Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Lays of Beleriand by JRR Tolkien

Surprised? You might have expected me to review The Children of Hurin, the most recently-published 'finished' Tolkien book. But instead I have decided to deal with a favourite, one I'm far more familiar with.

The History of Middle-Earth series is a twelve-volume series published over the course of decades, including many intermediate drafts of Tolkien's legendarium together with editorial notes by his son Christopher. Volume 3, The Lays of Beleriand, is the only one I've read from start to finish, and the only one I keep coming back to for pleasure (I have not touched, much less acquired and read, all of the books. Nor do I intend to).

The Lays of Beleriand contains two major and three minor poetic works, supposedly the works of Elven minstrels commemorating great moments in First Age history. They are expansions of stories briefly told in The Silmarillion.

Part I contains “The Lay of the Children of Hurin”, a fuller account of the story of Turin Turambar in Anglo-Saxon style alliterative verse:
For Turgon towering in terrible anger
a pathway clove him with his pale sword-blade
out of that slaughter-- yea, his swath was plain
through the hosts of Hell like hay that lieth
all low on the lea where the long scythe goes.
This poem ceases after 2,275 lines, and then a second, wordier, version starts:

Turgon the terrible towering in anger
a pathway clove with pale falchion
from swirling slaughter. Yea! His swath was plain
through the hosts of Hell, as hay that is laid
on the lea in lines, where long and keen
goes sweeping scythe.
Morgoth curses Hurin
This version runs even shorter than the first, covering the set-up for the Turin story: dragged alive to Angband after the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, his father Hurin is seated on a peak of the mountains to watch Morgoth's curse hound his family into misery and oblivion. Meanwhile, the young Turin is sent to King Thingol in Doriath for fostering by his mother, who is afraid that the new (evil) overlords of their land will enslave or kill him.

It might be interesting to wonder why Tolkien never finished this poem—but of course, there were very few things he ever finished—but my own private opinion is that there is only so much heart-gutting tragedy in harsh alliterative verse anyone can write, when he had much rather be working at other things.

Part II is titled “Poems Early Abandoned” and contains some sketchy beginnings for longer poems that would have commemorated the flight of the Noldor from Valinor, the sack of Gondolin, and the voyage of Earendil. It is interesting that Tolkien does not seem to have made more than a stab at these important moments in the mythology of Middle Earth. He seems to have preferred personal stories, hero-quests or lives, to the cataclysmic events framing those stories.

Fingolfin duels Morgoth
The book's main attraction is Part III, “The Lay of Leithian,” the first draft of which runs for fourteen cantos and 4,220 lines. This is followed by a second draft, which I think to be superior poetry but which only runs for three cantos. It is, of course, the grand epic verse account of a story that was very dear to Tolkien's heart: that of Beren and Luthien.

 In the Quenta Silmarillion, Luthien is the half-Elf, half-Maia daighter of King Thingol, most beautiful of the Children of Iluvatar and the apple of her father's eye. She lives safely in the Elven kingdom of Doriath, the borders of which are protected by the bewildering and mazing enchantments of Luthien's mother Melian. Luthien wanders happily in the forest, singing and dancing by moonlight.
In sunshine and in sheen of moon,
with silken robe and silver shoon,
the daughter of the deathless queen
now danced on the undying green,
half elven-fair and half divine;
and when the stars began to shine
unseen but near a piping woke,
and in the branches of an oak,
or seated on the beech-leaves brown,
Dairon the dark with ferny crown
played with bewildering wizard's art
music for breaking of the heart.
North of Doriath, across the mountains of Ered Gorgoroth (loosely translated from Elvish, this means “The Mountains of Madness!”)* lies a land which, since Morgoth's last victory, has been given to his lieutenant Sauron and renamed Taur-na-Fuin (loosely translates as “Fire Swamp”)**. A colony of Men had once lived here, peacefully farming and trading and ruled over by their lord Barahir, who had saved an Elvenking's life at the Dagor Bragollach (“War of Fire”). Barahir returns to his lands, but is forced to send the women and children to safety (led by his wife, Emeldir the Man-Hearted) and stays on, a dwindling guerilla band. Eventually, the outlaws are caught and murdered by Sauron's troops, leaving just one survivor: Beren the son of Barahir.
The raven and the carrion-crow
sat in the alders all a-row;
one croaked: 'Ha! Beren comes too late',
and answered all: 'Too late! Too late!'

There Beren buried his father's bones,
and piled a heap of boulder-stones,
and cursed the name of Morgoth thrice,
but wept not, for his heart was ice.
After the gruesome murder of everyone he loves, Beren stays on in Taur-na-Fuin fighting a lonely, losing war and incurring the highest price on the head of any of Morgoth's foes apart from the High King of the Noldor himself.

Luthien in Doriath
Soon, however, the hand of Sauron becomes so heavy on Taur-na-Fuin that it becomes a land of nightmares and Beren is forced to flee—south across the Ered Gorgoroth, where after unceasing dangers and multiple battles with giant spiders, he finally reaches the northern borders of Doriath and stumbles in.
Forwandered, wayward, gaunt was he,
his body sick and heart gone cold,
grey in his hear, his youth turned old;
for those that tread that lonely way
a price of woe and anguish pay.
And now his heart was healed and slain
with a new life and with new pain.
After the deaths of his father and all his friends, being forced to watch as a demon turns his home into an abominable wilderness, battling his way through the monsters and sorceries of the Ered Gorgoroth, and finally staggering dizzily through the confusing and no-less-maddening enchantments of Melian the Maia, a grey and haggard Beren stumbles blindly upon the blissful daughter of Thingol and the great epic love story of Middle-Earth is born—a love that will conquer death and one day bring down Morgoth himself.

But first, Beren must win Luthien. When he asks her father for his daughter's hand, King Thingol comes up with a win-win proposition: Beren must go to Angband, the citadel of Morgoth himself, and must bring one Silmaril from the Iron Crown if he wishes to have Luthien. It's a suicide mission, yet if he pulls it off Luthien will marry the greatest mortal hero of Middle-Earth in exchange for the most priceless treasure of Middle-Earth.

After the death of his wife, JRR Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son Christopher:
I have at last got busy about Mummy's grave.....The inscription I should like is:
: brief and jejune, except for Luthien, which says for me more than a multitude of words: for she was (and knew she was) my Luthien.
The Tolkiens' grave
(…) I never called Edith Luthien—but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing—and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.
Tolkien had met and fallen in love with Edith when he was just eighteen, and his guardian wisely forbade him to pursue her until he turned twenty-one.
It was extremely hard, painful and bitter, especially at first […] But I don't think anything else would have justified marriage on the basis of a boy's affair; and probably nothing else would have hardened the will enough to give such an affair (however genuine a case of true love) permanence.
Edith Tolkien
It isn't hard to see how the story of Beren and Luthien grew out of this experience: the deep horror of World War I, a long and painful wait, and the eventual happy ending (or more specifically, beginning). Both the stories grew in the telling: the Tolkiens remained married for the rest of Edith's life, had four children and settled into a comfortable suburban life before being astonishingly catapulted into fame and fortune by the success of The Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile Beren, Luthien, and their heroic giant dog boldly faced Sauron, Morgoth, two sons of Feanor, giant werewolves, and (eventually) death and Mandos.

Alas—the Lay breaks off abruptly at possibly the most exciting point of the story, and Tolkien never finished it. For the rest of the story, you must go to the Silmarillion. But that is only a summary, and I believe the unfinished Lay is the most detailed version of the story currently available. It's a red-blooded, grand poem, written in a richly ornamented style bordering (in places) on the baroque. At worst this seems a little clumsy; at best it fits the lavish, heroic story and setting. After all, this is the amped-up, epic, fantasy-world version of the greatest love of Tolkien's life: if a man can't wax grandiloquent under those conditions, I don't know when he can.
Luthien and Huan
'Farewell now here, ye leaves of trees,
your music in the morning-breeze!
Farewell now blade and bloom and grass
that see the changing seasons pass;
ye waters murmuring over stone,
and meres that silent stand alone!
Farewell now mountain, vale, and plain!
Farewell now wind and frost and rain,
and mist and cloud, and heaven's air;
ye star and moon so blinding-fair
that still shall look down from the sky
on the wide earth, though Beren die--
though Beren die not, and yet deep,
deep, whence comes of those that weep
no dreadful echo, lie and choke
in everlasting dark and smoke.
'Farewell sweet earth and northern sky,
for ever blest, since here did lie,
and here with lissom limbs did run,
beneath the moon, beneath the sun,
Luthien Tinuviel
more fair than mortal tongue can tell.
Though all to ruin fell the world,
and were dissolved and backward hurled
unmade into the old abyss,
yet were its making good, for this –
the dawn, the dusk, the earth, the sea –
that Luthien on a time should be!'

His blade he lifted high in hand,
and challenging alone did stand
before the threat of Morgoth's power;
and dauntless cursed him, hall and tower,
o'ershadowing hand and grinding foot,
beginning, end, and crown and root;
then turned to stride forth down the slope
abandoning fear, forsaking hope.
In addition to the Tolkien poems, The Lays of Beleriand also contains the text of some criticism CS Lewis made on the first draft of The Lay of Leithien. Lewis obviously enjoyed the poem hugely, and threw himself into the game of pretending that the poem was an ancient and well-known one, even quoting a clutch of imaginary Leithien scholars with names like Peabody and Pumpernickel.

* Alright, it really means 'Mountains of Dreadful Horror'.
** Or more accurately, 'Forest Under Nightshade'.

Art Credits:
1. Morgoth Punishes Hurin by Ted Nasmith
2. Fingolfin's Challenge by John Howe
3. Luthien by Anke Eissmann
4. Beren Recovers a Silmaril by Anke Eissmann
5. Luthien and Huan by Karina 'Kasiopeia' Chmiel

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