Book Meme Day 26: A Book That Changed Your Mind About Something

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a book that changed your opinion, a book that taught you something new, and a book that flat-out amazed you with its uniqueness. You must forgive me if I allow these definitions to blend.

Regardless of your thoughts, if any, on women authors and racial prejudices in early nineteenth century France, you will be surprised by Claire de Duras’ Ourika.

It was published by a woman, de Duras, in 1828, and tells the story of an African girl who is rescued from slavery by an aristocratic French family and raised as part of their family. She grows up unaware of any difference between her and the white society around her; her education is the best money can buy, her clothes and manners are aristocratic, and she is even given a débutante ball to introduce her to society. It is at this point that her problems begin, for only now do other people begin to remark on her exotic looks and consider her something apart. The revelation is devastating to her self-esteem and future plans. And in the midst of all this comes the French Revolution.

Is the fact that an aristocratic French woman in 1828 wrote a story with a black heroine exploring racial prejudice not surprising enough for you? How about the fact that the book is in first person? In snobby-sounding literary analytical terms, this book is “the first earnest attempt by a white author to situate herself within a different racial psyche.” Because Ourika narrates so emotionally and perceptively, we feel all her joy at being a débutante, her horror at the realization that others consider her different, and her heartbreak while coming to terms with the fact that the nice white man she loves is incapable of seeing her as more than a friend, in large part because of her skin color. As Ourika overhears one sympathetic-but-practical lady remark, “What kind of man would marry a negress?” The implication is that no high-born man would consider it appropriate to marry a black woman, and that Ourika is too well-educated and well-raised to marry a low-born man. It is a bizarre and cruel quandary.

The aristocratic Mme de B., who acts as an adopted mother to Ourika, tried very hard for years to hide this aspect of society from her, to preserve Ourika’s happiness and sense of normality. But as another aristocratic woman explains, their society believes that “Ourika has flouted her natural destiny. She has entered society without its permission. It will have its revenge.”

But actually, what surprised me most about this book was how little discrimination Ourika encounters, compared to what I thought would be the case in that place and time. It is nothing like the American South of the same time, which is described so graphically by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography. When Ourika is a child, there is little more than grumblings from outsiders, while most of the people she meets accept her well enough. She doesn’t “regret being black” because “there [is] nothing to warn [her] that the color of [her] skin might be a disadvantage.” She has white friends, and the young man Charles becomes her closest confidant. It is only when she falls in love with him that she realizes he is oblivious to the idea that she could have romantic feelings. Sometimes prejudice can be so subtle.

But what makes this book so affecting is Ourika’s personality. She is a wonderful, warm person, overflowing with generosity, gentleness, and intelligence. She bears her humiliations and heartbreaks with strength and dignity, and does not consider them an excuse for poor behavior on her part. Even more winningly, her faith in God is triumphant. I was sad that in the end she becomes a nun, because I had so hoped that she might find happiness and acceptance by marrying and having a family, which is what she had wanted, and yet I still must be at peace with her decision. In the end, Ourika has come to terms with the society that she lives in, and she understands that in the long run, it matters not what men think of her, because she is a daughter of God in Heaven, in Whose eyes all men and women are equal.

Does this choice of mine fit the meme topic? Maybe not, I don’t know. I do not believe I had read any early nineteenth century French literature before this. However, I had certain assumptions which would never have let me guess the existence of a novel like this. Did I say novel? It’s more like a novella, at under fifty pages. So much is accomplished in that small space, though. I was utterly astonished by this book, and in the end very much won over. Among other things, I guess you could say that it changed my mind about the reputedly callous nature of pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy, because the author, who was of that class, proves to be a singularly sensitive and wise person.

Update: Good news, folks! The University of Georgia has provided the entire story free in PDF format here. In this format it’s only 18 pages, a hefty short story, really. Read it yourself and see if what I said about it is true!


Book Meme Day 22: Guilty Pleasure

[As my observant readers will notice, I missed yesterday’s post. I was tired, I was a little busy, I was diverted by other things. No matter. The bulk of this post was indeed written on the 22nd, so even though it was finished today, I have left it in the present tense so it will continue to refer to Day 22 of the Meme.]

The original topic for today was “Favorite Book That You Own.”

That is a stupid topic. All the favorites I’ve been talking about are books I own. What is more, it is highly unlikely that a person’s choice for this would differ from their “favorite book of all time,” the meme’s final topic. So I’m flatly rejecting it. This topic shall not even receive from me the dignity of memetic modification; rather, it is hereby banished and replaced with something that, I hope, is a bit more interesting.

Today’s new topic is: A Book Or Series That Is A Guilty Pleasure.

The term “guilty pleasure” is more often heard in connection with movies. Some movies, they say, are just So Bad They’re Good. You know the story is weak, the acting may be embarrassing, or the special effects weak, but somehow you always have a good time watching it. Maybe the movie is unfailingly optimistic despite its mediocrity, maybe it taps into some secret, buried wish of yours, or maybe it’s just plain goofy. Well, books can be like that too.

And my pick is the Dirk Pitt series by Clive Cussler.

These books are not great literature, but boy can they be fun. Dirk himself is a cross between Indiana Jones and James Bond, with a passion for deep-sea diving and old shipwrecks, and he functions purely as wish-fulfillment for the author. He’s the man all women want and all men want to be (so his reputation goes). And personally, I wouldn’t mind being tall and athletic like him, with combat training, a brilliant scientific mind, an encyclopedic knowledge of history, just about every skillset an adventurer could possibly need (rock climbing, deep sea diving/swimming like a fish, sailing, flying, gliding, parachuting), solid friends in every position and industry to lend a hand when I need them, and of course that awesome collection of classic cars kept in the aircraft hangar that would be my home. At least I have a slice of his rakish sense of humor.

The stories are action thrillers, often with Bond-like villains with plots that will end up greatly damaging the world at large; the more implausible ones often make for the better books. Characters don’t have much depth, but they are lively and entertaining. In particular, the friendship between Dirk and Al Giordino is well-played throughout the series; they have an easy camaraderie and act like brothers, holding each other accountable and saving each others’ lives repeatedly.

Part of the fun for me was always the historical content. Every book begins with a prologue dramatizing some historical incident – usually a shipwreck or a treasure getting lost, and often fictional – which will form the background for the current adventure. Most of the main characters are historians as well as scientist-adventurers, and they revel in uncovering the secrets of the past. It’s not usually done gracefully – Mr. Cussler has a tendency to info-dump – but if you like history, as I do, then it’s interesting, and it provides some backbone to the ensuing adventure.

My favorite, as I remember, is Atlantis Found. It had one of the most preposterous plots, involving lost Atlantean ruins under Antarctic ice, the rise of the Fourth Reich, and something about another Great Flood that the neo-Nazis were trying to escape by building massive high-tech Ark ships. But that was why it was so much fun – the ideas were so big and colorful that it gave our heroes some more unique backdrops for their spying, intrigue, and action.

You may vaguely remember the movie Sahara, which was based on one of the first novels in the series. As an adaptation it is horrible: Matthew McConaughey bears little resemblance to the suave, dark-haired, green-eyed Dirk, and Steve Zahn is even farther from the stout, dark Italian Giordino who is Pitt’s best friend. Still, the two actors do have a similar camaraderie that is pleasant to watch, and the movie does manage to keep the same atmosphere of fun history-inspired adventure, better, I think, than the National Treasure movies.

Book Meme Day 19: Favorite Film Adaptations of Books

I have already modified the original meme to allow for multiple choices, and I will now modify it even more to allow for multiple meanings of this exceedingly vague topic. The original topic of “favorite book turned into a movie” does not allow for substantially different books for me to feature than the previous topics, and also says nothing about the quality of the film. For instance, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has, to my knowledge, never had a very good straight adaptation, but someone could conceivably choose it for the original topic even while despising its film versions. But since I am a film buff as well as bibliophile, I am turning the question so it allows me to feature films that I think are also very good of themselves. But first, my three interpretations of the topic (as I’ve modified it), along with my three film choices.

Also – and this should go without saying – these choices are limited to films I have actually seen.

1) Favorite Book Turned Into a Film

The Ringwraiths were spot-on in the movies, especially the scene where the hobbits are hiding under the tree root.

Well, that would have to be The Lord of the Rings – the Peter Jackson trilogy. For all that they changed or left out – the songs, the poetry, the humor of the Elves, the confidence of Aragorn, the moral conscience of Faramir, the reducing of Gimli to comic relief, the Scouring of the Shire, etc. – I believe there is more that they got right. The epic scope, the themes of friendship, forgiveness, and the importance of never giving in to evil, and much more.

Although, I still hold out the hope of one day seeing a grand film adaptation of Perelandra; since the book is almost a textbook example of “unfilmable,” such a film would probably have to be animated. And very philosophical. I mean, hey, they made an opera of it!

One day I also hope to see a fantastic adaptation of The Lantern Bearers, which I think could easily become one of the great historical epics of film, if it is done right. But alas, I wait still.

Nevermind. Moving on.

2) Film That Best Represents Its Source Material

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch. I was astounded, upon seeing the movie, how exactly he fit my mental image of Atticus. The tone of his voice, the way he carries himself, the tender nobility and humble love in his eyes…all of it, there. Additionally, the children are perfectly cast. They’re real kids, not child actors, with all the spontaneity and intensity that implies. It is also helpful that the script is nearly identical to the book, only cutting a few scenes due to time and pacing constraints. To my recollection, everything in the movie is also in the book, and it is all represented in the right way. The music (by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein) is justly one of the most famous movie themes, evoking the carefree world of childhood imagination. The directing is also masterful, setting the right and bringing out the book’s themes.

3) Film That Most Improves On Its Source Material

I already know there will be some disagreement here, based on yesterday’s post, because I’m going to say the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, and Richard “Marcus Aurelius/Dumbledore” Harris.

First and foremost, this is one of the last true adventure movies that Hollywood has made. In the past decade or so, “action movies” have supplanted the adventure genre, replacing exciting stories with endless combat and chases. They are more about adrenaline than the wonder of exploration and imagination. But The Count of Monte Cristo is in the glorious tradition of the old swasbucklers like Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk (both featuring Errol Flynn), in which an essentially good man suffered terrible trials and had to find the right ways to fight back, all the while visiting exotic locations, making friends and enemies, and generally having some great adventures. There’s a liveliness and joy in its storytelling, despite the dark-ish nature of its revenge tale. Its very well-paced in three acts, and in each Edmond transforms himself completely into a new person. The change Caviezel effects is astounding – he’s almost unrecognizable as the same person in the three acts, but the change is entirely through grooming, clothing, and the way he carries himself and speaks. When he returns to Paris, it is completely believable that his old friends would not recognize him.

This movie has everything I desired from Dumas’ book that Dumas did not deliver. It trims the soap opera fat that I did not care for (the meandering subplots with less-than-intriguing Parisians) and brings out the story’s key elements. There are some great swordfights, that are thrilling and well shot, without that horrible shaky-cam that infects Hollywood like a plague nowadays. Also, I think, some key relationships are deepened. The decision to make Albert actually Edmond’s son rather than Fernand’s is brilliant, for even though it does mean that our hero had immorally slept with his fiancé before their marriage (an action I of course do not condone), it explains some things much better: Mercedes’ quickness to marry Fernand after Edmond’s arrest, Albert’s innocent nature and sense of honor coming from both Mercedes and Edmond rather than just Mercedes, and why Fernand doesn’t like his own son (he subconsciously realizes that Albert is more like Edmond than himself). The emotional threads are clarified, given motive and substance, and played out to an exciting, dramatic conclusion.

I love it. It’s fantastic entertainment.

EDIT May 25:

On reflection, I have concluded that this list is inadequate. I still agree with my choices for the categories above, to some degree, but feel that I have left out too many excellent film adaptations of books.

For instance, how could I have neglected The Princess Bride? I grew up quoting the film, and only discovered the book in my teenage years. Both are excellent: witty, romantic, adventurous, and hilarious. The movie is more accessible than book, which is filled with Goldman’s elaborate ruse in which he tries to convince the reader that he is merely “abridging” an original, older text by S. Morgenstern in which the author supposedly went on for dozens of pages about trees, the minutiae of packing royal luggage, and such boring materials. He claims his abridgement is “the good parts version.” Some readers may not catch on to Goldman’s trick – there is no real Morgenstern, nor kingdoms of Florin and Guilder, of course – because he plays it so straight-faced and with such casual detail, and those that do catch on may not find it funny (for example, my father), but for those that do, it puts a fun twist on the central story. The book and film benefit from having the same writer, and thus maintain the same ton and essential appeal. Pure entertainment, beginning to end. Both versions are iconic.

I must also add The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), which together form the best adaptation of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers that I know of. I only just watched them over the past three days, and I think they are actually much superior to The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) that I list above. They manage the same effect – trimming the fat while crafting the most excellent adventure promised by Dumas – while remaining far, far truer to the text. I cannot think of anything significant in these films that was not in the book, nor of anything from the book that I missed in the films. They retain the adventure and the comedy in equal parts, with dashes of drama thrown in to give the proceedings just enough gravitas to get by.

A hilariously stolen breakfast.

And is there a better all-star cast for such a movie? Charlton Heston makes a devious, but strangely honorable Cardinal Richilieu, Christopher Lee is imposing as Rochefort (and it’s great to see Lee have some fun with his character’s humiliations), and Michael York proves excellent as the young, naïve, but lively d’Artagnan (sort of like Luke Skywalker, with more passion). The Three themselves are excellent – Richard Chamberlain as the kind, refined Aramis, Frank Finlay as the hilarious and friendly Porthos, and Oliver Reed as the intense Athos. Faye Dunaway is a perfect Milady de Winter, and even eye-candy Raquel Welch shows some comic talent as the bumbling coquette Constance Bonacieux. The sword-fights are superb, some of the best I have seen. Swashbuckling with all the energy and joy of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone’s best duels, but with more genuine strategy and convincing moves. Really, really fun movies.

To be honest, I am such a film buff that I think I will have to return to this list and add movies as I think of them. Only movies for which I have read the source books are candidates, but still, there are likely so many…

Book Meme Day 17: My Favorite Quote From Some of My Favorite Books

Memetic modification is the order again. I neither want to spoil the “surprise” of my final choice for favorite book (which of course will not be “final” and could in fact end up being multiple books), nor limit myself to the impossible task of one favorite passage. Some of my favorite books, like The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, are simply too large and wonderful for me to hone in on any single passage.

So instead I have chosen two passages from two books which speak to me in very different ways.

As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men…

That’s George MacDonald in Phantastes, a truly beautiful and dreamlike book. In describing the ways in which magic relates to the world of the book, he is also saying something about the way the spiritual world relates to our real world. And…(my brain is kind of dead right now, so I’ll point you to these posts to get an idea of what I mean by that.)

The next is from The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. It comes from the end of the book, is beautiful, and benefits from context which I cannot give you. +) The pages following it are equally beautiful, but you must earn them by reading the book itself.

Aquila reached for his best cloak, where it lay in a tumble, dark as spilled wine, across the foot of the low couch, and flung it round him, hastily settling the shoulderfolds. He was late, for there had been some trouble down at the horse-lines over the new Cymric steeds that he must see to, and the feast would have begun by now; this crowning feast for a new High King, who was the hope of Britain. He stabbed home the pin of the great bronze-and-silver shoulder brooch, and when he looked up again, there seemed to be all at once more warmth in the room, and more colour, for Ness stood in the inner doorway in a gown of thick, soft wool the colour of the apple flames. Roman in so many things nowadays, she had never taken to the pale colours that Roman ladies wore, and suddenly he was glad of that.

“I feel as though I could warm my hands at you, in that gown,” he said.

She laughed; something of the old mockery in her laughter still, but the sting gone from it. “My lord learns to say pretty things in his old age!” She came forward into the inner circle of warmth and light about the brazier…

…He half-turned towards the colonnade doorway, then back again, realizing he would probably not see Ness until after [the feast for] Ambrosius. “You look so pretty in that gown. I wish this wasn’t an all-male banquet.”

“I am sure that the Princes of the Dumnonii and the Lords of Glevum and the Cymru would be outraged if they found themselves expected to follow the Roman fashion and sit down to feast in the same hall with women, on such a state occasion as this!”

“Your people,” Aquila said, and was struck by a sudden thought. “Ness, do you see that it has come full circle? The Princes of the Cymru feast with their High King. Tonight Ambrosius will confirm Pascent as lord of his father’s lands and his father’s people. Tonight your people and mine are come together again!”

“Yes, I do see,” Ness said. “After twelve, nearly thirteen years.”

Aquila felt that he had been stupid in pointing that out to her as though it were a thing that she might not have noticed, when it must be so much nearer to her than it was to him. He wondered whether she had regretted the choice that she had made, almost thirteen years ago, but could not find the words to ask her.

And then Ness came and put her thin brown hands on his shoulders and said, as though she knew what he was thinking, “Have you regretted it?”

“Why should I regret it?” Aquila said, and put his hands over hers.

“I’m not beautiful like Rhyanidd—”

“You never were, but it was you I chose, in my rather odd way.”

“And maybe I’ve grown dull. Contented women do grow dull; I’ve seen it happen.” She began to laugh again, and this time with no mockery at all. “But at least I haven’t grown fat, as some contented women do.” She gave him a little push and dropped her hands. “Go now to this splendid all-male banquet of yours, before you are later than you are already.”

The meaning, the striking emotion, of this passage is gathered from all that came before it. Aquila’s long years of suffering, the heartbreaking way he and Ness married against both their wills, their years of bickering and misunderstanding. So much pain. But then, finally, to see them like this, where they have comfort with each other and both are surprised to realize that they do not wish to leave each others’ presence, even for an evening…oh my friends, all I can say is that this is the only passage of a novel to have wrung even a few tears of joy from my stubborn eyes. I love it. I reread it often on its own, and its power remains. It encourages me, sobers me, and causes me to praise God for His grace in allowing even flawed beaten creatures such as we to experience the joys of forgiveness, mercy, healing, and love.

Book Meme Day 13: My Favorite Writer(s)

J.C.R.S.R. Tolewkienis.


WELL? Does anyone seriously have an objection?

Ah well, perhaps I should spend a few words explaining the obvious. These writers have defined my imaginative life from my youth. They are my teachers, my mentors, my guides, and the poets for the songs of my soul. So often it seems that they can express my thoughts better than I, and for that I am ashamed, because they would admonish me if they knew and would count me a weak-minded wordsmith. But I treasure every book of theirs, and every piece of advice they give, for more than any other writers they share my values. They wrote to serve God, out of duty and love, and because he gifted them the skill of words upon their creation. When they wrote, they could feel His pleasure. As I read them, I feel their pleasure and His. To have been born at a time when I could grow up with their books as my canon is an honor and a blessing.

In Tolkien’s worlds I have all the grave, high-minded fantasy I shall ever truly need. In his personal letters is gentle, grandfatherly Christian wisdom that shall help me to the end of my days.

The words of Lewis, whether fiction or not, awaken my mind and invigorate it. How can one not weep at The Great Divorce? How can one not be roused to righteous anger at The Abolition of Man, or terrified into self-examination while reading The Screwtape Letters? Has anyone been untouched by Till We Have Faces, or been left un-awed by Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength? I would not be surprised one bit if I heard that a dedicated misanthropist had emerged from The Four Loves eager to love and be loved by someone.

These men are my fathers in writing, and my brothers in Christ. I do not seek to copy them, but to learn from them.

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.