The book Beren and Lúthien, published on 1-June-2017, is the penultimate work by Christopher Tolkien based on his father JRR Tolkien's works1. The advertising for this book promised:
Beren and Lúthien has been painstakingly restored from Tolkien's manuscripts and presented for the first time as a continuous and standalone story.
This turned out not to be the case. Instead, it is a collection of different versions of the story patched together, some fully told, some just summaries, some in poetry form. It lays out the way in which the story grew from JRRT's first version to the final version published as a chapter of The Silmarillion. Everything in the book written by JRR Tolkien has been published before, either in The Silmarillion or in Christopher Tolkien's 12-volume History of Middle-earth. What is new is Christopher Tolkien's commentary. It's nice to finally have all the versions in a single book, but this isn't a story you can just read through. It is more of a scholarly dissertation on the story.
Beren and Lúthien were a mortal man and an immortal woman who fell in love. Beren's parents were already dead and he was an outlaw. Lúthien's father was the King of the Elves, an Oberon-like figure. He didn't approve of Beren so he gave him an impossible task to complete, hoping to be rid of him. Bound together by their love for each other, Beren and Luthien undertook the task together and in a sense succeeded, although much happened as a result which was bad for the world.
There's no doubt that Tolkien thought of himself and his wife Edith as Beren and Lúthien, two lovers who stayed together despite the world trying to keep them apart. Tolkien had lost both his parents by the age of 12. He was then brought up by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Francis Xavier Morgan. When he was 16 he met Edith Bratt, another young person who had lost her parents. The two were attracted to each other and fell in love. Father Morgan felt that Tolkien should not allow this relationship to distract him from his studies in school and university, so he forbade him from seeing or even writing to Edith. Tolkien obeyed this ruling until he reached adulthood at 21. On his 21st birthday, he contacted Edith and renewed their relationship. Three years later they married.
Tolkien never called Edith by the name Lúthien, but the character of Lúthien was inspired by her. There's a scene in the stories in which Beren first discovers Lúthien as she dances in the woods among the flowers. This was based on a visit by Tolkien and Edith in 1918 to a 'small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire' - Edith danced among the flowers. When Edith died, he had the name Lúthien put on her gravestone beneath her own name. When he himself was buried in the same grave, his name was added to the stone with Beren written underneath it.
The Tale of Beren and Lúthien is probably the most like a traditional fairy tale of any of Tolkien's stories. Lúthien has fairy magic which she uses to move around (turning herself into a flying creature), to put people to sleep (both by brushing them with a magic cloak and by singing and dancing) and to exert power over people (by singing magic songs). This makes the style of it different from other stories of the First Age.
Tolkien never finished the tale. Over the course of the years, he made three major versions of the story but wasn't happy with any of them.
Beren and Tinuviel
His first version was written very early in his writing career. It had a few major differences from the later versions - Beren was an Elf rather than a Man; the whole involvement of Finrod Felagund and its subsequent effect on the kingdom of Nargothrond was completely absent; and instead of an encounter with Sauron at the Isle of Werewolves, Beren was sent to work in the castle of a giant Cat Lord called Tevildo. He was given a menial job working in the kitchens, rather than being imprisoned in a dungeon with his comrades being devoured by werewolves. There were also minor differences such as name changes, as well: Luthien 'Tinuviel' was just Tinuviel, her father Thingol was Tinwelint and her mother Melian was Gwendelin. The land of Doriath was called Artanor and the elf Dairon was Tinuviel's brother rather than a secret admirer.
The Lay of Leithian
The second version was entirely in poetry - tetrameter2 verse. It has the subtitle 'Release from Bondage' although it's not clear why3. The story in it was very much closer to the final version published in The Silmarillion. Some of the names were still different - Sauron was called Thû, but everything else about him was the same. The language used is very descriptive, something lacking in The Silmarillion. Unfortunately Tolkien stopped writing this at the point where Beren's hand containing the Silmaril is bitten off by the giant wolf.
Of Beren and Lúthien
The third version of the story is a prose retelling of the story already given in the poetry version. It was published in The Silmarillion. Sauron now bears the name Sauron, and there's an ending to the tale similar to the one in the first version. The whole thing is in a rather abbreviated style, however, giving the impression that this is a summary of the story rather the actual telling of it.
Later, Tolkien started work on the 'Lay of Leithian' again, but instead of finishing off the missing bit, he was obviously unsatisfied with the rest of the poem. He started to rewrite it in more sophisticated language from the start, but didn't get very far.
The poem The Lay of Leithian and the prose version Of Beren and Luthien both tell the same story, which is given in detail here.
Beren meets Luthien
Beren is a Man, that is, a mortal. He lives with a band of outlaws led by his father in the North. They are betrayed to the enemy by one of their number and Beren alone escapes.
He heads south through a long and difficult road and enters the magically guarded kingdom of Doriath, something no man has ever done before. He meets the Elf maiden Luthien who is the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. Beren gives her the name 'Tinuviel' meaning nightingale because of her beautiful singing voice. He and Luthien fall in love. But she is the daughter of Elu Thingol, the tall, proud, silver-haired king of Doriath since time immemorial. Luthien presents Beren to the King.
The King has no time for a mere Man. He tries to get rid of Beren by sending him on an impossible quest: to retrieve a 'Silmaril', a shining jewel, from the crown of the Dark Lord Morgoth. Morgoth lives in a fortress in the far north surrounded by armies of orcs, wolves, balrogs and dragons. He is Middle-earth's version of Lucifer, God's most powerful archangel, who turned against his master and is trying to rebuild the world in his own evil image.
Beren and Lúthien have the choice of living together in the wilderness outside Doriath, rejected by the King, or of Beren going and getting the jewel, and dying in the process. Beren vows to fulfil the quest. He says to Thingol 'When next we meet, I will have a Silmaril in my hand.'
Beren and Finrod
He sets off to the nearby Elvish kingdom of Nargothrond. Finrod Felagund4, the king of that country, owed Beren's father a debt so he comes asking for help in his quest. But due to political wrangling within Nargothrond, he doesn't get the army of Elves he had hoped for - only Finrod himself and ten companions are willing to help Beren.
The band of twelve travel north but are captured on their way to Morgoth's fortress Angband by Sauron, Morgoth's Second-in-Command. Finrod fights a magical battle of will against Sauron but loses. Sauron imprisons them in his dungeon. He can't discover who they are so he sends werewolves to eat them, one per day, until somebody gives in and reveals their identity. Eventually there are only Beren and Finrod left. Finrod fights the werewolf barehanded and kills it, but dies himself from his wounds. Beren is left alone.
Lúthien, not content to sit at home, arrives aided by a giant friendly dog called Huan (we learn from the poem that his name is two syllables: 'Hoo-ann'). Huan fights with Sauron who as a shape-changer presents himself in the form of a giant wolf. Huan wins and Sauron buys his life by releasing his control over his fortress and fleeing. Lúthien finds Beren in the dungeon and releases him.
The Taking of the Silmaril
The couple now travel north in disguise. At the gates of Angband, they find the biggest wolf that ever lived guarding the entrance. His name is Carcharoth, which means 'Red Maw'. Lúthien sings a magic song which puts the wolf to sleep and they enter Morgoth's fortress. In front of Morgoth's throne, Lúthien's disguise is stripped from her and she is revealed as the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. Morgoth is enchanted by her and allows her to sing a song. Again she sings the magic sleep song and everyone in the fortress is put to sleep. Beren uses a dagger to lever one of the Silmarils from the Iron Crown still resting on Morgoth's sleeping head. The knife tip breaks and a bit of metal hits Morgoth on the cheek, causing him to stir. The couple grab the jewel and run like hell.
Once more at the gate they encounter the giant wolf, who has now woken up again. Beren, hoping to scare off the wolf, holds out the Silmaril in front of him, and it glows brightly. The wolf bites off Beren's hand with the Silmaril in it. The magic jewel burns the inside of the wolf and he goes mad; he runs away, rampaging through the southern countries destroying everything in his path.
Beren and Lúthien return to Doriath. Beren presents himself to the King, saying that he has both succeeded and failed in the task - he got the jewel, it is in his hand as he speaks but he can't present it to Thingol as both hand and jewel are inside the mad wolf. Thingol finally realises that this one-handed man in front of him is a hero and he relents and accepts him as his son-in-law.
The Death of Beren and What Happens Afterwards
The wolf is still rampaging through the countryside. They organise a wolf hunt. Aided by the friendly dog Huan, Beren catches and kills the wolf, but both he and Huan are mortally injured. They cut open the wolf and find Beren's hand inside, miraculously preserved and still holding the Silmaril. Beren presents the jewel to the King to fulfil his quest, then dies.
Lúthien uses her magic powers to travel to the home of the gods, Valinor, where she sings a song of mourning in front of Mandos, the god in charge of the Dead. He is so moved by her song that he restores Beren from the dead and allows him to live with Lúthien for another few decades. The price Lúthien must pay, however, is that when Beren finally becomes an old man and dies for a second time, Lúthien dies too.
That's the end of their story, but their actions have important repercussions.
After Finrod, the king of the secret, underground city of Nargothrond, went with Beren on his quest, his successor is persuaded to abandon secrecy. The city is soon discovered by Morgoth's forces and is destroyed by an orc army led by the dragon Glaurung.
Thingol, always proud and haughty, becomes more so now that he has the Silmaril. He commissions some dwarves to set it into a beautiful necklace, but there is an argument over payment and he insults the dwarves. They kill him and take the necklace, and are themselves killed as they flee from Doriath. This leads to a disagreement between Elves and Dwarves that lasts thousands of years.
Having lost her husband, Melian stops taking an interest in the world and releases the magic spell that kept Doriath safe from evil things. Morgoth's forces soon conquer and destroy it. This was the last great stronghold of Elves resisting his power.
Lúthien's and Beren's grandson Eärendil becomes leader of the last remaining Elf community. Then with his wife Elwing he sails across the western sea and reaches Valinor. Representing both Elves and Men, he requests the help of the Valar to defeat Morgoth once and for all. They agree - there is a huge war and Morgoth is defeated. Eärendil's sons Elrond and Elros become a Master of Elves and a King of Men respectively.
The story of Beren and Lúthien was one of the three 'Great Tales' of Tolkien's stories of the Elder Days, the other two being the Fall of Gondolin and the Tale of the Children of Húrin.