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.
“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.