If the story of Turin is Tolkien’s most bleak and unflinching, Beren and Luthien’s is his most celebrated, and we’re finally getting the whole thing next year. The novella Beren and Lúthien (2017) will be published exactly 100 years since Tolkien’s wife Edith danced for him in a woodland glade in East Yorkshire (1917), inspiring a tale that meant so much to him that he had the names Beren and Luthien engraved on his headstone. It’s the romance between mortal man and immortal elf — the precedent for Aragorn and Arwen in Lord of the Rings — in which Lúthien’s father, the elvish King, opposes their relationship to the extent that he gives Beren a suicidal task to perform if he wants to marry her. Beren fulfills the task against every appalling odd, but dies for his efforts, and though granted a comeback by the Valar, prompts Luthien to give up her immortality in order to share some years with him before they both pay the price of a final death. It’s one of the best fantasy tales of all time, but like the Grey Havens in The Lord of the Rings, the epilogue is sometimes passed over in favor of thrilling perils on the isle of Sauron and in the throne hall of Morgoth. The fate of Beren and Luthien says a lot about how Tolkien felt about death and what comes after.
The story begins about 20 years before Turin’s does, and is prefaced before that by the Dagor Bragollach (“The Battle of Sudden Flame”) in the same way that Turin’s is by the Nírnaeth Arnoediad (“Battle of Unnumbered Tears”). Both battles are dire. Morgoth decimates the elves and men at every turn, which is foreordained since evil is mightier than good in pagan Middle-Earth, and the elves “did not understand that their war upon Morgoth was without final hope”. In the case of the Dagor Bragollach, its aftermath is even more cruel. The elvish high king Fingolfin, enraged at the devastating slaughter of his people, goes to Angband alone and demands Morgoth face him in single combat (see image, below left). He gives a good fight but is crushed in one of The Silmarillion’s most dramatic passages — a scene I hope to see filmed someday.
This sets the stage for Beren. With the house of Beor (the first house of men) annihilated, only a dozen outlaws remain to harry Morgoth’s agents in the Dorthonian mountains. Their hideout is Tarn Aeluin (see image, below right), a clear blue mountain lake that has holy power tracing back to elder days. Not that it does them any good. One of the men is captured by Sauron, who promises to reunite him with his wife if he reveals the hideout’s location. The man tells him in desperation, to which Sauron laughs and says he can indeed join his wife in death, for he had actually killed her, and so kills him too. The outlaws are then routed and slaughtered, except for Beren who happens to be away.
What follows is The Silmarillion’s most precious story: Beren flees the mountains and enters the enchanted forest of Doriath. He comes upon the elven princess Luthien dancing in the glade (see image, below left). They fall in love — the first romance ever between elf and man — and plea their union to Luthien’s father, King Thingol, who is enraged at Beren’s presumption, and so gives him the impossible task of bearding Morgoth in his den and stealing one of the three Silmaril gems. This is a task he willingly takes on, enlisting the help of Finrod Felagund (the elf king of Nargothrond), who famously tries to sing down Sauron at the haunted isle of Tol Sirion. But Sauron’s songs have the deadlier power, and both Finrod and Beren are thrown into a pit. Luthien, meanwhile, chases after them on the back of Huan the Hound, who kills all of Sauron’s wolves and then defeats Sauron himself in wolf form, liberating the isle of Tol Sirion, while Sauron flees in the form of a vampire. The rescue operation isn’t in time to save Finrod, who has died from torture in the pit. Eventually, Beren and Luthien continue alone to Angband, the most perilous hell on earth, and in Morgoth’s throne room Luthien paralyzes him by enchantments, while Beren pries a Silmaril from his crown. They flee the hall, but are confronted by the werewolf Caracharoth (see image, below right) who bites off Beren’s hand and swallows the Silmaril gem — driving the werewolf ferociously insane and making him go on a killing rampage: “he slew all living things that stood in his path, and burst from the North with ruin upon the world”. Caracharoth finally ends up in Doriath forest; the elves of Thingol, with Beren’s help and Huan the Hound’s, bring him down, and cut the Silmaril from the beast’s stomach. Quest achieved, but Beren dies from fatal wounds (see image at the very bottom).
It’s a dark romance that few fantasies have rivaled, and the final two pages up the ante even more. Here Luthien allows her spirit to fade so that she can plea to the Valar for Beren’s return to life. In Valinor she sings for high stakes, “weaving two themes of words, of the sorrow of the elves and the grief of men,” begging Mandos to be reunited with him. In an unprecedented move, Manwe grants Beren a second chance, and also gives her a choice — between living for eternity in the gods’ city of Valimar, or returning to Beleriand to live with Beren, but as a mortal subject to the same death he will receive. She opts for the latter, and in so doing trades the sorrow of the elves for the grief of men. We should consider what Tolkien meant by those phrases.
The grief of men is that they die, but the sorrow of the elves is just as tragic, because they live beyond their time. Rereading Tolkien’s story put me in mind of Dale Allison’s Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things (2016), published this year. The first chapter of the book is a meditation on the fear of death, where Allison discusses how our increased longevity has effected our perception of death. In the days of Jesus, for example, life must have looked considerably different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. Imagine how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far. One reason divorce rates have skyrocketed in the past century is longevity. It’s just statistics: fewer people are willing commit themselves to a single matrimonial adventure if life is going to keep us around longer. There’s more to get out of life; more experiences to savor. Yet one must wonder, says Allison, “whether protracted life might not, after a certain point, become tedious. We’re already, without radical life extension, fighting boredom.” If science can prolong us to hundreds of years (and it will probably happen some day), it could be that we will become literally bored to death. Which is the exact sense, I would argue, that one gets of Tolkien’s elves. They’ve seen too much. The gift of immortality loses its luster, and I would imagine rather quickly. Even the incredible paradises the elves built for themselves — Gondolin, Doriath, and the Falas in the First Age; Rivendell, Lothlorien, and the Grey Havens in the Second and Third Ages — seem boring to them.
Elvish sorrow is depicted extremely well in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. A director like Spielberg would have probably given us the gleeful sprites of other fairy tales and fantasies. Jackson captured their sad dignity in the characters of Cate Blanchet’s Galadriel, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, and Liv Tyler’s Arwen. Even Orlando Bloom’s Legolas managed to convey a morose loftiness around his silly ninja acrobatics. What many readers of Tolkien miss is that for all their special favor as Eru’s immortal children, the elves are essentially on the same footing as men. Their sorrow matches men’s grief. Men resist death to experience all they can. Elves soon realize that the best of life’s experiences offer transitory pleasures at best, and the more you experience them, the more they depreciate in value.
So what happened to Beren and Luthien? Tolkien never spelled out their fate, or the fate of any mortal. What happens to the elves is clear: if they happen to be slain, they go to the Halls of Mandos, and after a time can re-assume bodily form. Men also go to the Halls of Mandos when they die, but their souls are thereafter suspended to an unknown place, which for Tolkien would be the in-between state before the final judgment and resurrection — in the long distant future after the Judeo-Christian revelations. Allison is a Christian who doesn’t accept all the handed-down dogmas, but feels he must believe in an afterlife:
“Anyone’s death diminishes God unless there is something more than this vale of tears. If the brooding grave is everyone’s finale, if existence runs into pitiless nothing, then the forgotten and marginalized will remain marginalized and forgotten for all time. What good is God to them? I at least need a God whose love and rule don’t leave us alone with our greatest existential evil, a God who descends into hell to rescue the dead. I need a God who places heavenly crowns on the heads of the slaughtered infants of Bethlehem. I need the God of the old Roman catacombs, which are full of scenes representing delivery from death — Noah’s ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, the three youths in the furnace, the raising of Lazarus.” (p 17)
I’m more schizophrenic on the subject. The skeptic in me dismisses notions of an afterlife while my intuitions suggest otherwise depending on the day. Middle-Earth lets me think seriously about the theme in its cycle of bittersweet tragedies. Like Frodo’s departure at the Grey Havens, Luthien’s song laments sorrow and grief impartially. Tolkien took the song literally to his grave, for reasons that I suspect went beyond nostalgic romance.