Book Meme Day 4: My Favorite Book of My Favorite Series (except not really)

In my previous post, I created for myself a minor conundrum, unintentionally yet not entirely unwittingly. By categorizing The Lord of the Rings as a series, rather than as a singular complete story, I am now faced with the impossible task of “choosing” one of the three parts to be my favorite. But it can’t be done! Any position I take would be untenable. Can you just see how horrible it would be if I tried to say one part was better than the others? Tolkien would roll in his grave and curse my fantasy-writing efforts, Fëanor would cross space and time to hunt me down and burn out my heretical eyes with a Silmaril, and hobbit children everywhere would weep in horror at my hideous offense.

So I won’t. I refuse this ludicrous memetic dogma! I reject the meme’s reality and substitute my own. So it is that by the power of independent online publishing invested in me by the makers of WordPress, I mightily declare that the meme topic for Day 4 is hereby modified to “my favorite story by the author of my favorite series.”

So there! Now I just have to pick my favorite story by J.R.R. Tolkien. Ha! Easy as lembas. Easy as eating lembas. Easy as eating lembas with fine wine while relaxing in Lothlórien after a hard day’s journey listening to elven musicians jamming sweetly under the mallorn trees at twilight while the fairest voice of the forest sings the ballad of…

Of Beren and Lúthien.

by Ted Nasmith
Lúthien escapes the treehouse where her father had imprisoned her, so she can find and (hopefully) rescue Beren, imprisoned and tortured in Morgoth's dungeons.

“Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that come down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under shadow of death light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Lúthien.” (The Silmarillion, 195)

This may be the best love story ever told. Beren and Lúthien love more passionately than Romeo and Juliet, overcome more obstacles than Paris and Helen, and are truer to each other than Lancelot and Guinevere. It is the model for the romance of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and it is utterly beautiful. (And if you want to boggle your mind with the complex lineages that arise in Tolkien’s world when elves and men intermarry, remember that Arwen is the great-great-granddaughter of Beren and Lúthien, whereas Aragorn is also their descendent, but hundreds of times removed!)

Now, I could argue that this story is in the same “series” as The Lord of the Rings¸ seeing as it involves the ancient history of Middle-Earth and serves as the inspiration and ancestor of the romance of Aragorn and Arwen.

The version I am going by – since there are several which have been compiled by Tolkien’s son Christopher in various books – is the “classic” one in The Silmarillion. Beren son of Barahir, a Man of great warrior lineage now hunted like a beast by Morgoth, stumbles into the magically warded forest kingdom of Doriath and finds dancing among the trees Lúthien, daughter of King Thingol and Queen Melian, and the fairest elf ever to have lived or danced. They fall in love almost immediately, but Thingol is furious when he finds out. How can a mortal human possibly dare to love or touch his daughter? The very suggestion is such an extreme insult that he would have slain Beren, had he not promised Lúthien not to kill or harm him. Instead, in mockery, he sets before Beren a quest: if Beren wants the treasure of Lúthien, then he must obtain for Thingol a Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth himself. Surely that will kill this foolish, filthy little man!

For those of you unfamiliar with Tolkien’s mythology beyond The Lord of the Rings, Morgoth is basically Satan. Sauron, later the Dark Lord, is his lieutenant, and even in LOTR is considerably less powerful than his master once was. Morgoth defeats or at least delivers Pyrrhic victories to numerous alliances of Men and Elves. His fortress Angband is far in the north, beyond many dangerous wastelands and wildernesses, and is guarded not just by hordes of orcs, but by legions of Balrogs, giant evil spiders (ancestors of Shelob), and dragons. Note the plurals of each of those, and then remember that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings put together only had one dragon, one Balrog, and one giant evil spider (well, Mirkwood had some dangerous dog-sized ones, but only Shelob was truly evil and approaching sentience). Also, there is Morgoth himself, who is Satan in physical form, a towering giant and sorcerer and warrior and more cunning and vicious than any single Elf or Man. Entire alliances of Men and Elves have struggled and failed to get past Angband’s massive walls, and none of them have seen a Silmaril for hundreds or thousands of years.

Beren’s response to King Thingol?

“But Beren laughed. ‘For little price,’ he said, ‘do Elven-kings sell their daughters: for gems, and things made by craft. But if this be your will, Thingol, I will perform it. And when we meet again my hand shall hold a Silmaril from the Iron Crown; for you have not looked the last upon Beren son of Barahir.’” (203)

And so he sets out, despite having already weathered more perils and battles with evil creatures than most men.

The many threads that Tolkien weaves into this story are mesmerizing and awesome, giving the story a feel and power unique to it. On the surface it sounds simple: man on quest to prove his worth to the father of the woman he loves. The details make it original and memorable. Lúthien defies her father to join him on his quest, even while most other Elves think she is foolish. But the lovers are joined by some surprising allies: King Finrod Felagund, High King of the Noldor (High Elves), Huan the great and heroic dog (perhaps the single greatest dog in fiction!) who overpowers Sauron single-handedly, and even, on occasion, the great eagles.

There is the shadow of great doom over the story, which Tolkien loved to put into his tragedies (and most of his stories outside of his novels are tragedies), and yet it rises above that to become something beautiful, and even uplifting. Our heroes are beset and betrayed at every turn, it seems, and suffer much torture, both physical and mental, even after escaping. They fight and run to the end. They strive by force and by cunning to win the right to love each other. And, though it cost them their lives, they overcome.

I highly recommend this story to everyone. It benefits from some knowledge of the rest of Tolkien’s mythology, but I don’t think it is necessary to read all of The Silmarillion that precedes it first. If the whole book intimidates you, but you’re interested in Beren and Lúthien, then skip straight to their story. You will not regret it.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

16 thoughts on “Book Meme Day 4: My Favorite Book of My Favorite Series (except not really)”

  1. “The leaves were long, the grass was green
    The hemlock umbles tall and fair.
    And in the glade a light was seen
    Of stars in shadow glistening.”

    Also, Luthien is pretty BA. She makes a magical cloak out of her own hair. And puts the Dark Lord to sleep like a naughty child.

    1. She is one tough chick, no doubt, and Beren’s no slouch himself. I was desperate to get this out before Day 4 was over, but I realize there is still a lot I could say about the story. I love how they both are so much tougher than the typical lovers in romance stories. They have such patience, such drive, and such faith in each other. They are a perfect team — neither could succeed without the other’s help. And their allies, too! The humility and loyalty of Finrod Felagund, one of the most legendary High Kings of the Noldor, who gives up his kingdom and his life to help them because of an oath made to Barahir, Beren’s father. And Huan, the noblest, awesomest giant dog ever, who lets Luthien ride on his back and who slays and is slain by the great demonic wolf Carcharoth. That’s what I love so much about Tolkien’s stories — they never happen in a vacuum. There are so many side stories going on, for every named character and place has its own history, troubles, and unique nature. He didn’t just write about languages and geography and history — he really wrote about people too.

  2. One of the things I love about Beren and Luthien’s story is that it is a triumphant version of the classic Orpheus and Eurydice story. The Orpheus story is great–I mean, does it get much better than a bard singing to move the powers of the dead to release his love?–but I’ve always been frustrated that after all Orpheus went through to get Eurydice back, he doesn’t have enough faith to bring her safely out. (Though, of course, we could justly say that the Greek gods don’t always inspire the greatest confidence…) But Tolkien does prove it gets better with his version of the story.

    I remember that Finrod’s sacrifice really stood out to me as one of the moving moments in the Silmarillion. Well, there are a lot of amazing and heroic events all throughout the book. Anyway, Fingolfin was kind of my favorite lord of the Eldar when I read the book the first time, but Finrod’s heroic end moved him closer up on my approval scale.

    1. It’s been so long since I’ve read The Silmarillion, and I just finished rereading the whole Beren and Luthien tale in it yesterday. Finrod is truly notable as one of the most honorable of the Elves, and his sacrifice is moving and excellent. And the fact that he doesn’t think twice about giving up his kingdom just to keep an oath to Beren’s father. Fingolfin was also awesome, especially for his epic duel with Morgoth. However, this tale really makes you hate the sons of Feanor — or at least Celegorm and Curufin. Such treacherous, greedy jerks!

      I hadn’t thought to connect it to Orpheus and Eurydice, but that’s a great point; Luthien’s song to rescue Beren from Sauron’s tower takes on a whole new meaning in that light, both an homage and an inversion (of genders). I was always a bit disappointed in Orpheus as well, but Luthien and Beren both acquit themselves with honor and style.

      1. I’m also thinking of Luthien’s song that moved Mandos enough to release Beren from the halls of death.

        Yes, Celegorm and Curufin are Trouble with a capital T. Although, their presence in the story is a great example of Iluvatar’s way of using what fallen men, elves, and vala mean as evil for good. If it weren’t for those two, Beren and Luthien would have missed two important parts of their victory: Huan from Celegorm and the knife Angrist from Caranthir (the only blade capable of cutting Morgoth’s crown).

        Also, it is really interesting to note the number of rescues in Tolkien’s work that are precipitated or else directly achieved through singing. The first I can think of chronologically is Fingon’s rescue of Maedhros from Thangorodrim (my favorite Silmarillion story, in fact–Maedhros is my fave Tolkien character, too). Then there is Luthien and Beren, of course. Sam’s rescue of Frodo in RotK. There may be a few more that slip my mind. Singing is a pretty big deal in Middle Earth; I mean, it was a song that created the world; and music, particularly the sung sort, goes on to be HUGELY significant throughout the history of Arda.

        1. I must say, your memory of The Silmarillion is much more detailed than mine! Great observations, there. Wish I could remember where, but I’m almost certain I’ve read Tolkien saying that the one skill he greatly desired, but lacked, was for music. Perhaps that’s why his mythology has so many songs in it.

          1. Why thank you, I shall take that in the spirit of my 18-year-old self as a supreme compliment.

            Haha, well, I was a fairly obsessed–er–dedicated fan at the end of high school, beginning of college. I’m still quite infatuated with the elves. For a while, I almost would have said I liked the Silmarillion more than LotR. Wouldn’t say that now, but I would probably put the two on about equal footing as far as my fondness for them both. Truth to tell, I’ve only read the Sil cover to cover once, but I’ve researched the topic a fair bit and thus know the material pretty well. I’ve forgotten some things since then, but still shock myself by remembering bits of lore. I started re-reading part of the Silmarillion this weekend ’cause it’s about time.

            (Also, don’t tell anyone, but I have this awesome book: http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Guide-Middle-Earth-Robert-Foster/dp/0345449762/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1304984233&sr=1-1
            It’s well researched and super handy. I recommend it highly!)

            1. …I’ve had that one for years. +D

              Although truthfully I’ve barely looked into it, since for a few years I over-saturated myself with these books. The Atlas is absolutely incredible, and a must-have companion for The Silmarillion. The Handbook is nice because it has entries not just on the people and places of Middle-Earth, but also Tolkien’s philosophical themes and theories of fiction.

              1. Neato. I have the Atlas, but have not heard of the Handbook before. I love my Complete Guide and use it as my first go-to reference if I have basic queries about something I read somewhere in the major texts. I hope someday it gets updated to include the Histories of Middle-Earth.

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