In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw […]
A new Tolkien book is always exciting! Granted, this sounds like it might not have any new material that isn’t already published in other books. But still, the story of Beren and Luthien is one of my absolute favorites, and I welcome the chance to read even many variations of it in its own book, accompanied by the lovely art of Alan Lee.
Also, as a little heads-up for you guys, I’m preparing another book review of a more recent (well, no more than 10 years old…) fantasy novel, so look out for that in the next week or so. Happy reading!
David writes irregularly for his blog The Warden’s Walk, where he reviews stories of a fantastical and science-fictional nature. An unashamed student of Tolkien, Lewis, and George MacDonald, he tries to balance academic analysis with more passionate responses, each having their place. At a very basic level, he’s just extremely grateful that there are people who have stories they are willing to tell.
“Of the Ruin of Doriath” is a complicated story, deeply entangled in the mythical web of The Silmarillion, the elaborate history Tolkien wrote for his invented world. Before this story comes the great romance of Beren and Lúthien, and the tragic tale of Túrin Turambar. After it comes the Fall of Gondolin, the Voyage of Eärendel, and the Fall of Númenor. Every major event in the tale is tied to something that happened before; a common trait of Tolkien’s stories that strengthens the emotional pull and internal…
Sunday, March 25th, was Tolkien Reading Day, as declared by The Tolkien Society, being as it is the calendar day that the Ring was destroyed in Mount Doom at the end of The Lord of the Rings. To honor this, Pages Unbound is hosting a two-week long Middle-Earthan extravaganza, featuring a new guest post each day on some Tolkien-related topic. (Actually I don’t know if it’s an extravaganza, but I just really wanted to use that word) It’s gotten off to a great start so far, so I recommend you all hurry over there to read and comment.
You may want to skip the end of the extravaganza next week, though, as that’s when my guest post will be appearing. No point in wasting your time; it’ll be a horrible essay, I’m sure. Morgoth’s been taunting me about it.
As a teaser for what my topic will be, I give you this picture by Ted Nasmith.
(as a potentially amusing sidenote, I initially misspelled this post’s title as “Tolkien Weed”)
Very rarely do I reblog other people’s posts. This is one of those times. I simply couldn’t refrain from sharing this latest masterpiece by one of my favorite Tolkien artists, Jenny Dolfen. Please do enjoy. And if you do enjoy the picture, go to her page, “Like” her post, subscribe to her blog, and leave a comment telling her how wonderful her artwork is.
This is the first poem written by Tolkien about the character of Eärendil, the famous voyager who in Middle-Earth mythology carried the morning star on his brow across the sky. Interestingly enough, the character’s name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Éarendel, a name associated with the star Rigel in Orion, which is a wandering star and the brightest of that constellation. Subsequently, it is an extremely important star for navigation, and makes a fitting inspiration for the name of Tolkien’s great seafaring man. But even apart from these associations the poem is immensely beautiful, a wonderful example of mythopoeia.
The Last Voyage of Eärendel
Eärendel arose where the shadow flows
At Ocean’s silent brim;
Through the mouth of night as a ray of light
Where the shores are sheer and dim
He launched his bark like a silver spark
From the last and lonely sand;
Then on sunlit breath of the day’s fiery death
He sailed from Westerland.
He threaded his path o’er the aftermath
Of the splendour of the Sun,
And wandered far past many a star
In his gleaming galleon.
On the gathering tide of darkness ride
The argosies of the sky,
And spangle the night with their sails of light
As the streaming star goes by.
Unheeding he dips past these twinkling ships,
By his wayward spirit whirled
On an endless quest through the darkling West
O’er the margin of the world;
And he fares in haste o’er the jewelled waste
And the dusk from whence he came
With his heart afire with bright desire
And his face in silver flame.
The Ship of the Moon from the East comes soon
From the Haven of the Sun,
Whose white gates gleam in the coming beam
Of the mighty silver one.
Lo! with bellying clouds as his vessel’s shrouds
He weighs anchor down the dark,
And on shimmering oars leaves the blazing shores
In his argent-timbered bark.
Then Éarendel fled from that Shipman dread
Beyond the dark earth’s pale,
Back under the rim of the Ocean dim,
And behind the world set sail;
And he heard the mirth of the folk of earth
And the falling of their tears,
As the world dropped back in a cloudy wrack
On its journey down the years.
Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast
As an isléd lamp at sea,
And beyond the ken of mortal men
Set his lonely errantry,
Tracking the Sun in his galleon
Through the pathless firmament,
Till his light grew old in abysses cold
And his eager flame was spent.
In addition to containing one of my favorite stories, period, in Of Beren and Lúthien, the book also contains all the best, most formative stories of Tolkien’s mythology of Arda (the term referring to his entire invented world, of which Middle-Earth is but a continent). The Ainulindalë section, in which the world is created by musical worship of God, has a majesty reminiscent of the Book of Revelation. The story of the Elves’ Awakening by the twilit lake of Cuiviénen makes me long for a place of beauty that never was, and sad for the Avari, the so-called “refusers” who stayed behind when their cousins, the Noldor (High Elves), followed Oromë to Valinor, because they dwindled into obscurity and were forgotten (unless they are in fact the later Sindarin “Grey Elves,” which would mean they did not dwindle but forged some great kingdoms of their own, including that of Mirkwood from which comes Legolas). Also Fëanor, greatest of the Noldor and forger of the Silmarils, whose foolish rebellion against the Valar and leading of his people from the paradise of Valinor led only to suffering, anguish, and a deadly curse on his sons that would haunt Elves and Men for centuries. When the fair hidden city of Gondolin fell to a hellish onslaught by Morgoth, my heart ached at Arda’s loss. And so many others…the doom of Túrin Turambar, the travels of Tuor, the terrible battles of Dagor Bragollach and the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the voyage of Eärendil the Mariner, and of course the rise and fall of Númenor.
These stories move me and fascinate me more than even the genuine mythologies of Greece, Rome, the Norse, and the Celts. One reason is that The Silmarillion’s myriad stories have a beautiful unity of theme and purpose concerning the rebellion of Elves against the purposes of Ilúvatar and their eventual redemption by his grace. The theme is drawn from the story of mankind’s own rebellion and redemption in the Holy Bible, and thus has a truly timeless quality.
From Lewis, while this is a tough decision, I shall have to say Perelandra.
The second book of his Space Trilogy, it is essentially Lewis’ take on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, giving homage to that English epic while correcting many of its faults. But Lewis is not bound to the connections with Milton; his subject is the Fall of Man as told in Genesis. What has sin really done to humanity, after all? What might we have been like before our corruption, when we were perfect and in harmony with God and His creation? What is innocence, and can it be cunning? I love especially Lewis’ treatment of the idea of purity. The Lady, representing Eve, is utterly pure and innocent, not knowing evil or perversity in any form. Our modern culture looks condescendingly on these traits as naïve and therefore weaker than worldly wisdom. But Lewis proves otherwise. The Lady fends off the arguments of Satan handily, defeating his logic with the purity of her own and her faith in God. These passages are a delight to read, even as the tension grows because of our concern that Satan may succeed once again, as he did with Adam and Eve.
There are other reasons to love Perelandra. It is science fiction more concerned with theology and mythology than with science. On nearly every page there seems to be a groundbreaking or deeply profound idea. The landscape of the planet is unlike any I have read of before, with its gentle undulations that somehow do not cause seasickness, and the ending is surprisingly and utterly brilliant. There is so much depth and detail in it, that I think I shall need four or five rereads before I begin to understand more fully what Lewis has accomplished in it.
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.