In the very early pages of Christopher Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien, his exploration of how his father’s grand love story of the two star-crossed lovers developed, he notes that, “This book does not offer a single page of original and unpublished work. What then is the need, now, for such a book?”
It’s a fair question, and one that I’m not sure all readers will find a ready answer for. The last half-dozen or so posthumous Tolkien books (from now on I will refer to J.R.R. Tolkien as simply “Tolkien” and his son/editor as “Christopher”) run a spectrum from those, such as The Story of Kullervo, probably only enjoyed by the most diehard of Tolkien fans/completists and those such as The Children of Húrin that can be enjoyed by much more casual fans. Beren and Lúthien I’d say falls pretty much at the far end of the diehard fan/completist range. Because of that, I’m not going to bother with the usual plot summary. If you’re thinking about buying this book, you almost assuredly already know it. If you don’t know then story, stop thinking about buying this book.
What Christopher has done here is set himself the task of tracing the full evolution of this tale, one of the oldest and most important of Tolkien’s stories, one that lies at the core of his history of Middle Earth. To that end, he first offers up a general summary of the characters and settings needed for context. Then he settles into the explorer’s job, beginning way back in 1917 with “the ghostly form of a manuscript in pencil that he all but erased for most of its length; over this he wrote the text that is for us the earliest version.” Then it’s onward to the various and sundry incarnations of the story, some in prose, some in verse, extracted in excerpts from drafts and manuscripts and with brief explanatory/analytical commentary by Christopher. As noted above, all of these have been published in the other texts edited by Christopher, such as the History of Middle-Earth, the Silmarillion, and others. The exception are the many beautiful color plates done by Alan Lee of several of the scenes–reproduced here in top-notch quality.
So then, if someone interested in more Tolkien can find these elsewhere, and the diehard fans probably already own those other texts, to paraphrase Christopher’s own question, what is the point of Beren and Lúthien? Well, as a huge fan (though I don’t own all the texts), I can answer that question for similar fans in a few different ways.
One is that while one can read the other texts and thus find various versions of this tale, one lacks the focus this text brings to the reading. By reading the chronological versions one after the other (or at least excerpts and summaries of them), one can see much more clearly the development of the characters, the plot, the themes (not to mention the author’s own development of technique). The other way, the story merely gets lost among all the others tales, fragments, and the like. Here we follow a singular path and though it twists and turns, sometimes veers back upon itself or shapeshifts, as always, Christopher is a firm hand on the elbow, a clear-eyed guide through the thicket of his father’s multiple starts and stops.
This is where the fans will revel in the various parts kept and dropped, whether they cheer or bemoan Tolkien’s choices in that regard. Here we see the earliest mention of Sauron, for instance, the driving menace of The Lord of the Rings. Who knew that great glowing eye began as the yellow eye of “Tevildo Prince of Cats?” (I kid you not).
Somewhat similarly, but in a more broad vein, those interested as much or more in the writing craft versus Tolkien’s craft can see how an author circles around a story central to their imagination, building it up, then removing a brick here, some mortar there, painting part of it a different color, changing the structure from a castle to a cottage to a skyscraper. The story shifts and turns, veers from one thing to another. Told in high style in one version, or as a fairy tale for children in another. It isn’t a craft text, not a “how-to” book, but for those interested in the creative process it’s a fascinating examination.
So despite Christopher’s own seeming insecurity, even if a passing one, about the “need” for this text, I think one can easily justify its publication, even if the audience is not particularly numerous or broad. I’d say, though, that even thinking he needs a justification feels a bit churlish, because in truth, there’s a very personal reason for why this book, and particularly the “now” part of his question, and it’s a reason Christopher himself acknowledges:
In my ninety-third year this is (presumptively) my last book in the long series of editions of my father’s writing … This tale is chosen in memoriam because … of its deeply-rooted presence in his own life … it is my earliest actual recollection of some element in a story that was being told to me.
The “deeply-rooted presence” of this tale in Tolkien’s life is due to how it was inspired by his own vision of a woman dancing — his eventual wife Edith. When she died after their long years of marriage, a year before Tolkien himself, he had the names Beren and Lúthien inscribed on their tombstones. Shortly after Edith died, Christopher relates, his father wrote to him of the devastation he felt, and returning to the connection between Edith and himself and the tale of Beren and Lúthien, he wrote: “But the story has gone crooked, and I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos [for his love’s return].”
Why Beren and Lúthien now? Because it is the father’s grandest, most powerful love story, one which he did not simply write, but lived. Because the son loved/loves the father and the mother. And because the son senses his own mortality and believes it likely to be the last work he does. What, therefore, could be more fitting as a final goodbye to both father and mother, to his father’s fictional world, and perhaps to this one as well? The tale of Beren and Lúthien is moving. This book’s existence might be even more so.