Ossus Library Index Fantasy Index

THE LAYS OF BELERIAND

A compilation of works of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Christopher Tolkien (1985, George Allen & Unwin)
Book 3 of the History of Middle-Earth

The adventures of Turin and of Beren in the lands of Beleriand in the form of alliterative verse.

 

 

3 stars

Read November 6th to 15th, 2002 for the second time  
    Because of the style of this book -poetry, I definitely had less interest in it. However, the story was very clear, and the commentary concise enough to make the book thoroughly enjoyable.

I am not a fan of poetry. I discovered this a long time ago, and every time I try it again, I am unimpressed. Even with the Adventures of Tom Bombadil, whose limericks are supposed to be fun, I skipped through most of it. Any long poems that I encounter in Tolkien's work is just as easily skimmed.

This book, therefore, presented a huge problem: the two stories presented here are completely in poetic form. Still, I wanted to re-read this book, both for completeness, and because it presents a development of the story between the Book of Lost Tales and the next prose form of the Silmarillion.

Tolkien took his two most beloved tales from his epic work, and expanded them into poems, at the same time altering the style and much of the story, expanding it, excising segments, changing relationships and names, from what had come before. We must remember that what had come before were the tales from the Book of Lost Tales Part II, in which the stories were told in a very early stage.

Throughout, what I found most interesting was the commentary. When I first read this book, I had read the stories of the Silmarillion from the Books of Lost Tales, but didn't understand them. This book was really the first time that I understood much of the tales of Turin and of Beren. I had not read the Silmarillion, so did not know their relationships with the rest of the work. I did not understand the commentary, because it constantly referenced the earlier works (which I did not grasp) and the later works in Unfinished Tales and the final book. This time, all of those relationships are ingrained in my mind, and I understood most if not all of what the editor, Christopher Tolkien, was talking about.

The book is divided up into three parts, the second of which is the shortest. It deals with verse versions of the early days of the Noldor, like the fragments of the Flight of the Noldoli, or the Lay of Earendil. There is not much to these poems, and they do not add much to the mythology. Even the commentary is sparse in this section.

The book begins, however, with the tale of Turin, beginning with his father's captivity by Morgoth. This poem, being in a rhythm of old English meter, was very difficult to read at times. I got used to it after a while, but every so often, a couple of lines would appear that made me stumble again. For most of this poem, I skimmed a lot of the verse. The poem was almost easier to read as prose much of the time, because of the way it was composed.

As Christopher Tolkien mentions, if it had been completed, the Lay of the Children of Hurin would have been an enormous body of work. The story was long in the Lost Tales. Here, it was expanded even further. Much of it, unfortunately, was uninteresting journeying. Turin and Flinding's trek south was very tiresome, for example, reminding me of Tuor's journey to Gondolin in Unfinished Tales. It went on for far too long. However, I did enjoy the very emotional story of those two at the pools of Ivrin, where Turin is cured.

At this stage, the tale of Hurin had not been fully fleshed out, and I wonder about all of the foreshadowing that everybody seems to have interpreted. It reappears with regard to Huan's fate in Beren's tale, but here everybody seems to know Hurin's fate. Yet nobody plans a rescue, as the eagles did for Maedros when he was tied to the mountain. I suspect that the tale of Maedros had not yet come to pass when this poem was written, though.

I was amazed at how I could spot differences between what had come before, and the later tale, in relation to this poem. It was a true epic poem, telling a grand story. Apparently, there was another version of this poem that was not published, and I wonder why not. The editor says that it was written much later, but then he published the Lay of Leithien "recommenced", which was written after the Lord of the Rings- much later!

The Lay of Leithien ("Release from Bondage"), which recounts the tale of Beren and Luthien, was much easier to read. It was written in rhyme, instead of alliterative verse. Still, while some of the verses flowed really nicely off the tongue, and would have made for excellent recital, other lines were very difficult to read, and seem to betray the rhythm, cutting us loose from the story. Some of the rhyming words even seemed to be used only to create a rhyme, and aren't as complex or mature as the majority, so that they really stand out.

Once again, the story was very well detailed, and fleshed out so much from the similar Tale. In fact, this poem was used directly to create the chapter in the Silmarillion, though it was compressed extensively there. What I found interesting was the way nearly every "canto" managed to start with some history, neatly summarizing the important points such as the arrival of the Noldor in Beleriand, Fingolfin's challenge to Morgoth, the Battle of Sudden Flame, Thingol's history with Melian, and so on, so that it felt like a real world, much the same as The Lord of the Rings does.

I was also amazed to see the differences between this version and the others that I have read recently, now that I understand them so much better. The commentary of this poem was once again restricted to recounting those differences, especially in names, but also of deeds and events. So many new things were introduced, and many more never made it past this stage. I wish the editor had reduced some of the repetition, however, in his commentary. Sometimes he repeated entire passages, in addition to giving line numbers. He was inconsistent with that, as at other times he would only give the line numbers, so I could go back and check out the part of the poem he was talking about on my own.

With regards to the story that the poem relates, I wonder most about Huan, who seems to arrive and depart as the story needs him to. One could say that Huan's fate, being known to just about everybody, was self-fulfilling, especially since Morgoth bred Carcharoth specifically for this purpose. I also have trouble believing that Huan could not be spelled, since even Sauron and the might Morgoth, both gods of a sort, were cast into sleep by Luthien's cloak.

The tale of Luthien reaches most of its final form here, as mentioned. I realized here how much of Luthien's life mirrors Arwen's, even though there are significant differences. Both human men walk as if into a dream into the elvish lands to see this beauty, win the hearts of an elvish woman against the will of their parents, and are fated to be with these men. Arwen is certainly Luthien reborn into a later life, and falls once again for a mortal. Elrond, for his part, recognizes this, and has only one restriction for their marriage, as Thingol did. While Beren must retrieve a Silmaril, Aragorn can only marry Arwen if he becomes King. I don't know which task was more difficult!

I wondered often why the poem changed tense from time to time. Most of the poem is in the past tense, the third person story tense, but sometimes, usually during the most tragic moments, it changes into the present. Since nobody comments on this, I suppose it is an issue of style.

The end of the book runs out of steam quickly. The commentary by C.S. Lewis on the Lay of Leithien did nothing for me, and I was not even inspired enough to go back and check on which passages he was referring to. The Lay Recommenced featured sparse new development, and many new words, for the same story. It was fragmented, for good reason, because much of it was not new, and this made it even less interesting. I was a little confused as to the time period in which it was written, since so much of it seems pre-Silmarillion, yet other parts are dated to post Lord of the Rings.

This is an interesting book from the perspective of learning how the mythological stories developed from their first forms to the finished form in The Silmarillion. The stories are beautiful, even if they run a little long in places, and become difficult to read in others. It is because the stories are so interesting that I could ignore the poetry, which I realize is half of the reason to read poetry! Still, the poetic nature of the stories did not bother me much, after I got used to them. To the person who enjoys poetry, these must be infinitely more interesting.

For my part, though I started enjoying the commentary more than the story, the stories were still very interesting in their own right, even more so since I could pick out amazing passages and the differences from later stories. Overall, this book is a winner.
 

 

2 stars

Also read February 2nd to 21st, 1988  
   

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