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Beren and Luthien

A 2017/10/11 nondream book review by Wayan

Beren and Luthien is Christopher Tolkien's last book, tracing his famous father's evolving conceptions of his core myth, an interspecies romance. Christopher painstakingly traces its growth through a dozen versions, none full-length--either mere summaries or aborted full treatments.

The biggest revelation for me: JRR Tolkien's publishers pressed for a sequel to The Hobbit--but not for the reasons Tolkien thought. An error in the mailroom separated his Silmarillion manuscripts (his tales of Middle Earth before he began The Lord of the Rings) into fragments that different editors read, with understandable bafflement, guaranteeing rejection. A rejection that Tolkien didn't know was based on no one having actually read his full submission. Cover of 'Beren and Luthien', compiled by Christopher Tolkien.

Talk about the Valar intervening! I knew the publishers had to prod Tolkien to try The Lord of the Rings, but I had no idea anyone prodded the publishers to ensure they'd reject the older tales. Who sabotaged the manuscript? The angels of literature, I guess. The most popular book in the twentieth century was commissioned by... mistake?

Wise mistake. I still regret we have no complete version of Luthien. And yet its outline suggests an insurmountable structural problem: how to sustain the magical, elegiac tone needed to describe their hard-earned afterlife up-close and personal, as opposed to brief mention in a ballad or myth. Tolkien couldn't figure out how a couple changed by their unworldly experiences could live in this world after visiting heaven. Bodhisattvas don't have it easy! Existing drafts of Beren's and Luthien's afterlives concern tribal raiding and family squabbles over the Silmaril as if it's an ordinary heirloom. So their second life, even in Tolkien's later more evolved conception of it, is best seen from afar, in glimpses--as it is, eventually, in Lord of the Rings. They belong in a ballad, not a novel.

Indeed the more I read of Tolkien's tales of the First Age, the more I feel he's successfully captured ancient Nordic and Finnish tribalism--a mind-set deeply alien to his contemporaries. The tales are wild, full of Kalevalan magic, Icelandic strangeness, primeval landscapes where anything can happen--Mythago Wood, as Robert Holdstock called it. But... they're truly tribal too. Narrow. Before Earendil the Mariner, who ends the First Age, no one thinks of all Middle-Earth's people as a whole, let alone acts in their interest.

And that responsibility is at the core of Lord of the Rings. It's fascinating that Tolkien had to be, well, manipulated into tackling that theme, and did so thinking (as his letters make clear) that hobbits were less promising than his ancient tribal heroes.

We do know how those First Age tales would feel, had Tolkien stayed focused on them. Wagner mined exactly the same myths, and hit gold; but his Ring was cursed, feeding Nazi tribalism. It wasn't just his personal antisemitism; Teutonic tribal myth lends itself dangerously well to racism and war.

Mundane critics charge Lord of the Rings with escapism or immaturity, but its heroes, despite daily lives steeped in ethnocentrism, racism, class snobbery, sexism and specism inevitable in their low-tech world (after all, their 'races', unlike ours, really are different in body, mind & soul; difference at a species level), rise morally at their peak moments to see the common good; and sacrifice all for it. In contrast, the First Age heroes are mere athletes, or, at their best (Beren and Luthien) romantics. Just add incest and fire-music, and you have Wagner. In contrast, The Lord of the Rings captures real, modern, morally mature heroism--of everyday people.

But to achieve that, Tolkien apparently had to be denied what he wanted--to play in the fields of Northern myth. He had to be... set up. Just as Bilbo's creator set him up to meet Gollum in the dark; as he set up Gandalf the Grey to meet Thorin Oakenshield in an inn eighty years before. As he set up Beren to meet Luthien in a glade six thousand years before. By chance.

This accident that shaped Tolkien's life echoes his fiction; his own concept of miracles. Hobbit-size miracles. As a shaman I applaud such efficient angels, Greek gods... Valar. One little clerical error to break up The Silmarillion's package, and... Well played!

"A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle Earth."


Am I really suggesting that literal angels intervened to sabotage Tolkien's life-arc to create The Lord of the Rings? If you construe angels very broadly. The method certainly is consistent with my own lifelong experience as a shaman--at vital forks in time I manifest small unlikely things, never spectacularly violating physics, yet skewing the odds to my benefit (though not always toward the path I expected).

It's equally consistent with Tolkien's own worldview--the world as an epic story told by a Creator who can't allow gross miracles here-and-now because those'd weaken the moral consequences of our actions--spoil the tale with too much magic, a problem faced by any creator of fantasy worlds. Don't oversalt the soup; you can't unsalt it.

But a subtle touch really brings out the flavor.

LISTS AND LINKS: writers and writing - Tolkien & Middle Earth - angels & miracles - shamanic dreams - Tolkien's student Diana Wynne Jones also experienced the real-life Magic of Writing - rants and essays - Tales of the Waking World - a dream of Beren and Luthien's legend, Ann-Thenath

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