Beren and Lúthien by Christopher Tolkien

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The National, June 2017

It’s a new story in the Lord of the Rings universe, except it’s 100 years old. Beren and Lúthien, first conceived by JRR Tolkein in 1917, is the tale of a mortal man who must undertake a seemingly impossible quest to gain the hand of an immortal elf. Set in the Middle Earth that would become famous decades later as the setting for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien tinkered away at the story throughout his life, and now his son, 92-year-old Christopher, has edited a new version.

Of course, The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular stories ever written, but it’s difficult to imagine Beren and Lúthien will appeal to anyone other than true completists. Christopher Tolkien has form for an academic approach to his father’s work – he edited the extensive history of the The Silmarillion, in which Beren and Lúthien featured, and here extracts the story so that it stands alone.

In the introduction, Tolkien admits that there are “some archaisms of word and construction” to his father’s story, originally titled The Tale of Tinuviel, and, tellingly, “an extremely individual style”. Problem is, in 2017, the language is alienating, almost wilfully arcane, and nothing like the flowing fantasy style he would perfect in The Lord of the Rings. It’s difficult to take a story seriously when there are sentences such as “behold, Melko espieth Tinuviel and saith: “who art though that flittest about my halls like a bat?” Tinuviel can’t just dislike insects, we learn that “she loved not beetles”.

If the intention is to impart a historical, timeless feel, then such language makes sense. But it makes a rather slight story dense, impenetrable and stodgy. The remaining two thirds of the book feature connected passages from other manuscripts, which put the evolution of the narrative into some sort of context. It’s the poetry from The Lay of Leithian which is the most successful – the rhythm, pacing and description perfect for a fantasy setting of “foul spirits” and “evil shuddering”.

So why is Beren and Lúthien so interesting? Because JRR Tolkien referred to the story as the “kernel” of The Lord of the Rings mythology. Reading it is like watching a prequel foreshadowing a famous blockbuster – and there’s enjoyment to be had in joining the dots in characters and worlds. But if you come to Beren and Lúthien without that prior knowledge… well, you may be put off by The Lord of the Rings for life.

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