“The trees writhe and twist in agony, their leaves showing their naked undersides. The wind moans, inarticulately, then howls with pain and anger. You know it is your fault, that you have killed it, that the trees are haunting you . . .” I stopped typing and listened to the wind moan. It felt good to take something that was happening and record it lyrically. One of my favorite authors also made a scene from his own life into a tale—a tale of love, magic, and unbelievable sadness.
Beren and Lúthien is an extraordinary tale by J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by his ninety-three-year-old son, Christopher, this book was printed this year a century after its completion. The tale tells of the gnome Beren (gnome here meaning a man with profound knowledge), who, stumbling into the elvish kingdom Doriath, falls in love with the elf Lúthien Tinúviel. But to marry her, Beren must bring a Silmaril (a precious jewel) back to the King—a task no one could ever accomplish.
The story of Beren and Lúthien was inspired by Tolkien’s own wife, Edith, when he saw her twirling in a field of flowers: the dancing Lúthien. Tolkien compared much of his life to the tale (see p. 16)—so much that on Edith’s tombstone, he had the word “Lúthien” engraved. But he strayed from the story when Edith died. In a piercing letter to his son, he wrote: “But the tale has gone crooked, and I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos” (p. 19; Mandos is the judge of the dead in the story).
Beren and Lúthien is deeply entwined with the tale of the Silmarils—three precious jewels crafted by the elf Fëanor in the First Age. The Silmarils held inside them the pure light of the Two Trees of Valinor, which were later destroyed by the evil Morgoth, one of the gods. Morgoth bound the Silmarils in his crown—but Beren would eventually succeed in recovering them.
Beren and Lúthien is a piercing story. It’s hard to think that something a century old could still be so poignant. Tolkien took a scene from his life and wrote a tale, but as the story went “crooked,” so did his life. I hope that howling wind I heard was no omen . . .
You can buy this book here.
Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. “Preface.” Beren and Lúthien. London: HarperCollins, 2017. N. pag. Print.