If you head north from Oxford, just a few miles up Banbury Road, you’ll eventually stumble across Wolvercote Cemetery. It’s a pretty place, like nearly everything in that part of England, but otherwise unremarkable. Big trees, bright green grass. But if you wander in very far, you’ll come across the grave site of J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife, Edith. Underneath their names are two others: Beren and Lúthien.
The Tale of Beren and Lúthien is one of Tolkien’s central tales, and his most accessible. It’s a pastiche of fairy tale elements: forbidden loves, impossible tasks imposed upon would-be suitors, princesses in towers, magical songs that lull evil to sleep, tragic ends. (There are also werewolves, and someone transforms into a bat). But it also transcends its elements. It’s one of Tolkien’s most personal tales, an elaborate transformation of the story of his love for his wife. It’s one of his most contained, in which that overwhelming mythos of The Silmarillion serves simply as a backdrop to enhance the central narrative. It’s one of his most beautiful, containing one of my favorite prose passages in all of literature. And it’s hopeful, in a way that The Silmarillion is so often not (poor Túrin Turambar, Beren & Lúthien sucked up all the hope and there was none left for his chapter).
A new version, edited by Christopher Tolkien and clocking in at 288 pages, is being released today by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I’m always a little torn by these sorts of releases – if there was a fully-formed Beren & Lúthien book written by J.R.R. Tolkien sitting around, you’d better believe the Tolkien Estate would not have waited a hundred years to release it. This release is likely a very interesting academic work, a treasure trove of alternate versions of the story and new fonts of information. It’s gonna be a fun month for Grade-A Tolkien Nerds (a term I bestow with only love).
But there is a part of me that wants everyone to simply go read “Of Beren and Lúthien” in The Silmarillion. It’s nearly perfect as is (I nearly called it the “gem” of Tolkien’s legendarium but yikes, in this context that carries some mixed connotations). But like nearly all of Tolkien’s work, some background information on how it grew and took the form it did, nearly always serves to enrich the story as a whole. I’m never gonna say no to more Tolkien, and it’s great to get a chance to delve deeper into one of his greatest works.