For most readers, J.R.R. Tolkien’s name evokes his two classic Bilbo and Frodo novels: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. By some estimates, The Lord of the Rings was the 20th century’s best-selling novel, and Peter Jackson’s blockbuster films have only served to enshrine the place of hobbits and Middle-earth in the popular imagination.
For many who, upon finishing the hobbit stories, thirst for more Middle-earth adventure, The Silmarillion seems to be the next logical step. However, in comparison to the other two works, The Silmarillion is an exceptionally difficult read. Though it was his life’s passion, Tolkien understood that it would probably not be received as well as The Lord of the Rings: “Though I do not think it would have the appeal of the L.R. – no hobbits!” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien). Indeed, The Silmarillion is the story of Middle-earth’s First Age, a sort of Old Testament to the gospel of Bilbo and Frodo. It’s a collection of seemingly obtuse mythologies, a cosmic web of angelic beings and wrathful Elves, and it is difficult upon setting out to discern a unifying plot.
I too experienced difficulty with The Silmarillion. I tried and failed twice to “get into it.” Finally, on my third attempt, I managed by sheer willpower to make it all the way to Chapter 19, the tale of Beren and Lúthien. What I discovered in that chapter was a revelation. Though the story of Beren and Lúthien comes late in the history of Middle-earth’s First Age, it works on a standalone basis and interweaves a number of The Silmarillion‘s disparate threads. For that reason, I often recommend that readers new to The Silmarillion begin with Chapter 19. From there, they can go back to the beginning and begin to better understand the entirety of the book.
Like other Tolkien devotees, I was delighted to hear last Fall that a novel-length treatment of Beren and Lúthien was to be published in 2017. I believe the time is right for the story of Beren and Lúthien to become known as the third great Tolkien story, and I hope it receives the notice it deserves. In particular, I hope to see Catholics embrace this story, just as they have rightfully embraced The Lord of the Rings (which Tolkien called “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”) (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien). Here’s why Catholics should embrace the story of Beren and Lúthien:
The Power of Weakness
For when I am weak, I am strong.
– 2 Corinthians 12:10
Though lacking hobbits (like the rest of The Silmarillion), Tolkien believed the story of Beren and Lúthien was the most “hobbit-like” of his First-Age tales. In a 1950 letter to publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien said “Here we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak…” (The Silmarillion) One of the most wonderful aspects of Tolkien’s hobbits stories is the fatal error of the great powers (Sauron and Saruman) in overlooking the seemingly insignificant hobbits. This same theme is present in the story of Beren and Lúthien. Though Beren is a great warrior, an Aragorn figure of sorts, he is vastly outnumbered, and it is only by the aid of Lúthien, a seemingly helpless elf-maiden, that he is able to complete his quest to wrest one of the holy Silmarils from the Iron Crown of the satanic king Morgoth. For Catholics, it’s a clear parallel to the story of Christ, who triumphed not by the strength of the world but by humbly embracing humanity’s weakness and frailty. Beren and Lúthien succeed in accomplishing what great armies and warriors before them had failed to do. Where the ways of the world had failed the mighty, the meek triumph through great courage, faith, and perseverance.
The Power of True Love
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
– John 15:13
We live in a world where “self-interest” masquerades as love, but Catholics know better. Christ and the saints bear witness that true love consists not in pursuing one’s own desires, but in the total giving of one’s self for the sake of others. So too, Beren and Lúthien must give all for one another in order to complete their mission. In fact, not only does their sacrifice succeed in accomplishing a great victory over Morgoth, but it also serves to soften the hardened hearts of warring factions and unite them in common cause against Morgoth. It’s a sacramental love, a love whose goodness and significance overflows with great power and effect.
New Life Beyond Sorrow
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.
– Revelation 21:4
The story of Beren and Lúthien isn’t exactly a “feel good” story about an underdog triumphing against great odds. No, it reads as more of a tragedy than a comedy. Still, it is not strictly tragic, and like The Lord of the Rings, it hints at joy and peace beyond the sorrows of this world. In our time, as tragedy and grief seem to be mounting against us, we need to be reminded that sorrow and pain do not have the final say in our lives, even though it is so tempting to believe that they do. The “final word” on Beren and Lúthien is both harrowing and wonderful. It is the stuff, as Tolkien said, of “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (Tree and Leaf 69).
For all of these things, it should also be noted that “Beren and Lúthien” could also be called Tolkien’s most personal story. After all, the grave shared by Tolkien and his beloved wife Edith bears only the simple epitaph of “Beren” for him and “Lúthien” for her. Indeed, he frequently referred to Edith as his own “Lúthien” in his letters. It is as if it was the most hopeful final word that Tolkien could say in the face of death, to connect their lives with these two great characters.
Like The Lord of the Rings, the story of Beren and Lúthien is overwhelmingly rich with wonder and significance. It seems to rise to a level befitting the description “sacramental.” It’s an utterly captivating tale, and one I feel that Catholics in particular must become familiar with, for Tolkien is of course one of our own. In a world increasingly dominated by Morgothic figures, pridefully hungry to dominate all the lower beings they survey, the story of Beren and Lúthien reminds us that true love, the love of total self-giving, has the power to triumph over the Lords and Governors of this age. It’s time that Catholics embrace Beren and Lúthien; it is a story we need now more than ever.