954 that it was finally published in three volumes. All the while, Tolkien continued to work on his magnum opus, The Silmarillion, which at its heart contained the quest to acquire a Silmaril…

…Beren set out accompanied by ten elvish warriors led by King Finrod. They were captured and imprisoned in Nargothrond, where one by one all were consumed by werewolves, save Beren only. Luthien was captured by the sons of Feanor, but she escaped and came to Beren’s aid. She transformed them into the shapes of a bat and a wolf, and together they were able to enter Angband and approach Morgoth’s throne. There Luthien sang a song that lulled Morgoth to sleep. Beren quietly crept up and cut a Silmaril from his crown…

…but before he could finish his tale, JRR Tolkien died in 1973, following his wife Edith who had passed two years earlier. His son Christopher picked up the shards of his stories and published a hurried version of the Silmarillion in 1977. But Christopher continued to pore through and edit his father’s works. And just yesterday, 100 years after the story’s genesis, a full stand-alone version of the tale was finally published. It contains the definitive final text, plus annotations of prose and verse that show the evolution of the story.

It’s the central tale of Middle Earth. The first to be imagined and the last to be completed: “The Tale of Beren and Luthien” by JRR Tolkien.

Beren and Luthien were married in Doriath. Though she was elf-kind, by marrying a man Luthien joined Beren in his mortality. They died long ago and nobody knows their final resting place.

JRR and Edith Tolkien are buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford, and share one gravestone; under her name is inscribed the word “Luthien,” and under his is the word “Beren.”

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