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  • Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Sherwood Smith
Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. 288 pp. $30.00 (hard-cover). ISBN 9781328791825.

Christopher Tolkien, now in his nineties, has given us one additional entry in his meticulously documented compendium of his father's grand legendarium. This volume appropriately concerns Beren and Lúthien, reportedly its author's favorite tale, and one certainly central to the structure and mythology of his sub-creation.

There are many readers for whom The Lord of the Rings was a transformative experience, one they hoped they would get again when The Silmarillion finally came out, and then again when Christopher Tolkien began the monumental task of sifting through all the various scraps and bits on his father's desk to combine into a whole. For some readers, alas, that never happened. For others, The Silmarillion was even more profoundly effective.

Over the decades since my first impassioned immersion in The Lord of the Rings as a junior high school student in 1966, I've talked to numerous Middle-earth fans who've had a range of readerly responses to The Silmarillion and other works. For a long time I found it odd how so many who responded so strongly to The Lord of the Rings could have widely ranging reactions to the other works.

The conclusion I've reached in recent years is that this is due partly to how people read, and to how Tolkien wrote. Let me attempt to explain briefly—and then to relate it to the book in hand.

The Lord of the Rings is immersive: readers are drawn gradually from the storyteller's sketch of the Middle-earth background into the hobbit hole in preparation for Bilbo's big day. They find themselves living in the Shire; and, when Frodo departs with his companions, readers are riding right on their shoulders, experiencing the details of the journey as the hobbits experience them.

Immersive fiction, I think, is the most easily accessible to the widest number of contemporary readers. But there are still differences in how readers process the text. For example, an audial reader's response to The Lord of the Rings can be quite different from the visual reader's, who is seeing a movie (not Peter Jackson's, though some readers have told me that a few of the actors and sets have created palimpsests over their previous mental imagery). Audial readers respond to [End Page 231] the narrative rhythms in the words themselves, which visual readers might not even notice. Audial readers are thrilled by how the prose in the early chapters, deep in the Shire, differs from the prose in the Rohan sections. They might delight in the poems that visual readers skim or skip altogether, and they relish the rhythms of mimetic storytelling, which are grounded in Tolkien's deep love for, and influence by, northern myth and poetry.

What the subsequent tales—so many unfinished, with numerous drafts and variations—present are experiments in poetry that hearken back to those northern story-poems, and narrative prose that evokes the storyteller standing next to the hearth in a room of avid listeners, as the wind howls outside.

Writers know that creating a scene from a bit of narrated prose (the "tell" in "show, don't tell") takes exponentially more work as well as wordage. Immersing the reader requires sensory detail as well as the detail of character movement and motivation, speech patterns, and reactions.

For whatever reason, Tolkien only wrote scraps of immersive, or "show" text, in the legendarium after he finished The Lord of the Rings; he apparently continued to work on his grand history and linguistics via other modes of storytelling until he died.

So, to this book.

There is no new text from J.R.R. Tolkien, as Christopher Tolkien makes plain at the outset. He has pulled all the relevant bits about Beren and Lúthien from the vast compendium, beginning with the earliest fragments when Tolkien was a young man in 1917, through various iterations over the subsequent years. In his characteristically self...


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