Some Thoughts on the "Tale of Tinuviel"
Despite the fact that many Toklien fans adore the story of Beren and Luthien, and despite the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien himself adored the story of Beren and Luthien, I've never been much of a fan of that chapter in The Silmarillion. I always feel a little guilty about this. After all, if a story I wrote was to serve as the core of my mythology both in terms of plot and symbolism, and if I loved that story enough to have the protagnonists' names engraved on Bobby's and my headstones, I wouldn't want my readers sneering at that story as I have observed fans doing. Okay, I'll be honest: as I've been known to do myself. And fans of the Beren and Luthien chapter in The Silmarillion talk of it with such breathless wonder that I can almost feel the magic that they see in that story. And I have read it over and over again, trying to find that magic, without much success.
So I'll admit that I wasn't looking forward too much to The Tale of Tinuviel. Of all the "chapters" in the BoLT, it is probably the one I wanted to read the least. I was really surprised, then, when I became thoroughly engrossed in the precursor of a story that I've never liked much.
It feels to me, though, like it fits better in the BoLT than it does in The Silmarillion. "Of Beren and Luthien" has always felt to me like it was written separately from and then inserted into the rest of The Silmarillion. Through most of The Silmarillion, the use of magic is subtle and portrayed (I think) as a mere fact about the world being presented rather than anything particularly notable. Feanor's ability to imbue stones with starlight, Melian and Elwe gazing at each other for years uninterrupted in Nan Elmoth, Celegorm's ability to speak to all beasts, Melian's protective girdle around Doriath, the unlight that Ungoliant creates, Ulmo's visits to Finrod and Turgon in dreams ... all of these things contain a degree of magic, yet they are dealt with largely without fanfare or in any great detail. And we see plenty of instances--for example, the helplessness of the Valar following the Darkening, Feanor on his deathbed, Fingolfin's fall ... literally--when very powerful characters suffer and die in instances where magic would be a convenient way to let the good guys win. So while "magic" exists on Arda, it is not a panacea.
But in "Of Beren and Luthien," the magic portrayed is spectacular and abundant ... and I have always thought, too heavy-handed and much too convenient. Luthien needs to escape her treehouse, so she makes a magic cloak from her hair that puts everyone to sleep. She heals Beren "by her love," how many times? Three? (Well, she isn't wholly successful on the last, but she does manage to move even stalwart Namo into pleading on her behalf for an exception to the laws of fate, so in that way, she is perhaps more successful than before.) Magical disguises as bats and werewolves fool even the most discerning eyes. Dogs talk to Beren and Luthien.
Of course, I'm not naive to the symbolic purpose of the ease with which Beren and Luthien seem to wield such power. But in a story where perhaps the greatest King of the Noldor in Middle-earth dies by tripping and falling, it nonetheless feels a little out of place to me.
In The Tale of Tinuviel, though, the use of magic feels less out-of-place. Why? The hair cloak, love-induced healing, talking dogs, and magical disguises are present in even more florid detail than in "Of Beren and Luthien."
But in the context of the BoLT, this chapter makes better sense to me. BoLT is a story full of magic in a way that The Silmarillion is not. Children wander the Path of Dreams to come to Tol Eressea, houses shrink their occupants, and stars "go blue and bright" to the sound of magical flute music. While the magic of The Silmarillion usually serves a specific point in moving the plot forward, magic decorates the BoLT like icing on a cake: pretty to look at but certainly not foremost functional.
And I'd say also that the level of detail with which magic is dealt in The Tale of Tinuviel compared to "Of Beren and Luthien" actually helps the magic feel more natural. In a footnote to his commentary, CT mentioned Professor T.A. Shippley's discussion of the condensed aspect of "Of Beren and Luthien" The Road to Middle-earth:
'In "Beren and Luthien" as a whole there is too much plot. The other side of that criticism is that on occasion Tolkien has to be rather brisk with his own inventions. Celegorm wounds Beren, and the hound Huan turns on his master and pursues him; "returning he brought to Luthien a herb out of the forest. With that leaf she staunched Beren's wound, and by her arts and her love she healed him...." ... In The Silmarillion it appears only to
be dismissed in two lines, while Beren's wound is inflicted and healed in five. Repeatedly one has this sense of summary...' This sense is eminently justified! In the Lay of Leithian the wounding and the healing with the herb occupy some 64 lines. (Cl. my Foreword to The Silmarillion, p. 8.)
But I think that, for me, the brevity of description surrounding Luthien's most impressive feats contributes a feeling that it just *happens.* One line of The Silmarillion is devoted to the growth of Luthien's hair, her spinning, and her weaving a cloak of it. In The Tale of Tinuviel, more than a page is devoted to the same, with details given on the "lengthening spell" as well as her inspiration by the Valar, the procurement of supplies to make the spells and cloak, and the actual spinning and weaving. It feels like a labor, and one can better appreciate the wisdom and skills Luthien needed to achieve it.
Then there is, as Shippley mentioned, the issue of "too much plot" in "Of Beren and Luthien." I will admit that I felt a bit redeemed to read this: that an expert on Tolkien's mythology felt the same as I with regards to the breakneck speed of "Of Beren and Luthien." The Tale of Tinuviel is, of course, much less involved than the published version in The Silmarillion, and one might argue that the most important elements--the Nargothrond story and Beren's mortality, particularly--are missing. Nonetheless, pacing-wise, I find The Tale of Tinuviel far superior. I had the chance to get immersed in the plot, enjoy the characters more, and marvel at the places JRRT takes us alongside the heroes rather than feeling as though I was being jerked from one life-threatening situation to another.
I never thought I'd recommend this, but I think "Of Beren and Luthien" would have worked far better as a longer portion of The Silmarillion with separate chapters devoted to each of its major components. As it is, I feel that much has been lost between the BoLT and The Silmarillion, and the story has suffered for it.
Finally, there is the issue of characterization. "Of Beren and Luthien" takes a lot of criticism for serving as "the original Mary Sue" in that Luthien is the most beautiful woman in the world, instantly enchanting of the handsome hero, endlessly resourceful and talented, and possessed of powers that no other character can begin to approximate. I have always agreed with this criticism. It has always been my preference that my characters possess some flaws. Neither Beren or Luthien have any in The Silmarillion, and they don't seem human for it.
Which, I know, is part of the point. Since I argue that Tolkien's works to be read as pieces of historical lore rather than a complete account by an ominscient and omnipresent narrator, then I can't escape here without mentioning how this approach would have affected the story. I wholly acknowledge that "Of Beren and Luthien"--much of which occurred without the witness of anyone save our intrepid heroes and a handful of bad guys--was probably largely the invention of a loremaster taken with the history and prone to embellishment. At times, I think it might be fun to write a Beren and Luthien story as it might really have been, but I get over that pretty quickly. The idea of developing at least a novella around my least favorite Silmarillion chapter and then enduring the inevitable whining about how I have effectively destroyed the magic of the original does not appeal to me for long.
But however fitting "Of Beren and Luthien" might be as a historical account, it makes it no less satisfying for me as a reader, even if it is not a shortcoming of the author so much as the form in which he has chosen to write. I was quite surprised, then, to find that I did not immediately dislike Beren or Luthien. Actually, I now feel a tentative affection for their early Tale of Tinuviel characters. They are young and sometimes foolish. They make decisions without much of a clue how they will turn out. And they do regretable things:
Lo, the king [Thingol] had been distraught with grief and had relaxed his ancient wariness and cunning; indeed his warriors had been sent hither and thither deep into the unwholesome woods searching for that maiden [Luthien], and many had been slain or lost for ever, and war there was with Melko's servants about all their northern and eastern borders ...
As I read this, I couldn't help but to think of the families of the warriors lost and how they felt to forsake their husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers to secure the love of two lovesick teenagers, and before I knew it, the plotbunnies were nibbling.
I laughed at the thought of Luthien squatting on the ledge where Beren could more easily hear her voice and I wanted to smack Beren for his stupidity in jumping in front of her and offering the Silmaril (and his hand) to Carcharoth when Luthien possessed the power to enspell the wolf. I thought it was really cute when she and Daeron play together in the woods, and she hides in the grass and teases Beren from inside her father's halls. The characters come alive in this early story in a way they never have for me in "Of Beren and Luthien," try as I might to love them as some do (as JRRT did), when they feel more like mythical figures than real humans worth empathizing with.
It was with some reluctance that I recently acquired HoMe 3, The Lays of Beleriand, mostly because I have the e-books for the entire HoMe and so feel ethically obligated to purchase all of the books as well. I am slowly finishing up my collection, and Lays--I will admit--was something I assumed I'd read for the HoMe reading, then forget about. After all, its crucial component is the Lay of Leithian, I'm not very fond of poetry, and not fond of "Of Beren and Luthien" either. So a poem about the same ...? Yet somehow, I find myself looking forward to reading it a bit more now.