The tale of Beren and Lúthien is perhaps the best-known portion of the writings first published in The Silmarillion, if only because Aragorn references the story tangentially in The Fellowship of the Ring. In all its versions, the story concerns Lúthien (or Tinúviel), the half-divine daughter of an elven king and a fairy queen, who falls in love with Beren, a wayfarer who stumbles into their protected kingdom. Together, they set off to steal a Silmaril (a divine gem with which the fate of the world is intertwined) from Morgoth (the satanic dark lord who preceded Sauron) in order to prove Beren’s worth to Lúthien’s father. Among many sources, the story borrows motifs from Rapunzel, Romeo and Juliet, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, following the couple’s separations, captivities, victories, and eventually, their deaths and return.
Between both prose and poetic renderings of this tale by his father, Christopher Tolkien intervenes to provide the reader with chronological and contextual information. With his commentary to tie the disparate pieces together, Beren and Lúthien reads something like a narrative of the story itself. Although it is a less complete picture of the senior Tolkien’s writing process than we receive in The History of Middle-Earth, it nonetheless offers insight into the odd transformations undergone by his legendarium. Additionally, the book serves as a far more digestible volume for curious readers turned off by a 12-volume collection of edited manuscripts.
Although the text features glimpses of ancient elven kingdoms, werewolves, the gates of hell, and even Sauron, the unexpected changes from version to version make up the most interesting feature of Beren and Lúthien. The tale, like the 2007 publication The Children of Húrin, was relatively stable from its first inception in 1917. I stress, “relatively,” however. One of the largest structural changes is certainly Beren’s transformation from elf to man. Tolkien made this change with a surprising amount of trepidation and indecision, considering the far-reaching effects it would have on his legendarium. (Aragorn and Arwen are presented as inheritors of their legacy.) A late iteration of the story features the first appearance of the character who would become Sauron; in the earliest versions, however, his role was filled by a giant demonic cat in an episode that is essentially a beast fable.
I would argue, however, that the most significant change in the text is also perhaps the most easily overlooked. As the object of Beren’s desire, Lúthien provides much of the motivation behind the plot. As a man (or in early versions, a Noldor elf), Beren is judged by Lúthien’s father, King Thingol, to be unworthy of her affections. In a mocking request to drive Beren away, he requests as a dowry a Silmaril, one of the three jewels set in the crown of Morgoth, the dark lord who rules from his fortress of Angband. To King Thingol’s surprise, Beren accepts these terms and vows not to return until he holds a Silmaril in his hand. In the earliest version, which appears in The Book of Lost Tales, Lúthien’s character is often limited by her passive status. She is at times a damsel in distress, at others little more than luggage. As the narrative evolves, she consistently acquires greater power and agency. By the time the story reached the form that appears in The Silmarillion, Lúthien was perhaps Tolkien’s most potent and courageous character.
Lúthien stands out among a cast that is otherwise almost entirely male. (Her mother, whose role is limited to offering advice and insight, and a vampire, who appears only in death, serve as the only exceptions.) The male characters who surround her, most prominently Beren and her father, consistently fail or make themselves villains because they adhere to principles of traditional masculine heroism. Beren, for example, accepts Thingol’s demand for a Silmaril for little reason other than to respond to his derision with a game of one-upmanship. What Beren and Thingol consistently find, however, is that however well equipped they might be for trials of masculine virtue, it is not a viable approach in a world that is prepared to overwhelm and ultimately make a mockery of martial resistance. Lúthien, by contrast, consistently shines because she has no regard for the object-of-desire or damsel-in-distress roles assigned to her by masculine heroic narrative traditions. As Beren and Lúthien makes visible, each subsequent revision further emphasizes this defiance and increases the deliberateness with which Lúthien redirects the course of her narrative.
Although her role in the story remains largely unchanged, early Lúthien is a far more passive character than she ultimately becomes. In “The Tale of Tinúviel,” her actions are often characterized by her fear and vulnerability. When confronted by the demonic cat, Tevildo, we are told “she had no plan more […] indeed had she been able she would have fled.” Although she later pronounces herself loudly in his court, this too is attributed to fear. In contrast, the version of the story composed some 10 years later and which appears in “The Lay of Leithian,” adheres broadly to the same framework, but presents a much different Lúthien. Beren is now held captive by the necromancer Thû — Sauron in all but name. No longer timid or unsure, Lúthien announces herself, and not out of fear. Rather, she stands openly and declares her presence, to command the attention of Thû with the intention of drawing him out. When Thû is ultimately restrained, she takes center stage and demands his submission:
O demon dark, O phantom vile
of foulness wrought, of lies and guile,
here shalt thou die, thy spirit roam
[…] this shall be
unless the keys thou render me
of thy black fortress
Standing at the door of the tower, Lúthien takes ownership of it, and commands it to fall. The hill itself trembles and the tower collapses under her power. Where before we had a timid elven maiden content to follow instructions, we now have a character who is confident and at home in the agency she exerts over the narrative. If there is a coherent source of satisfaction to be found in reading Beren and Lúthien, it is found in this evolution and the eventual emergence of one of Tolkien’s most surprising characters.
This progression is of particular relevance to scholars interested in Tolkien’s work. One of the most prevalent conversations within this community centers on his female characters: even kind readings of his better-known texts must concede a degree of ambivalence in his portrayals of women. Less generous assessments find them strikingly conservative, even retrograde. At the very least, his writing inhabits modes that are traditionally male-centered. (The Hobbit famously uses the word “she” only once.) A text like this, which focuses so closely on one of his most significant and unusual female characters, offers considerable context to this debate.
It is fair to question, however, whether this book will ultimately find an audience. Unlike The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien is not designed to make the source material easily consumable as a novel. In spite of this, the text has been designed and promoted in very similar ways, likely leading to some unpleasant surprises for casual readers. Marketing emphasized a return to Middle-earth and the (singular) epic love story, rather than the editorial strategy that declines to present a definitive text. The promotional approach shared by this and Children presents itself visibly even in their covers — both feature an image of their respective main characters against a nondescript twilight background. At first glance, one might think them to be parts in a series.
Meanwhile, critics and scholars looking for information about Tolkien’s drafting process are more likely to draw on the more complete study found in The History of Middle-Earth. This problem is exacerbated somewhat by Christopher Tolkien’s editing process, which is obscure and at times downright opaque. In the interest of making versions of the narrative more accessible, he reconciles disagreements within the individual texts, often without highlighting the decision. In the preface, he tells us, regarding changing character names, that he has “observed no rule in this respect, but distinguished old and new in some cases but not in others, for various reasons.” It’s fair to ask what those reasons might be, but no answer is forthcoming. Indeed, most of the editorial information he does provide comes in contextual summaries between passages, which, while helpful, often makes it difficult to recognize his editorial hand within the texts themselves.
If one of Tolkien’s stories is to receive the survey treatment, Beren and Lúthien is likely the best candidate. It stands more or less on its own when separated from the legendarium in which it was conceived. It likewise proves instructive when viewed diachronically, meaningfully illustrating the evolution of ideas that underlies the final text. At the same time, despite J. R. R. Tolkien’s popularity, I cannot help but feel it will struggle to find an audience, hovering as it does between fan service and academic exercise.