Going in to read The Tale of Beren and Lúthien after reading novels like The Children of Húrin meant my expectations were different to that of the work that I found.
I had anticipated a continuous running story but what we were given was a lot more important than that.
It would have been easy for Christopher Tolkien, as third son of J.R.R Tolkien and editor of his posthumous work, to hand-wave the gaps in the work and decide on the nature of the finished product from his father’s various notes. You might almost think that was his right.
Christopher Tolkien has already been responsible for editing the vast amount of unpublished material connected to the Middle-earth Legendarium that Tolkien produced in his lifetime.
Christopher Tolkien edited an edition of The Silmarillion for publication in 1977, followed by Unfinished Tales in 1980, and The History of Middle-earth between 1983 and 1996. Latest to be published has been The Children of Húrin in 2007 and now The Tale of Beren and Lúthien.
However, for most of these works, Tolkien’s original work was at a relatively complete stage. With Beren and Lúthien, that was not the case.
What Christopher Tolkien decided to do with Beren and Luthien not only brought their story to life but also that of his father’s journey writing his Legendarium.
You can see the scope of J.R.R Tolkien’s skill as an author as prose passages and epic poetry passages sit side-by-side. It is a shame this was cut short at the expense of the public’s desire for more about Hobbits (although, of course, Hobbits are my favourite too so I would have been equally guilty!).
Of the story of Beren and Lúthien itself, it lived up to expectations. Tolkien himself regarded the tale as one of the three great tales of the First Age (alongside The Children of Húrin, and The Fall of Gondolin) so there was quite a high bar for this one.
If The Children of Húrin read like a classic tragedy, this read like the most beautiful of fairy tales.
Although absent from later versions of the tale, I was most struck by Tevildo the “Prince of Cats” and the whole sections of Beren stuck as servant to Tevildo and Lúthien rescuing him rang true with all my favourite Arthurian-style medieval legends.
Lúthien is also a remarkably realised (if fantastical) heroine. Although Tolkien’s original published work is low on female characters, his wider Legendarium is populated with as many strong women of myth as there are men of legend.
The story felt like a timeless one and this sense was aided by the way Christopher Tolkien pieced it together from different versions, like a historian would a medieval text.
If you love Tolkien’s work, or just love knowing how a story comes into being, then this is for you.