Beren and Lúthien. Detail of an illustration by Alan Lee. Photo Credit: Mifflin Harcourt
Would The Lord of the Rings have been so popular if Sauron had remained Tevildo Prince of Cats? Would Beren have kept his dignity if he’d stayed a gnome, and sneaked past the gates of the enemy disguised as a giant cat, with Lúthien pulling his tail for fun?
The publication in June of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien, which prompts such questions, is bound to prove a little bewildering. Possibly the last of Christopher Tolkien’s editions of his father’s works, it is not an expansion of an episode from The Silmarillion, as was The Children of Húrin (2007). Nor is it a previously unpublished work, such as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) and The Fall of Arthur (2013). Instead, Beren and Lúthien is a collection of fragments, both in poetry and in prose, which, like fossils, outline the earliest forms and evolution of one of Middle-earth’s most important tales.
Illustrated by Alan Lee, it is a fitting conclusion to the posthumous library of one of the world’s most beloved authors. It is also, with its stuttering revisions and occasional silliness, a stern reminder that J.R.R. Tolkien is truly gone, despite the many treasures Christopher Tolkien has shown us since his father’s death.
Beren and Lúthien’s story of love and sacrifice is, as I described in another article, central both to Tolkien’s legendarium and to his own marriage, and anchors a body of work compared to which, bafflingly, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were considered distractions. There is nothing in Beren and Lúthien that has not already been published elsewhere, as its preface confesses. Nor among its passages is there the polish, or the cohesiveness, of the final version of the episode, which takes place at the very heart of The Silmarillion.
As for Tolkien’s poetry, which is written in rhyming couplets, it is but a callow shadow of his full-fledged prose. The promise is there, but it flickers rather than shines, as though awaiting the ignition of later years. In describing Beren’s wanderings in a revision of the Lay of Leithian, he writes
Through moor and fen, by tree and briar
he wandered far: he saw the fire
of Sauron’s camp, he heard the howl
of hunting Orc and wolf a-prowl,
and turning back, for long the way,
benighted in the forest lay.
It is not the best poetry in the world, even for the most dedicated admirers of Tolkien’s work. And yet he wrote thousands upon thousands of such lines, revising and revising, and putting down layer after layer of the history that would give his published works such depth.
For those unlikely ever to wade through the twelve volumes of lore and revisions contained in the History of Middle-earth, there are several details from the earlier drafts contained in Beren and Lúthien that the general reader will find worthwhile.
For instance, Beren was not a mortal man originally, but an elf—one of the Noldoli, which Tolkien had once called gnomes (a designation he wisely revoked). Many of the personal names are different, or have yet to be perfected. Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the appearance of Tevildo Prince of Cats—a demonic feline who is essentially a precursor to Sauron, and who was expunged not only from later versions of the tale, but from the entire mythology of Middle-earth.
In the beginning, Beren and Lúthien showed elements of an etiological fairytale—the kind of story that explains why things are so (in this case why cats hate dogs, and are generally so dislikable). The Tale of Tinúviel, hailing from at least 1916, describes how Tinúviel (Lúthien), and Huan, Captain of Dogs, tricked Tevildo and his cat-warriors, freed Beren, and earned them the scorn of Melko (later Melkor, or Morgoth):
Indeed afterward Melko heard all and he cursed Tevildo and his folk and banished them, nor have they since that day had lord or master or any friend, and their voices wail and screech for their hearts are very lonely and bitter and full of loss, yet there is only darkness therein and no kindness.
It’s an eccentric origin for the story, as cats have no real presence in Tolkien’s works. The only cat in The Lord of the Rings was in Frodo’s rendition of “Hey Diddle Diddle” at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. Dogs appear more often, including in the children’s stories Roverandom and FarmerGiles of Ham. Huan remained in The Silmarillion, where he became the Hound of the Valar, and died fighting the Silmaril-devouring wolf Carcharoth, who in The Tale of Tinúviel is called Karkaras. There are dogs at Beorn’s house in The Hobbit, and Farmer Maggot’s three dogs in The Lord of the Rings, which terrified Frodo growing up. For the most part, comparison to dogs in the text indicates servility, describing most often Gollum, but also, at least twice, Sam Gamgee.
Tolkien never had any pets that we know of, and it’s hard to imagine him letting any lie among his books—unlike Raymond Chandler with his cat, or Ernest Hemingway with his dog. Of all domesticated animals, horses and ponies receive the most attention in his books. It can be assumed, however, that he wasn’t big on feline companionship, judging not only from Tevildo and his legacy, but also from one of his letters, where he referred to them as “the fauna of Mordor”. Cats have had a precarious go of it in fantasy, at least until Lloyd Alexander.
Beren and Lúthien is a handsome showpiece of a book, but its writing is much more in line with The Silmarillion than with The Lord of the Rings. As such, it will likely not be read cover-to-cover by anyone who has not already examined its material in The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two and elsewhere. Its appeal is to reverence, and in the heft of a new Tolkien hardcover.
Beren (whose name, along with Lúthien’s, is on Tolkien’s gravestone) was the one Man in Middle-earth who returned from death for a time, whose works continued, but who was never seen again by mortal eyes. It is more than proper then that Beren and Lúthien be the last of the many posthumous works of Tolkien, who is missed and yet lives again with every new generation of fans.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com