In Review: The Lays of Beleriand

The Lays of Beleriand, by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher TolkienI am not really into poetry, but I was hoping due to the wonderful experience reading The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun that I would be pleasantly surprised by The Lays of Beleriand.  I have to say the result, ultimately was 50/50.  I had a lot of trouble getting through The Lay of Children of Hurin, but absolutely loved the Lay of Leithian.

There are many possible reasons for this.  The Children of Hurin is one of Tolkien’s best established works, in terms of publishing.  I have now read the tale in The Book of Lost Tales, the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales (Narn i Chin Hurin) and the stand-alone The Children of Hurin…and now the Lay.  Ultimately, therefore, my issues may have been due to over familiarity with the tale.

The other hurdle is the fact that the Lay of the Children of Hurin is written in alliterative verse, much like the Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.  While fascinating to hear and decifer the structure of this type of poetry, I found it did not lend itself to easy reading.

The Lay of Leithian, on the other hand, is written in rhyming couplets and is a joy to read.  It is not only stunningly beautiful at times, but the tale itself is greatly expanded.  Nowhere else is the tale of Beren and Luthien told more poignantly or completely (granted the lay leaves off shortly after the recovery of the Silmaril).  The other amazing thing about the Lay of Leithian, which is revealed through the commentary by Christopher Tolkien, is that the tale as told in the Lay is still the tale.  The differences found in the chapter of the Silmarillion are largely due to compression, not due to revision or rewriting.  This fact (though not true of all cases) makes this Lay all the more valuable for any fan of Tolkien’s legendarium.

As with the Book of Lost Tales, Christopher Tolkien’s commentary is very enlightening, helping to tie together the progression of the tales across drafts, time and place.  His analysis helps to give an inside look into the thought process and method of Tolkien’s myth making.

One kernel of great insight is buried in the commentary for the Lay of Leithian.  This wonderful thought is from none other than CS Lewis, who read and critiqued this Lay as Tolkien wrote it (a great part of his criticism and suggestions is included at the end of the lay).  He wrote:

“I sat up late last night and have read the Geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves in the reaf (Old English: ‘garments, weapons, taken from the slain’).  I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend’s work had very little to do with it.  I should have enjoyed it just as well if I’d picked it up in the bookshop, by an unknown author.  The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader.” (LoB p184, bold to call out two main points)

So who needs my recommendation when you can have Lewis’s?

The two main points Lewis lists at the end of this quote are of great interest.  The first, regarding the sense of reality and background, shows the process of interlacement (described by Tom Shippey) was already being used by Tolkien throughout his work, even before the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  In both lays, there are many references to events, places and beings beyond the scope of the current tale.  Sometimes they are given significant description, such as the oath of the sons of Feanor, or the fall of Fingolfin.  While other references are often passing mentions, with little explanation other than the reader’s own knowledge gained through the Silmarillion.  Often reading these short references made me wonder if these were the first kernels of a tale, newly sprung in Tolkien’s thought as he wrote.  Based on the outlines and synopses presented in this book, it would not be hard to believe; as it appears he often worked through a process of rewriting and expansion of ideas through each iteration.

The second observation of CS Lewis is particularly interesting given Tolkien’s own stated aversion for allegory.  Here, Lewis gives one of the best descriptions of what Tolkien desired in the pursuit of applicability over allegory.  Here too, Lewis’ observation on myth and allegory explains the continuing success of Tolkien’s works, as well as all the mythology that has been passed on to us through the ages.  They each write to the core of the human experience, to our aspirations, dreams and fears, but leave the ultimate search for meaning and connection to the reader, giving him or her the power to find personal meaning in each passage, rather than assigning meaning which stifles the that potential visceral connection between written word and reader.

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