Although J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, these books were only a part of the world he created. We get another glimpse into that world with Beren and Lúthien. This collection of previously published and unpublished pieces, compiled and edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher, tells the love story of a mortal man and immortal elf. The book captures well Tolkien’s keen sense that profound love is never without profound sorrow, and in the process gives us a better glimpse not only of the world Tolkien has created, but our own as well.
The most striking element of this story is its similarity and dissimilarity to what we think of as “fairy tales” (a topic Tolkien himself wrote about). On the surface, Beren and Lúthien is similar to many modern fairy tales, as it features romance, danger, battles, the presence of various supernatural and fantasy creatures, and the perennial struggle of good versus evil. But close attention to Tolkien’s tale shows the way in which it serves as a sharp contrast to the simplistic and typical modern fairy tale, where oftentimes all conflict is overcome and everything resolves into a tidy “happily ever after.”
From the beginning, Beren and Lúthien are under siege. Lúthien’s royal father, Thingol, sets up Beren’s near-impossible quest to retrieve a Silmaril (jewel) from the crown of Melkor, the Satan-like embodiment of evil in Middle-earth. As Lúthien follows him on the journey, it’s clear that she is far from the “damsel in distress” waiting for Beren to act. They pursue this quest together. In the unfolding events, Beren loses a limb and then his life, leading Lúthien to appeal to the gods to bring him back. Ultimately, she gives up her own immortal elvish nature to join him in his mortality.
In Tolkien’s world, love and sorrow go together. Whatever love Beren and Lúthien have must be played out against a backdrop deeply affected by evil. Though there is joy and there is good, there is also deep power in awful curses and sinister deeds, which ripple through the course of Middle-earth’s history, affecting generation after generation of elves and men. Though there are times of relative peace and goodness in Tolkien’s world, there is never a time, place, or person untouched by the reality of evil. (One of the shortcomings of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was that it completely ignored “the scouring of the Shire,” Tolkien’s acknowledgement that even the hobbits’ idyllic home could not remain untouched by darkness.) If love is to win the day, Tolkien shows that it will not be in a bubble but in a battle, where even our very bodies may be broken and bear the scars of loving well.
This reality of love in the midst of brokenness is one that Christians celebrate on a regular basis at the Lord’s Supper. When we participate in this remembrance of Christ’s Last Supper, we acknowledge that his love came at a great cost. We not only remember the pain and suffering of Jesus, but we celebrate his presence with us in the present and express hope for the day when all things are made new. Is such suffering worth it? Tolkien thinks so, for as Beren goes to his presumed death at the hands of Melkor, he declares: “Lúthien Tinúviel / 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 Lúthien for a time should be!” What is good is so good that it is worth the pain and suffering that inevitably come. And Lúthien’s love for Beren is likewise a “love as strong as death,” a love so strong that it can call him back from the grave, though at the cost of her immortality.
Death and self-giving love, sacrifice and satisfaction, deep sorrow mingled with great joy. This all combines in Beren and Lúthien, bearing witness to Tolkien’s ability to give us a story that is simultaneously as foreign as an elvish tongue and as familiar as the communion table. For though Beren and Lúthien were marred and scarred by a world filled with evil and death, their story ends by noting that “none saw Beren or Lúthien leave the world, or marked where at last their bodies lay.” I’m reminded of the hope we have that the transforming power of love will one day enable us to defeat the last enemy, death, so that we may forever enjoy the presence of our Beloved.