Before Aragorn and Arwen crossed the boundary of race in The Lord of the Rings, there was Beren and Luthien, the original human man and Elven woman who fell in love.
Set during the epochal First Age, long before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, this legendary tale of daring romance sees Beren attempt to earn the approval of Luthien and her Elven kin, which eventually takes them into direct conflict with the Dark Lord, Morgoth (whom Sauron was merely a servant to).
It’s a story that not all Middle-earth fans know well, as it never received its own publication like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Instead, it lay within J.R.R. Tolkien’s extensive notes for his iconic world. Readers were only able to experience it when Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, dug through his father’s drafts and put the lore together for such releases as The Silmarillion, and The Lays of Beleriand.
The prospect of an entire book dedicated to this seminal tale stirred up a lot of fans’ interest, especially those who previously had never taken the dive into the wealth of backstory behind Middle-earth. A new novel, and what, for many, is a brand new story set in a world whose author has been deceased for a few decades is sure to turn a few heads. The Geekiverse’s own Pete Herr—who read The Lord of the Rings before the rest of the crew were born—was in that crowd of the intrigued.
Anyone who picks up Beren and Luthien should know one key detail ahead of time, however. This isn’t your traditional novel; in fact, it’s not much of a novel, at all.
The book serves more as a guide to the evolution of the story that Tolkien wrote for the titular characters. His work on the tale spanned much of his lifetime, and there were numerous versions of it along the way, none of which quite became a complete, definitive narrative. Beren and Luthien attempts to construct that full story by bringing all of these iterations together between two covers.
The different accounts are pieced together by Christopher Tolkien’s commentary on what may very well have been his father’s most treasured work. As he elaborates on the history of his father’s efforts, indicating where, when, and why various developments were made over the course of decades, his own reverence for the story shrines through. Being that J.R.R. Tolkien’s relationship with his wife, Edith, was the basis for Beren and Luthien’s tale, this collection must have been a very personal work for Christopher Tolkien, as the original was for his father.
Christopher Tolkien’s evident passion will make you wish he weren’t so reluctant to take some liberties with this publication. He’s proven more than worthy of handling his father’s extensive world building, particularly with 2007’s The Children of Hurin, where he took a story that his father had only written as poem and as a more of a historical account (as part of The Silmarillion) and expanded it into a prose novel.
If any story out of the Middle-earth legendarium deserved such treatment, it was probably the one of Beren and Luthien; to instead end up with what is essentially a documentary in print form feels like a missed opportunity.
Along with a few new pieces of artwork by Alan Lee, Christopher Tolkien’s pieces of commentary are the only never-before-seen parts of this publication. The different iterations of the story have all appeared in previous releases, including The History of Middle-earth series, The Lays of Beleriand, and The Silmarillion. To have each and every last piece of Tolkien’s work on this particular story all under one flap for the first time may be enticing for some Middle-earth diehards, as well as those fans who have never looked into Tolkien’s posthumous publications, but for most, this will feel like an unsatisfying way to commemorate what is certainly one of the most beautiful legends penned by Tolkien.
Most readers will be better off experiencing it (and the rest of the history of the First Age) in The Silmarillion, where its brief prose form appears, and especially in The Lays of Beleriand, where it is told with much greater detail in the form of a lengthy narrative poem. The Lay of Beren and Luthien, as it is titled, will enlighten newer Tolkien fans as to what a brilliant poet he was. He may very well have been even more skilled writing in verse than in prose.
FINAL SCORE – 6.5/10
Jeff Pawlak is one of many Middle-earth fanatics on the Geekiverse, maybe the biggest of them all (he did beat co-founder Josiah in a match of Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit) He’s an aspiring fantasy author, himself, so Tolkien’s works are held in the highest regard by him. Find him on Twitter @JeffreyPavs
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