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Beren and Lúthien: The Romance, the Dance and the Grimmian Feast



This painting is of Beren and Lúthien by Miriam Ellis depicts a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarillion in which the characters meet on a green hill at dawn.
"Beren and Lúthien" - Painted by Miriam Ellis

The Roots of Real Romance

I know I'm not alone in cherishing the tale of Beren and Lúthien for its connection to the lived love story of J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt Tolkien. I love the spiritual saga Of the Voyage of Eärendil for its home-in-the-highest depiction of epic courage and sub-created divine mercy, but the many versions of Tolkien's tale of the meeting of the mortal man and the elf princess are among his tenderest writings. When I read them, my own heart goes out to orphaned John Ronald whom, like Beren, found himself alone in a hard world, suffered much, chanced upon love and then could never rest until he won his lady's hand in marriage. As is revealed by letters and biographies, Tolkien had to quest for Edith, albeit in a quieter way than Beren's great quest for permission to wed Lúthien.


It's the true romance underlying the First Age tale that I love, because it refutes the highly inaccurate stereotype of the author as a somewhat unemotional old Oxford professor. I think most often of these two quotes from letter number 340 to Christopher Tolkien as testaments to the great warmth of Tolkien's heart in writing of Edith:


"In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance"


and


"...the dreadful sufferings of our childhoods, from which we rescued one another, but could not wholly heal the wounds that later often proved disabling; the sufferings that we endured after our love began – all of which (over and above our personal weaknesses) might help to make pardonable, or understandable, the lapses and darknesses which at times marred our lives — and to explain how these never touched our depths nor dimmed our memories of our youthful love. For ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade, and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting."


I would suggest that it is Tolkien's long and faithful marriage to Edith that gives the essential truth to Beren and Lúthien's story, elevating it above many frivolous accounts of chivalry and courtly love, and enshrining a glimpse of the awesome power of true devotion which many of us quest for all our lives.


Dance Within Dance



"I never called Edith Lúthien – 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..." Letter Number 340 to Christopher Tolkien


I've come to think of The Silmarillion's Of Beren and Lúthien as the dance within the dance. The entire chapter gives an impression of continuous movement, as if it had been choreographed rather than written. The characters swing back and forth over the map of Beleriand, compassing a lovely wood, a hidden realm, a ghastly fortress, a quiet island. They even leap off the map into the Blessed Realm, only to return for a final pas de deux. The characters go on foot, on horseback, on houndback and even dash and fly guised as beasts.


When I challenged myself to attempt to capture a scene in this beloved tale, I realized I had to think of it as a ballet about the spring of Lúthien coming into the wintry heart of Beren. Against the background of so much story movement, the several dances of the elf princess feel like solemn pauses, spot-lit by the light in her face or the coming of dawn:


“There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Lúthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing…and the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed. Then the spell of silence fell from Beren, and he called to her, crying Tinúviel; and the woods echoed the name.” - The Silmarillion, Chapter XIX: Of Beren and Lúthien


Edith's dance in a Yorkshire glade becomes so glorious as Lúthien's pas seul and aria on the green hill that it would be perfectly suited to the ballet or opera stage. It leads beautifully into her fateful dance and duet with Beren. Can you see it? I have tried to capture some of Tolkien's majestic high art in my painting and in this short video which I hope you will enjoy:





A Grimmian Feast



I want to close today by imagining with you, reader, what the Brothers Grimm would have thought if an "old wife" or spinster had told them the story of Beren and Lúthien by some country fireside. Would they not have given all they had to get to write down such a tale?


Apart from the philological fascination Tolkien shared with the Grimms, we know from his essays and from projects like The Professor's Bookshelf how much value and inspiration he found in their recorded fairytales and in similar works like The Red Fairy Book. I read many of the same stories as a child and can't help but be struck by how readily Beren and Lúthien could exist between such accounts as Rapunzel (lady held captive in high fastness), The Raven (skin-changing), The Goose Girl (talking beasts) and the many age-old stories in which a young man has to do something practically impossible to win the hand of the princess.


In Of Beren and Lúthien, it seems to me that J.R.R. Tolkien took all of the best, weirdest, and most unforgettable elements of the folk and fairy-tales he grew up with and laid a lavish feast with them. Unlike the Grimms' versions, which can be frustratingly short, Tolkien lets us dine longer in Faërie and gives us a mapped journey through the Perlious Realm. It's extremely satisfying.


And also...strange. There are elements in it (like vampire bats and werewolves) which I don't believe appear in any of his other works and give this particular chapter of The Silmarillion the odd feeling of having originated somewhere out of the depths of The Black Forest or up behind the Saxon walls of the Carpathian Mountains. It's classic Tolkien...and yet, it isn't. For me, there is a particular air of wonder in this specific tale that makes me feel like I've been someplace far away while reading it, and whenever I come back to it, I'm always freshly surprised by what happens. There must be some enchantment in it!


As with all of Tolkien's works, there are layers and layers and more layers to delve into in this epic. It's a story as old as the coming of Spring which painters, poets, composers and choreographers have paid tribute to for thousands of years. It comes from the heart of real romance, it moves like an intricate dance, it lasts long enough to let us really taste it, and its beauty and sorrow keep bringing us back to be there again, in the budding wood and on the green hill, where the lone and wandering warrior finally meets the nightingale.





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