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Tolkien’s Newly Published Book Is Rooted in a Real Love Story

The tale of Beren and Lúthien was first conceived in 1917, after an encounter between Tolkien and his wife Edith

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
smithsonian.com

The Oxford gravestone shared by J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife Edith Tolkien is etched with the names Beren and Lúthien—two characters from a fantastical love story that the Lord of the Rings author wrote and rewrote throughout his storied career. As Jonah Engel Bromwich of the New York Times reports, the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has released the first continuous version of the narrative, which was inspired by the early days of the Tolkiens’ romance.

Christopher Tolkien, the author’s third son, edited the new book, titled Beren and Lúthien. The novel also boasts illustrations by Alan Lee, who won an Academy Award for his work on the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

To compile Beren and Lúthien, the younger Tolkien sifted through his father’s manuscripts and archives, piecing together different iterations of the tale. According to the CBC, the author crafted at least four versions of the story. The first was titled the Tale of Tinúviel, which was published after Tolkien’s death as a part of The Book of Lost Tales. The characters also inspired Tolkien’s epic poem The Lay of Leithian, and they appear in The Silmarillion, a posthumously published history of Middle Earth. Lastly, Aragorn recounts the love story in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Drawing on these narratives, Beren and Lúthien follows Beren, a mortal man, and Lúthien, an immortal elf. Lúthien’s father, who opposes the relationship, gives Beren “an impossible task that he must perform before he might wed Lúthien,” the book’s publisher says in a statement. The quest forces the couple to confront Melkor, “the greatest of all evil beings.”

This epic tale of love and adventure is rooted in a romantic moment that took place some 100 years ago.  In 1917, according to the Tolkien Society, Tolkien had been sent back to England from the frontlines of WWI so he could recover from an illness. The author and his young wife were taking a walk through East Yorkshire when Edith began to dance through a flower-filled glade.

“[Tolkien] later acknowledged to his son, Christopher, in a letter dated 11th July 1972 that this event inspired the romantic fictional encounter between the immortal Elven Princess, Lúthien Tinúviel with the mortal hero Beren,” the Tolkien Society notes.

Echoes of that day, when Edith danced for her husband amidst the grass, can indeed be seen in Tolkien’s work. In The Lay of Leithian, he writes:

When grass was green and leaves were long,

when finch and mavis sang their song,

there under bough and under sun,

in shadow and in light would run

fair Lúthien the elven-maid,

dancing in dell and grassy glade.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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