Beren and

Marco Montagnin

   In every culture there is a myth about love; nowadays, for most people, it is the story of Romeo and Juliet that embodies the romantic ideal, transcending differences of thought and becoming a universal symbol.

There are many different tales and many different cultural nuances in them: it is impossible to compare the love of the Genji Monogatari with that of the courtly troubadours.

Many have wondered what love truly is, and between the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st a series of psychological and medical experiments took place aiming to understand it.


In literature it is Wystan Hugh Auden who wrote: “O tell me the truth about love”, and the most universal response chronologically comes from Dante Alighieri:

Amore, veramente pigliando e sottilmente considerando, non è altro che unimento spirituale dell’anima e della cosa amata: nel quale unimento di propia sua natura l’anima corre tosto e tardi secondo che è libera o impedita.[1]

Even in Arda, there is a love story that is passed down, era after era, reaching the ears of four hobbits from the voice of a Ranger from the North, and all the way to us through the pen of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien: the love story of Beren and Lúthien.

But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.

      Tolkien was sixteen, Edith Mary Bratt nineteen, he was Catholic, she Protestant. In 1908 they lived in the same boarding house, they fell in love, but Tolkien’s tutor forbade him from seeing her and writing to her, though he could not prevent him from thinking about her, always. He did not see her then after, he never did. He respected the will of others, for the happiness of others who thought and believed they were making his own happiness. On the evening of his twenty-first birthday – when he came of age – he wrote to her and asked her to marry him. Edith answered that she had already gotten engaged, that she thought Tolkien had forgotten her, and would be married, but not to him. He found her, loved her and was loved, she returned the ring to the unfortunate fiancé and promised herself to Tolkien, he converted, and they got married.

     The myth of Beren and Lúthien, like all myths, comes from different sources, with different names, with different endings – some cut off – but what they all have in common is: the imperishable love, the moment they meet – the crown of expectation – and the death of Beren.

It is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Lord of the Rangers, who in The Lord of the Rings tells the hobbits about how Beren and Lùthien met; he can only recount part of story because the rest of it had been lost.

‘I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel,’ said Strider, ‘in brief — for it is a long tale of which the end is not known; and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it wast old of old. It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.[2]

After the writer’s death, his son, Christopher John Reuel Tolkien, edited his father’s works and, reworking on his father’s notes, published The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth. What Christopher did is something a philologist does not, and should never do: he rewrote the story based on different sources.

       The first version that readers obtained is called The Tale of Tinúviel and it is found in The Book of Lost Tales.

Lúthien is called Tinúviel (nightingale), a name given to her in later versions by Beren. “Tinùviel, Tinùviel!” – so he went, in despair, calling her among the trees when the moon rose, hoping to be able to even only admire her. With the same words Aragorn addressed Arwen the first time he saw her.

Other characters will change their names in different versions, except Beren and Huan. Morgoth is still called Melko (ancient diction of Melkor) and his right-hand man is Tevildo, prince of cats.  

Beren is a gnome[3], a Noldo (‘those who know’) who wanders and spots Tinúviel dancing.

The vision of Lúthien dancing in the woods and meadows recurs in every version of the myth, because Tolkien was inspired by his own love story: Edith danced and sang for him in the flowery meadows during the first times they met.

The ending offers several hypotheses. The narrator, like Aragorn, does not know the outcome but two other characters tell two different endings, one of which will be taken up in other versions by the author himself.

Yet even as he spake the shadows of Mandos lay upon his face, and his spirit fled in that hour to the margin of the world, and Tinúviel’s tender kisses called him not back. ’

Then did Vëannë suddenly cease speaking, and Eriol sadly said: ‘A tale of ruth for so sweet a maid to tell’; but behold, Vëannë wept, and not for a while did she say: ‘Nay, that is not all the tale; but here endeth all that I rightly know,’[4]

     In 1925 Tolkien began working on a poem: The Lai of Leithian (release, liberation from elvish term leithia) translated by the author himself into Release from bondage; the similarity with the word Leithien, the elvish name for England, is curious.

The poem, composed of approximately 4200 lines in iambic pentameter and written in couplets, is unfinished.

Beren is no longer an elf but a human being, son of Barahir; Melkor is called by his epithet Morgoth (“Black Foe of the world”), his right-hand man is Thû, a necromancer (after a review followed on the first draft of The Lord of the Rings, Thû will be replaced by Sauron).

Beren escaped from his enemy’s grasp and reached the woodlands of Neldoreth where he saw Lúthien dancing.

Perhaps it was because she was the most beautiful of all the Ilúvatar’s children, or maybe it was just destiny: one glance was all it took for him to fall in love with her, she only had to look him in the eyes, so full of love, to never be able to forget them again, nor did she want to see them perish before her own.

Just like in the previous version, Thingol (Lúthien’s father) scorned and mocked the man; and promised him his daughter in exchange for an impossible mission: to recover a silmaril from the crown of Morgoth.

“For little price do elven-kings/their daughters sell — for gems and rings[1165]”/“and things of gold! If such thy will,/thy bidding I will now fulfill./On Beren son of Barahir/thou hast not looked the last, I fear./Farewell, Tinúviel, starlit maiden! [1170]/Ere the pale winter pass snow laden,/I will return, not thee to buy/with any jewel in Elfinesse,/but to find my love in loveliness,/a flower that grows beneath the sky. ’ [1175]”[5]

Beren, unlike in the previous story, was not alone, but could count on the alliance of Felagund, king of the Noldor. The king, hearing Beren’s words, decided to keep the oath he had sworn years before in Barahir, but his people turned their backs on him: the elves decided to listen to the sons of Fëanor (creator of the Silmarilli): Curufin and Celegorm (Huan’s master).

Ten of them followed their king through the fires and shadows, all the way to Valinor.

“Then a voice he heard: ‘Farewell!/On earth I need no longer dwell,/friend and comrade, Beren bold./My heart is burst, my limbs are cold./Here all my power I have spent[2630]/to break my bonds, and dreadful rent/of poisoned teeth is in my breast./I now must go to my long rest/neath Timbrenting in timeless shalls/where drink the Gods, where the light falls[2635]/upon the shining sea.’ Thus died the king,”/“as elvish singers yet do sing.”[6]

After escaping from her father, Lúthien is captured by Huan and handed over to Celegorm, who falls in love with her and while promising to help her, imprisons her in Nargothrond (capital of the Noldor).

Lúthien was devastated:  she had abandoned her protected lands for love, after discovering that Beren was imprisoned and close to death.

Huan took pity on her and freed her. Lúthien was then accompanied to Beren by Huan who gave them instructions on how to fulfil their mission.

The poem is then interrupted: Carcharoth swallos Beren’s hand along with the Silmaril, and so Beren loses a limb to save his beloved Tinúviel.

“Too swift for thought his onset came,/too swift for any spell to tame;/and Beren desperate then aside/thrust Lúthien, and forth did stride/unarmed, defenceless to defend [4210]/Tinúviel until the end.”[7]

The ending – which is only present in The Silmarillion and to which an entire chapter is dedicated in the story – follows The Tale of Tinúviel with some alterations and is completed by one of the characters in the tale, in the words.

     Tolkien built his universe, his characters, around the story of Beren and Lúthien, around his relationship with Edith. It was she who encouraged him to think, to write the monumental work that is only partly translated into Italian.

But like every love story, this one too must find its end and its fulfilment. Beren passed away, after completing his mission, after looking for the last time into her eyes that were no longer bright with life. Lúthien had allowed herself to die of pain: only by doing so, apart from violent death, can elves die. Yet it is but an ostensible death, only men who die are no more, so Ilúvatar had decided.

     For love they performed great deeds, so that they could dance and sing together without fear of evil, but all proved vain now that he was no longer there, now that she could do nothing but remember the distant echo of a mournful voice calling out “Tinùviel, Tinùviel!”.

Lúthien did what no one had ever done before and what was never done again: she sang in front of Mandos, she sang her love, she sang her sorrow and Mandos was moved; she summoned Beren’s soul, but it was beyond her power to hold it back. He went to Manwë, who offered Lúthien two choices: either to dwell among the Valar, forgetting all her sufferings, or to forego her immortality and return with Beren to Endor (Middle-earth): when she died there would be nothing left of her but her memory. And so, it was, and now they are mentioned in some canto still retold by their progeny, encouraging them not to yield to evil and inspiring them only to love.

Il 29 Novembre 1971 Edith morì.

From a letter to Christopher Tolkien 11 July 1972

I have at last got busy about Mummy’s grave. …. The inscription I should like is:


: brief and jejune, except for Lúthien, which says for me more than a multitude of words: for she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien.*
July 13. Say what you feel, without reservation, about this addition. I began this under the stress of great emotion & regret – and in any case I am afflicted from time to time (increasingly) with an overwhelming sense of bereavement. I need advice. Yet I hope none of my children will feel that the use of this name is a sentimental fancy. It is at any rate not comparable to the quoting of pet names in obituaries. I never called Edith Lúthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief pan of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.
I will say no more now. But I should like ere long to have a long talk with you. For if as seems probable I shall never write any ordered biography – it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths — someone close in heart to me should know something about things that records do not record: 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.[8]

Shortly afterwards Tolkien died and Beren’s name was engraved under his name.

“The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinuviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.

There Beren came from mountains cold,
And lost he wandered under leaves,
And where the Elven-river rolled.
He walked along and sorrowing.
He peered between the hemlock-leaves
And saw in wonder flowers of gold
Upon her mantle and her sleeves,
And her hair like shadow following.

Enchantment healed his weary feet
That over hills were doomed to roam;
And forth he hastened, strong and fleet,
And grasped at moonbeams glistening.
Through woven woods in Elvenhome
She lightly fled on dancing feet,
And left him lonely still to roam
In the silent forest listening.

He heard there oft the flying sound
Of feet as light as linden-leaves,
Or music welling underground,
In hidden hollows quavering.
Now withered lay the hemlock-sheaves,
And one by one with sighing sound
Whispering fell the beechen leaves
In the wintry woodland wavering.

He sought her ever, wandering far
Where leaves of years were thickly strewn,
By light of moon and ray of star
In frosty heavens shivering.
Her mantle glinted in the moon,
As on a hill-top high and far
She danced, and at her feet was strewn
A mist of silver quivering.

When winter passed, she came again,
And her song released the sudden spring,
Like rising lark, and falling rain,
And melting water bubbling.
He saw the elven-flowers spring
About her feet, and healed again
He longed by her to dance and sing
Upon the grass untroubling.

Again she fled, but swift he came.
Tinuviel! Tinuviel!
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinuviel
That in his arms lay glistening.

As Beren looked into her eyes
Within the shadows of her hair,
The trembling starlight of the skies
He saw there mirrored shimmering.
Tinuviel the elven-fair,
Immortal maiden elven-wise,
About him cast her shadowy hair
And arms like silver glimmering.

Long was the way that fate them bore,
O’er stony mountains cold and grey,
Through halls of iron and darkling door,
And woods of nightshade morrowless.
The Sundering Seas between them lay,
And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
In the forest singing sorrowless.”[9]

[1] Dante Alighieri, Opere minori, tomo I,Ricciardi, Milano-Napoli 1988, p. 78

Translation by La Livella’s translator:

Love, truly grasping and subtly considering, is nothing else but the spiritual union of the soul and the beloved one: a union in which the soul driven by its own nature runs swiftly or tardily according to whether it is free or hindered.

[2] J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lord of the Ring part one The Fellowship of the Ring, Grafton, Glasgow 1991, p.257

[3] Tolkien uses gnome, borrowing the Greek etymon, not the mythological creature reference.

[4] J.R.R.Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales part two, HarperCollins, Croydon 2015, p.40

[5] J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lays of Beleriand, , HarperCollins, Croydon 2015, p.193

[6] Ivi, p.250

[7] Ivi, p.307

[8] J.R.R.Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien, George Allen & Unwin, London, p.463

[9] J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lord of the Ring part one The Fellowship of the Ring, Grafton, Glasgow 1991, p.257

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