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The Lays of Beleriand by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When J.R.R. Tolkien abandoned the Book of Lost Tales as a vehicle for telling the stories of the elves and their battles against Melko, he turned instead to poetry. He experimented with a number of different forms, including rhyming verse and alliterative verse, and two of these poems reached considerable length. Unfortunately, none of them ever reached a state in which they could be seriously considered for publication, and Tolkien eventually abandoned all of them, ever to return. In this volume, the third in a series that will provide a scholarly exploration of the creation of Middle Earth, his son Christopher Tolkien presents the unfinished poems, along with commentaries on their development.

The first is a "Lay of the Children of Hurin", written in alliterative verse (one of the forms favored by the Old English poets, with which Tolkien as a scholar was quite familiar). This long narrative poem tells of Turin's fostering in the house of Thingol (now called such, as opposed to the name "Tinwelint" which was used in the Book of Lost Tales), and of how he became an outlaw in the wilds of Beleriand in the company of Beleg the great hunter. Sadly, it ends shortly after Turin reaches Narogothrond (which has now attained its majesty as one of the great hidden elven kingdoms, quite unlike the hidden abode of the Rodolithrim refugees) and meets the beautiful elf-lady Findulias. Thus we can only imagine what it might have looked like had it reached the battle with the dragon, who is still called Glorund rather than Glaurung (the final form in the published Silmarillion). Tolkien subsequently essayed a second version, in which he attempted to improve and expand upon the first, but it does not even reach beyond the days of Turin's fostering.

Following this extensive yet incomplete effort are a number of poems that were abandoned soon after their beginnings, before any significant narrative development. "The Flight of the Noldoli" was abandoned before it could even reach two hundred lines, and as such got no further than setting up the situation of the story it would have told. It is, however, notable for containing the first development of what would become the complex geneology of the princes of the royal house of Finwe. Following it is an alliterative "Lay of Earendel", but it is represented only by a few pages of hasty jottings and did not even reach fifty lines. It is only of interest for the curious interpolation of a possible line "Wade of the Helsingas" in the place of Tuor as the father of Earendel. What Tolkien may have intended by that is impossible to ascertan at this remove, but it certainly gives fodder for speculation about his intent to tie his mythos with the ancient history of the land that would become England. "The Lay of the Fall of Gondolin" is so fragmentary and insignificant that Christopher Tolkien did not consider it necessary to print in full, but only gives a few particularly interesting extracts.

However, all of these poems are of interest in relation to the development of the genealogies of the royal houses of the elves, and particularly the descendants of Finwe, king of the Noldor. In the earliest forms in the Book of Lost Tales, Feanor was not even an elf of royal birth, but rather the son of an elven craftsman. Although Finwe was named from the beginning as the king of the Noldor, the relationship of the various elven leaders in the Great Lands to him was left rather vague. Only in these verse versions do the elaborate genealogies begin to emerge, and then only hesitantly with many false starts as different characters are connected first one way then another, to the point where it is hard to determine whether Tolkien was reassigning the same character a different place in the royal family tree or whether he might instead be reapplying old names to different characters.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is the Lay of Leithian, the story of Beren and Luthien in rhymed octosyllabic couplets. This is a difficult mode to follow, particularly in a sustained narrative poem where one must careful not to lapse into sing-song, but Tolkien stuck with it through fourteen cantos, taking the story to the point at which Beren and Luthien are escaping Angband with the Silmaril and the Wolf bites off Beren's hand. There the poem disintegrates into tentative fragments of lines jotted on various slips of paper, along with some various synopses that would have carried the story further, although as it approached the story's conclusion it became little more than a sketch.

However, this poem is of particular interest because it shows the development of the story of Beren and Luthien beyond its early beginnings. Gone forever is the business about Tevildo and his demonic cats, which charming though they may have been in the fashion of a children's animal-tale, had become quite out of place in the more dignified narrative Tolkien now envisioned. Instead we have the mature idea of Beren's visit to Narogothrond, his alliance with Felagund (although this Noldorian prince's place in the genealogy of the house of Finwe has not yet been fully developed) and the battle with the wolf-Sauron at Tol Sirion which would persist in all further iterations of the story's telling.

While Tolkien was working on this poem, he allowed his friend C.S. Lewis to comment upon it. The result is one of the most amusing and interesting critiques to be found. Lewis, familiar with the apparatus of scholarly criticism of variant texts of ancient and medieval manuscripts, couched his critique as such a critical text. Some of his most pointed criticisms of weak passages are in the form of feigned comparisons to various divergent manuscripts found in various monasteries and archives. As a result, he was able to take some of the sting out of what otherwise would have been particularly harsh, even painful criticisms.

Subsequent to Lewis's critique, Tolkien returned to the Lay of Leithian and sought to rework it in the light of his friend's advice. In the first Canto he did little more than reword a few lines on the original typescript, but as he tackled Canto II, he began a major restructuring that completely transformed the story of Gorlim's entrapment by Morgoth and subsequent treason. However, by the time he reached Canto III the impulse was running thin, and he got no more than a few dozen lines before the new manuscript stopped. Here and there he did make some alterations to later parts of the poem, but it was no longer part of a concerted effort to rework the entire piece. Subsequently he returned entirely to works in prose save for the occasional bit of verse that was inserted into his prose texts as quotations.

This volume concludes with some notes on Tolkien's efforts to submit a partial version of the Lay of Leithian to his publisher after the success of The Hobbit., along with several other pieces on which he had been working. However, the deliberate archaism of the language of the Lay proved to be too much for Allen & Unwin's first reader, who wrote back that he could not determine whether this manuscript was a translation of a genuine Celtic document that had previously gone unnoticed, or if it was a modern creation. Although Tolkien was heartened that it was not rejected with outright scorn, the incomprehension of the first reader made him concerned about the problem of finding a presentation which would accommodate the modern reader and avoid such confusion. It was a problem that would dog his efforts to bring the Silmarillion materials to a publishable state for the rest of his days.

Table of Contents

  • The Lay of the Children of Hurin
  • Poems Early Abandoned
    • The Flight of the Noldoli
    • Fragment of an alliterative Lay of Earendel
    • The Lay of the Fall of Gondolin
  • The Lay of Leithian
  • The Lay of Leithian Recommenced

Review posted January 14, 2010.

Buy The Lays of Beleriand (The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 3) from Amazon.com