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Nerdist Book Club: THE SILMARILLION, Part 8

Dear Romeo and Juliet: You don’t have anything on Beren and Lúthien. J.R.R. Tolkien wins this round, Shakespeare! We’ve encountered stories of love in The Silmarillion but nothing quite like this sweeping tale. I’m glad we only focused on a single chapter for this installment of Nerdist Book Club because oh-my-stars, there’s so much to discuss. Let’s dive in.

What happened
Chapter 19 – Of Beren and Lúthien

The chapter opens with tragedy. It’s not an unfamiliar theme in the book. So many people warned me about The Silmarillion being a dry and boring history tome, but aside from a couple of chapters, I’ve found it to be quite emotional – not like any of the flat text books I had to read in high school or college. In just a couple of pages, I encountered Gorlim (if we’ve met him before, I don’t remember it), learned that he lost his wife, and saw him tortured and killed. It takes place quickly but managed to hit me in the gut, and Tolkien is talented at making you feel invested in characters in a short period of time.

Events with Gorlim and Barahir served to put Barahir’s son, Beren, on a Batman-like path of vengeance. After slaying Orcs and anything Sauron threw at him (and becoming a vegetarian!), Beren set out for Doriath and there encountered Lúthien. He fell in love instantly, and she came to love him as well. You can imagine how King Thingol the Grumpy reacted when he found out. For Lúthien’s hand, he demands that Beren bring him a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown. He does get points for adding “if she will” in regards to Lúthien giving her hand.

It took me a second to realize why his words stirred the curse of Mandos and wrought the doom of Doriath, and it’s best explained a little later in the chapter when Beren speaks with Felagund. The curse is such that when the gems are named in association with desire that it moves the power from slumber and the sons of Fëanor can’t resist going after those questing for the Silmaril. Felagund is torn but knows Celegorm and Curufin’s hearts and minds aren’t their own anymore and goes with Beren to Angband.

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Fate of Beren and Lúthien by Jian Guo

The group doesn’t make it because Sauron traps and kills most of them. Luckily, Lúthien isn’t the kind of damsel who sits around waiting for her knight to return with a prize. She takes charge, escapes the tower/tree house Thingol imprisons her in, and goes after Beren. Like a badass. Along the way, she meets Huan, the chief of wolfhounds. He’s like a direwolf from A Song of Ice and Fire but cooler.

In broad strokes, Huan betrays his master (one of Fëanor’s sons) and helps Lúthien get to Beren and Felagund. Only Beren is alive when she arrives, and to get him out, Lúthien (with the help of Huan) sends Sauron running to the hills. Again, like a badass. Despite arguments and attempts to leave Lúthien behind for her safety, Beren eventually listens to her and she travels with him to Angband to face Morgoth.

And what a showdown! Lúthien stands up to Morgoth and enchants him, and Beren cuts a Silmaril from his crown with Angrist. Three cheers for teamwork! Stealing the Silmaril felt surprisingly easy to me, but that’s only because it wasn’t over. Carcharoth the werewolf wouldn’t let them past the gate and out of Angband, and he chomped Beren’s Silmaril-grasping hand right off. Hands are not safe in Beleriand.

Their quest completed, Thingol finally accepted the union (about time). It wasn’t over yet though as they still had to remove the Silmaril from Carcharoth’s gut. Beren died in the act, and in the final part of the story of Beren and Lúthien, Mandos gets permission to resurrect Beren and make Lúthien a mortal so they can live together in Middle-earth. Mandos was moved by Lúthien’s song and given the importance of music in this world, that was probably the only way to move the Valar.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go weep.

Beren_and_Luthien_flee_Angband_by_PeteAmachree

Beren and Lúthien flee Angband by Pete Amachree

Relevance to The Hobbit and/or Lord of the Rings
Though the story was all about Beren and Lúthien, there are a couple of threads to later Middle-earth stories. Their love obviously parallels Aragorn and Arwen to a degree; the latter couple didn’t have adventure on quite the same level but Aragorn sort of did have to complete a quest in order for Elrond to approve. Angrist was also broken against Morgoth’s crown as was Narsil when used against Sauron. Narsil was made by the same Dwarf who made Angrist – Telchar.

We met Draugluin, the first werewolf in this world, and it’s possible that the Wargs we know in the Third Age are descended from his line.

Let me know if I missed any references.

Favorite quotes
“Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that came down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Lúthien.”

“Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.”

“‘Death you have earned with these words; and death you should find suddenly, had I not sworn an oath in haste; of which I repent, baseborn mortal, who in the realm of Morgoth has learnt to creep in secret as his spies and thralls.'”

Discussion questions
– Why is the Rapunzel story incorporated into Lúthien’s escape?
– While I’m glad the Valar allowed Beren and Lúthien to be together, was it fair that they received a second chance?
– If Melian was in charge of Doriath instead of Thingol, would things have gone differently or was the land doomed regardless?

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Lúthien and Huan by Toni-Marie Hudson

Bonus material
The Silmarillion Club on DeviantArt
A cute cartoon about Silmarils by LittleFormosa
Beren and Lúthien search on DeviantArt because there’s so much wonderful, heartbreaking, and happy fan art

I only included a few discussion questions this time because I want to hear your reaction to the adventure and love and feelings present in Chapter 19. Anyone else feel like the tale of Beren and Lúthien could be its own film (one film, Peter Jackson, not three of them)? Head to the comments and share your thoughts! Feel free to tweet me and use the #NerdistBookClub hashtag.

Come back for Part 9 next Tuesday, September 2, at 10:30am PST. We’ll be going over Chapter 20 of The Silmarillion.

Top image: Lúthien Tinúviel by Alvaro Obregon

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28 comments

  • I’m glad we’re on one chapter, too, because this was long but so worth it.  I too was ready to weep; so beautiful. You’re totally right about Tolkien getting us to invest in characters in such a short space. As usual, he’s a little hard to get into to start, but merits the effort for what we get out of it.
    – Why is the Rapunzel story incorporated into Lúthien’s escape? 
    I think this is some of the myth master coming through. I’m not a Tolkien scholar or a true student of mythology, but this does remind me of a poem he wrote in some of his theological discussions with CS Lewis fairly early in their long friendship, “Mythopoeia.” In that poem, JRRT expresses the idea that myths are essentially refractions of the truth: each contains some echo or refraction of the greater story. While that is largely a philosophical and religious idea in the original context, this seems to me to follow the same principle. 
    There are a couple stories that have echoes of myths and fairytales.  I can’t remember them all, but Luthien in the halls of Mandos definitely reminds me of Orpheus and Eurydice: while they have a better outcome, a griever following a dead lover to the underworld and beautiful music convincing the deities to let them return to life… 
    – While I’m glad the Valar allowed Beren and Lúthien to be together, was it fair that they received a second chance? 
    On the one hand it seems unfair, but on the other hand, it also seems like Luthien’s the only one who really asked. I’d also say there are a lot of times when things aren’t fair in the everyone-got-the-same sense, but part of the purposefulness of Middle Earth probably incorporates it.  
    – If Melian was in charge of Doriath instead of Thingol, would things have gone differently or was the land doomed regardless?
    I’m going to guess that Doriath as a realm would still have ended, in part because the elves’ dominance wasn’t a timeless thing, either. However, it probably would have been ruled more laissez-faire… As a maia, she seems more content to accept what’s coming – not that she’s passive exactly, so much as trusting that Iluvatar’s plan will work out somehow. 
    Other thoughts:
    Luthien is so freaking cool. Beren is so freaking cool. This story is great. I’m fangirling and I think I have plenty of company, lol.
    I like too that when Beren thinks of trying for another silmaril, he is rebuffed.  It echoes a major theme underpinning Middle Earth: you may have what is yours, but grasp no further. 

    LotR connections: Thanks for pointing out the Narsil connection.
    There are also big parallels with the whole “get parental favor for marrying the beautiful elfmaiden” as Aragorn won’t get Elrond’s blessing until he’s king of both Gondor and Arnor. Talk about incentives. 
    POSSIBLE SLIGHT SPOILER SKIP NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR PEACEIf I recall correctly, B&L are actually related to A&A (both) as well..END SLIGHTEST SPOILER 

  • - Why is the Rapunzel story incorporated into Lúthien’s escape? 
    The first thing that comes to mind is: Maybe, as a writer Tolkien was running out of original ideas, so he went back to basics, and recycled the idea. There’s nothing wrong with recycling if you add a lot of your own to it. 
    I recently read “A shard of Ice” by Andrzej Sapkowski, as part of his short story collection form the Witcher universe. And he just literally ripped off the story of “the Snow Queen” but said it was “an ancient elven legend” Which just made me snicker. 
    I feel there are different ways to use other source materials, it’s all good as long as you don’t disrespect it. 
    – While I’m glad the Valar allowed Beren and Lúthien to be together, was it fair that they received a second chance?
    I suppose they did, since Beren risked life and limb to do what he set out to, and in the end he did, and look where it got him. But then there are other strong warriors who fell. So both yes and no?
    – If Melian was in charge of Doriath instead of Thingol, would things have gone differently or was the land doomed regardless?
    Probably. But who can really tell? Anything can happen. 

  • On the Rapunzel parallel: JRRT was creating a mythology for England to replace that lost when the Normans invaded. In his version of Earth, the Rapunzel story would have been inspired by Luthien, not the other way round :)

  • I too believe we are reminded of the Rapunzel story due to Tolkien’s desire to reinforce how these tales contain the whole of mythology. **** I don’t think the word “fair” truly applies to anything that fulfills the will of Ilúvatar. I also think that it balances out a little of the misery that so many of the elves brought upon both their own AND men, through jealousy and greed. Thingol made a demand of Beren that shouldn’t have been made and it led to the man’s death. His resurrection and life with Lúthien were repayment for the wrong. **** Not even Melian’s power could overcome the Curse of Mandos on the sons of Fëanor, nor the will of Ilúvatar

  • You know it’s funny you mention this story’s film potential, because I was just about to say something about that. Though I think the Silmarillion might work best as a show, this chapter would, imo, make an excellent 2nd movie (the first following Feanor’s story to his death; and for the record I’m so far envisioning 4 First Age films in total). The prologue would cover the 4th Battle of Sudden Flame, which broke the Long Peace and the Siege of Angband, after which the tale of Beren and Luthien could unfold. With the final struggle being the epic struggle between Huan and Carcharoth (and maybe throw in some Orcs for Beren and the Elves to fight? Just cause these films always seem to require a large scale battle at the end).

    Actually, funny thing about Huan: back when I first read this, I must have skimmed over the initial part where it calls him a hound, so I just thought he was a shape shifting man, especially since he was talking later on :P

    And speaking about Rapunzel, I don’t what Tolkien’s reasoning would have been, thought obviously her method of escape had to be influenced by that fairy tale, but the myth that primarily came to mind, as I read through the end of the story, was that of Orpheus, and the person descending to the Underworld to retrieve their loved one, whose music has power even over the Lord of the Underworld. Of course, Luthien is much more successful than Orpheus, and doesn’t screw it all up.

    Also, thought it was pretty cool to see Sauron get his first speaking lines in the book. The future Dark Lord who will terrorize all Middle-Earth…and Huan kicks his ass ten ways to Mordor.

    I don’t know if you can call it “fair”…I mean, they did go through a hell of a hardship, and did something nobody else had ever done in going to Angband and robbing Morgoth, so maybe that earned such a reward. More importantly though, it was apparently fated–their “doom.” In letting them be together, the Valar enabled the joining of humans and Elves, which I would reckon was Iluvatar’s will.

  • - While I’m glad the Valar allowed Beren and Lúthien to be together, was it fair that they received a second chance?

    I don’t consider it fair nor unfair.  They were just very moved by the story and gave them a second chance.  I do think it would be nice to see the Valar care more about what Morgoth is doing to the people of Middle Earth instead of seemingly being more concerned with Luthien and Beren.

    – If Melian was in charge of Doriath instead of Thingol, would things have gone differently or was the land doomed regardless?
    I think the land would still be doomed, but I keep thinking she knows more than she lets on.  So if she was in charge, she probably would’ve found some way to lessen the impact of the doom on their territory.

  • While the hair as a method of escape is shared with the story of Rapunzel , I would suggest that the overall storyline takes the method of escape from Rapunzel and combines it with elements from the story of Danaë and her son, Perseus. Danaë was locked in a tower by her father because an oracle told him that he would be killed by Danaë’s son. Zeus spoils Acrisius’ plan (the father) and impregnates Danaë. Perseus, in order to save his mother Danaë from being married to Dictys, undertook the ‘impossible’ task of bringing the head of the Gorgon Medusa back to Dictys.
     
    I think the important development in allowing Lúthien to make a choice to become a mortal set the precedent for the union of Elves and Men. Together, they generate the line of the Númenor and then the Dúnedain, of which Aragorn descends. Of course, Beren and Lúthien’s relationship shares parallels with the romance of Aragorn and Arwen, the joining of the latter serves to reunite the two lines since Arwen descends from Melian.
     
    Just an aside, when reading about Lúthien healing Beren with “a herb out of the forest” that Huan brought her, I couldn’t help but think of when Aragorn uses Athelas or Kingsfoil to heal just about everyone in LoTR.
     
    I do not get the impression that Melian ever attempts to alter fate or doom, but rather once the chain of action has begun, she watches and comments with bits of knowledge. As with most prophecy, Melian does not seem to have complete knowledge but rather more of a sense of how the tapestry will unfold. Even the Valar, as we have seen before, have incomplete knowledge elsewise Mandos and Manwë would have been ready with answers as to whether to take action on Lúthien’s song. And indeed, Melian herself read the doom in Lúthien’s eyes after she had chosen mortality and turned away, powerless to change her daughter’s fate.

    When reading of Carcharoth, I was reminded of Fenrir, the horrific father of wolves from Norse mythology, and of Cerberus, the hellhound that guards the entrance to the underworld in Greek myth. While the Dark Throne in Angband is not the underworld in Tolkien’s mythology, the parallels are striking.

  • - Why is the Rapunzel story incorporated into Lúthien’s escape?
     
       To add to what others have said, a woman’s hair is a common mythic MacGuffin (i.e. Myths like Orpheus & Euridice, Sif & Thor, to the more modern super powered hair of Medusa of Marvel’s Inhumans). Hair also had more of a sexual connotation back in the day. From that perspective, it is physical manifestation of a woman’s wiles/prowess. Tolkien evidently loved mythology, he eventually made it his day job and the bits and pieces he loved are scattered about his works. He will work in shades of one of my favorites further ahead  

    – While I’m glad the Valar allowed Beren and Lúthien to be together, was it fair that they received a second chance?
      
       WHAT? If you steal a Simiril from the head of Morgoth Bauglir should you not get the Keys to the city of Valimar? I don’t see any of the Valar or Maiar boppin’ on over to Angbad to recover the Simirils. I think they got screwed. They should have gotten permanent residence in the Telperion Moonlight suite at Las Valar, immortality, or at least some magical parting gifts. Congratulations Archangels, you just got out hospitality-ed by yet another stubborn Sindar King and Noldar Queen . But no, they get a short lived happy ever after. That’s it. By the way, hope you enjoyed “happy” time because its over.

    – If Melian was in charge of Doriath instead of Thingol, would things have gone differently or was the land doomed regardless?  
       Yes and no. Yes, in that Melian has the Gift of Foresight, that alone makes her a wiser ruler (not to mention she is an an angelic being). No, in that Thingol’s arrogant demand for a Silmaril entangled Doriath in the Doom of the Noldor. I believe that would have occurred regardless. Thingol truly believes, and not without cause, that Beren is beneath Luthien’s station. Elven Kings would not be worthy of Luthien in Thingol’s eyes much less a a man who would be dead before she blinked twice. This illustrates one of the main differences between elves and humans: Elves are tied to their fate and to Ea. They can rest and reincarnate in Valinor but in the words of Don Henley, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.”   Humans on the other hand have Free Will in Tolkien’s world. This is part of Eru’s Gift to Man along with “being freed from the circles of Ea” and a mystery part to play in the Last Song.

    Other Thoughts:
    1. This is Tolkien at his most magical and the winner for biggest non Valar display of Art goes to Luthien the Fair. Luthien’s Songs can do Jedi mind tricks, make her invisible (?) and or teleport her, change her shape and others, powder doors windows and chunks of buildings, and heal folks,not to mention bring Valar to tears or put them to sleep. I wonder what would have happened if Luthien had the Silmaril and Beren and stuck to his sword and what was left of Angrist. Cue “Blinded By the Light.”     

    2. Go Huan! you define what it means to be Man’s Best Friend. No traitor was ever as loyal as you.

    3. The relevant ease with which Beren and Luthien enter Angbad reveals Tolkien’s beliefs about the weakness inherent in Evil. Namely Pride, Greed, and their consequences. Like Sauron after him Morgoth underestimates not only the skill but also the daring of the Free Peoples. Rushing in to fight an opponent who clearly outclasses you is not Morgoth’s style. At heart, Tolkien seems to believe that underneath that armor of arrogance lies the heart of a coward. This can be seen in Morgoth’s reluctance to duel Fingolfin. The easy entrance also parallel’s Sauron’s error in focusing on Minas Tirith when his Eye should have been looking in his own back yard. And why? Because it never occurred to Morgoth that he could be vulnerable to the Art of a “lesser being” just as it never occurred to Sauron that someone should want to destroy his Ring.In contrast we have Finrod and Huan, who both know that their path will lead to their own demise but walk headlong to meet their fate out of love for their friends.
     
     4. Think about what is going on when Aragorn sings the Lay of Luthien and Beren. He is sitting in the shadow of one of his ancestor’s greatest defeats and the being that brought down that tower is coming for him that very night. He has fire and he has the hilt shard of an ancient dwarven sword. But over there, laying by the fire is Isildur’s Bane. Around the neck of a child. It is his by right. Should he not use that power against itself? I think it is that song that keeps Aragorn’s eye on the prize of a hand and a heart and not a Ring. Arwen was with Aragorn you just couldn’t see her.

    5.  On a final note, there are two names in addition to John Ronald Reuel  and Edith Tolkien, there are two other names on their gravestones, they are Beren and Luthien.

  • I’m not usually a fan of romance stories, but I am of this one.  I think this tale is about a kind of love rarely seen these days, given the level of sacrifice that both people make. But my initial thoughts are;
    one; I would like to see sometime something borrowed from dragonball z where you can measure power levels, because thats the most interesting part; luthien is not a full miar but is powerful enough to take down sauron, who himself is said to be strong enough to take out other miar like gandalf and sauroman.  
    two; I love how human the elves are in this story. the only one who feels beyond it is melian and even she has her moment when she realizes luthien’s choice. Up until then she seems kind of aloof-not in a arrognat way, but enough that she feels alien. Luthien becoming human brings the losses of middle earth home to her, makes it personal where as before it was prophecy or fate.
    Three: How bad must have Beren looked, much less smelled? lol But I like the reference someone here already made about telchar marging the weapons that can hurt divine beings. 
    four: I dont think this story could be its own movie by itself.  As part of a series, yes, since thats what motivates the whole thing, perhaps a second movie, but on its own? no. It loses its gravitas.
    five; the valar dont strike me as fair beings. Luthien was something special, had a special power and is arguably the most powerful being in arda, if not in the top 4. She made mandos change his mind; no one makes mandos change his mind! but as far as others having equally suffered and not getting that 2nd chance? Never got it. But the weight of her character comes at the end when she gives up her immortality and all that power for the love of a human. Im not sure enough can be said for that but I think that was the wtf moment of her character in a good way.
    An additional point; the maker of the rings of power, celibrimbor, is also in this story and is the grandson of feanor. He seemed to be alot less violent but almost equally as talented.

    • Power level detectors. Huh. I like that idea.

      And though I selfishly want a movie, you’re probably right. The Beren and Luthien story requires a lot of context and understanding of surrounding world and even the creation of it.

  • Such a roller-coaster of a single chapter! Such twists, turns and everything in between! And I’m glad you mentioned the Rapunzel thing, because I remember going through that section thinking that reference aloud! XD At least it was one way to get out…!

    I’m also glad that we got to read more of Sauron; especially as an actual creature…A being (unlike just being a ring-bound entity or a name-drop apprentice for Morgoth)…Despite how evil he was, though that’s why it’s important, so experience his evil, I feel…

    Only one thing did confuse me though (and feel free to correct me if I have most likely and clearly misread); the crown of Morgoth rolled away from him. The crown had three Silmarils…Why was there such an effort to remove *one* of the gems, when Beren could have taken the whole crown with him…? Hmm…

    Also, I loved Huan; Huan is the *man*. (Well, Wolf.) In a way, he reminds me of Ardeth Bay from the first two Mummy films! XD (Odd comparison, but roll with it; they’re both protective warriors! XD)

    – AM

  • (College is getting the way of this book club, and it’s sad) This chapter is just a heartache, to be honest, bad things happen one after another, I actually shed a few tears thinking Beren was gonna die when he was shot with an arrow. This is why I have trust issues with books, you never know when they decide to hurt you :,D

  • I know this is late, but sorry.

    I think it was poetic justice that beren and luthien recieve mortality and a second life.
    First you have to realize that giving luthien and beren the mortality was a HUGE gift.Tolkien makes it extremely clear that death is a gift of man as they have a place to go after death that is unknown and spectacular.Elves on the other hand were made to be immortal and after death go to the halls of mandos which sounds like a boring/mediocre experience. The Silmarillion (and most of his other work) is littered with references how the gift of man is beyond the comprehension of the elves and men, and it is the fear of death that drives man to immortality, yet in reality after death is man’s greatest gift. Illuvitar wouldn’t have given men that gift as a cruel joke. He may have a few things we could fault illuvitar on but cruelty usually isn’t one of them.
    Second Beren had died.D.I.E.D. gone, done, finished.THe valar didn’t even need to get involved. they could have left it as it was and it would have been a beautiful tradgedy of love, in a similar vein of Romeo and Juliet. BUT NO.The valar see this and go, “hu… those two are madly in love. The same type of love that Illuvitar has for his creation. We respect that and are moved by the parallels to our creator. As a result we will give u the Gift of Man.”
    just my two cents