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Beren and Lúthien Kindle Edition
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1. This is NOT a single-narrative novel. It is not even a pieced-together story like The Children of Hurin.
2. THIS IS a collection of incomplete manuscripts and manuscript extracts that JRRT wrote over the course of many years as he struggled (unsuccessfully) to set out in full the tale of Beren and Luthien. Son and editor Christopher Tolkien has selected the material presented here to show how his father's conception of the story evolved over time. This is the point of the book.
3. All of the manuscript material included here has been published before in various volumes of The History of Middle Earth. Nothing new is included.
4. This IS the story that was closest to Tolkien's heart, and it is the great tragedy of his career that he never finished a full-length version. He made several substantial efforts in poetry and prose and simple summaries only to abandon each one. With each effort he changed the storyline and the details. Most notably Beren went from being an elf to being a man. Out of all this, Christopher Tolkien pieced together one of the longest chapters in The Silmarillion. In this book, he provided a dedicated illustration of the complexities with which he had to contend.
No one will ever KNOW the story of Beren and Luthien because JRRT never worked it out himself. Readers of this book, however, will take away some understanding of how the Professor worked on his legend off and on through the years.
Beren was a mortal Man who after many adventures and hardships wandered through a mysterious wood in Beleriand, a large realm in the West of Middle-earth defended by Elves and Men against the tyranny of the Dark Lord Morgoth and his minions. Beren came across a beautiful woman dancing in a glade filled with white flowers. She was Luthien, daughter of King Thingol of the Elves. They fell in love, but King Thingol refused to allow them to marry unless they brought him a Silmaril, one of three magical gems crafted in Valinor across the Sea but stolen by Morgoth centuries earlier. Their Quest, its fulfillment, and Beren and Luthien's ultimate fate make up the Tale, which became a center piece of Tolkien's mythology. He referred to Beren and Luthien several times in The Lord of the Rings (whose characters Aragorn and Arwen are descendants of and counterparts to Beren and Luthien), and eventually a version of the Tale was included in The Silmarillion, which was completed by Tolkien's son Christopher and published in 1977. Later Christopher Tolkien was to edit and publish the twelve volume History of Middle-earth, which includes several more versions of the Tale in both prose and poetic forms.
In this beautiful book we have the Tale itself in several of its versions beginning with the Tale of Tinuviel, which was written in the early years of Tolkien's development of his mythology and which contains some elements which were later discarded or drastically altered. For example,a major villain in The Tale of Tinuviel is Tevildo Prince of Cats, who was later to become Sauron, the chief servant of Morgoth. There are extracts from an early poetic version, The Lay of Leithian as well as from other versions written by Tolkien at various times during his life. Most if not all of this material has already been published in The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth, but having it all available in one volume is very valuable. In addition, Christopher Tolkien has provided an extensive Preface, some Notes on The Elder Days, and more introductory material on the Tale itself. These will be invaluable to experienced Tolkien scholars as well as those who might not be as familiar with the wider range of Middle-earth material. An additional pleasure are the nine illustrations in full color plates provided by Alan Lee, one of the most well-known and talented artists at work depicting Tolkien's worlds today. His paintings have an ethereal quality that absolutely befit their subject.
Since there is very little previously unpublished material in Beren and Luthien some might wonder whether a separate volume is worthwhile. I can assure them that the careful production and attention to detail in extracting one narrative from a very rich fabric makes this book highly desirable. Additionally, Christopher Tolkien notes in his Preface that as he is now in his ninety-third year this is "presumptively" his last edition of his father's writings after over forty years of labor. He also writes that "the tale is chosen in memoriam" because it played such a strong part in his father's life and marriage, therefore it can be considered one of Tolkien's most personal stories. Tolkien himself made reference to his attachment to this Tale shortly after Edith's death in 1971. He wrote to his son Christopher about that spring day in Roos, saying that she was the "chief source" of what was to become a major part of his legendarium. Today J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt Tolkien are buried beneath a single headstone carved with their names and dates and "Beren" and "Luthien."
This is not the book I was expecting. The quote that appears in my headline is straight out of the preface. And indeed the rest of the preface goes on to attempt to answer that question. In short, the goal was to get all of the existing revisions of Beren and Luthien into one place. This is very different from the purpose of The Children of Hurin. And the resulting product is a very different kind of reading.
If you have studied the History of Middle Earth series (and if you are considering the purchase of THIS book, you are almost certainly aware of them to some extent) then you already know that the major literary work of Christopher Tolkien's life has been to find a way to get all of the fragments of his father's writing, at all stages of his life, sorted out into chronological order and published with extensive commentary to show how his father's conception of the world, the languages, and the tales themselves changed over time.
Regrettably, very few of those tales were ever completed, and fewer still were completed at a stage that was compatible with his final conception of Middle Earth as seen in the Lord of the Rings.
Many of us, myself included, were fascinated by the Histories. They served a great purpose. And they curiously straddled an unusual divide: the meticulous level of documentation could be of interest only to scholars and historians, but they also contained the last bits of story that fans desperately wanted to read, even in their incomplete forms.
But sometimes.... you just want to read a cohesive story. Isn't that ultimately what we started this journey for? The story moved us. It's a tribute to the power of Tolkien's stories that we also wanted to "see how the sausage was made." Sadly, the last bits of even semi-completed narrative, that were also compatible with the published version of The Lord of the Rings, were published in 1980 in Unfinished Tales.
Until, that is - the publication of The Children of Hurin in 2007. It was a gift from above. Finally, we had one of the tales of the Elder Days definitively re-edited into a single, cohesive narrative, simply readable as a story - without constantly being interrupted to explain which folio the next three sentences were taken from, and why they are preferred over the pencil-erased version in the margins of an earlier notepad. I'm sure many of us believed that Beren and Luthien was to follow that model. It does not. This, to put it lightly, dashed my hopes. The book I hoped this would be, does not exist, and will never exist. Apparently the remaining fragments of text needed to complete a long-form prose version of this story were either never written, or Christopher Tolkien does not think them worthy of publication. Frankly, I don't think the marketing material was suitably clear on this. And that is my essential criticism.
The contents of the book are themselves wonderful. However, every word of it was taken from the first five volumes of The Histories. If you have those books, then you have no need (other than aesthetic) for this book. If you have not been introduced to those books, then you might be taken aback by the nature of this one.
This book really only serves three purposes:
1) It DOES succeed in making it much easier to follow the development of this one particular tale, outside of its possibly-overwhelming context. Yes. Having all of the material from the histories in one place makes researching the transition of Tevildo, Prince of Cats into Sauron, the Dark Lord in training much easier. (For example). It does not however give any new insight, since you've already read it in The Book of Lost Tales II.
2) It DOES look beautiful on a bookshelf full of other special editions of Tolkien's work. This point is not trivial to me, nor to some of you. We are readers. We consider a well-bound book to be a work of art.
3) As with The Children of Hurin, it contains a number of beautiful paintings by Alan Lee. These are worth seeing, and certainly won't be available in the mass market version.
tl;dr: I'm happy to have this book. I'm sad that it doesn't contain new material or a final cohesive narrative.