Mid­dle-earth’s great­est love story … kind of

A com­pi­la­tion of es­says and re­vi­sions of an an­cient Mid­dle-earth leg­end.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Culture - Re­view by A. ASOHAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife Edith are buried at Wolver­cote Ceme­tery in Ox­ford. In­scribed be­low their own names on their head­stones are the names “Beren” and “Luthien”.

Tolkien gave us the fan­tasy clas­sics The Hob­bit and The Lord Of The Rings, but th­ese were mere snapshots of the whole world and mythol­ogy he cre­ated for Mid­dle-earth.

Years af­ter his death, his son Christo­pher com­piled some of his fa­ther’s ear­lier writ­ings and notes, and to­gether with Guy Gavriel Kay – the Cana­dian who is now a suc­cess­ful fan­tasy writer in his own right – got The Sil­mar­il­lion pub­lished.

This was, in essence, Mid­dle-earth’s “Bi­ble”, re­count­ing its cre­ation myth and the his­tory of the First Age, or the El­der Days. (The events of Tolkien’s two more fa­mous books, by con­trast, took place mil­len­nia later in the Third Age).

The Sil­mar­il­lion was an eye-opener for many Tolkien fans be­cause it gave so much more depth and sub­stance to the ref­er­ences to by­gone eras only hinted at in The Hob­bit and The Lord Of The Rings.

In fact, for some of us, it was Tolkien’s best work. If you can get past the ele­giac tone that he chose – or, be­cause of it – it is an awe-in­spir­ing col­lec­tion of sto­ries that prac­ti­cally sing of high hero­ism, myth, magic, tragedy, and sor­row.

Some caveats: If your only ex­po­sure to Tolkien is the Peter Jack­son sil­ver screen adap­ta­tion, this book would not be of any in­ter­est to you. If you came to Tolkien’s writ­ing later in life, af­ter hav­ing waded through hordes of copy­cat fan­tasy books and thus did not see any­thing par­tic­u­larly unique in The Lord Of The Rings, then you would want to give this a skip too.

Two of the long­est chap­ters in The Sil­mar­il­lion are “Of Beren and Luthien” and “Of Turin Tu­ram­bar”, but it’s ob­vi­ous that it was the for­mer that most res­onated with Tolkien’s own life and love.

It is also a key­stone of Mid­dle-earth his­tory, and a love story of which the tale of Aragorn and Ar­wen in the Third Age – col­lected in an ap­pen­dix in The Lord Of The Rings and also seen in the Jack­son movie tril­ogy – is merely a pale echo.

Tolkien first met his wife-to-be when he was a mere 16, and she, 19. Both were or­phans then, and their guardians were against the re­la­tion­ship. But Tolkien and Edith per­se­vered in their courtship, and fi­nally got mar­ried five years later in 1913.

He never made it a se­cret that the raven­haired Edith was his muse for both Luthien and Ar­wen.

In the ver­sion of the tale in The Sil­mar­il­lion, Beren was a mere man while Luthien was an im­mor­tal – her fa­ther was the great el­ven king Thin­gol and her mother was Melian, a ver­i­ta­ble demigod­dess.

And yes, Thin­gol was against the re­la­tion­ship, and de­manded that Beren prove him­self by get­ting one of the three “sil­mar­ils” – gems that car­ried the light of cre­ation within them – held by the orig­i­nal dark lord, Mor­goth. The con­se­quences of that quest would echo through mil­len­nia.

In 2007, Christo­pher Tolkien stitched his fa­ther’s notes into a new novel, The Chil­dren Of Hurin, which re­counts the tragic tale of Turin Tu­ram­bar in full form.

Most read­ers were ex­pect­ing some­thing sim­i­lar when HarperCollins an­nounced more than a year ago that it would be pub­lish­ing Beren And Luthien, which Mid­dleearth “his­to­ri­ans” will tell you comes from the Elves’ long­est poem, the Lay Of Lei­thian.

The fact that the book would be il­lus­trated by Alan Lee, the artist whose work many feel most ac­cu­rately re­flects Tolkien’s vi­sion, threat­ened to send fans into a frenzy.

In­stead, Beren And Luthien is a col­lec­tion of Tolkien’s many re­vi­sions – both prose and poetry – as well as es­says and notes from his son.

That’s dis­ap­point­ing, ac­tu­ally. Firstly, most of the ear­lier ver­sions cast Beren as another elf, and the min­gling of El­dar (the elves) and Edain (the “high men”) blood that forms so much of Mid­dle-earth’s DNA is thus miss­ing.

Se­condly, just about all the manuscripts and re­vi­sions have been pub­lished in the mul­ti­vol­ume The His­tory Of Mid­dle-earth (Allen & Un­win, 1983 to 1996), so there’s noth­ing re­ally new here. Beren And Luthien merely col­lects them all in one place.

Sure, the Lee art­work – I pre­fer the sketches to his wa­ter­colours here, for some rea­son – is a sell­ing point.

And sure, the poetry is beau­ti­ful and stir­ring, in an Ice­landic saga kind of way, but mostly would only ap­peal to the most ar­dent and aca­demic of Mid­dle-earth afi­ciona­dos.

Not that there aren’t any of those, mind you, but it does mean that one of the great­est tales of Mid­dle-earth – and un­doubt­edly its great­est love story – has not got its proper and fully-de­served nov­el­i­sa­tion.

And given that Christo­pher Tolkien, the guardian of his fa­ther’s lit­er­ary legacy, is nearly 93 years old, it may never get it.

Now that’s a greater tragedy than the tale of Turin Tu­ram­bar.

Author: Ed­i­tor: Pub­lisher:

J.R.R. Tolkien Christo­pher Tolkien HarperCollins, high fan­tasy

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1967. — AP

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