Over thirty years have passed since a weary reviewer equated the third book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “History of Middle-earth“, a twelve volume compendium edited by his son Christopher, with the scrapings of the bottom of a barrel. That was 1985 and though it was a somewhat unfair characterisation it is certainly true that the last three decades have seen the emergence of ever more obscure bits of the British author’s literary estate. These have ranged in quality and merit, often being of interest to only the most devoted admirers of his works or “legendarium“. The Guardian reports on the latest bit of “Tolkploitation“:
“JRR Tolkien’s legend of the mortal man Beren and the immortal elf Lúthien – a story that meant so much to the Lord of the Rings author that the characters’ names are engraved on the headstone shared by him and his wife – is to be published next year.
The Middle-earth tale tells of the love between the mortal man and the immortal elf. Lúthien’s father, an Elvish lord, is against their relationship, and so gives Beren an impossible task to fulfil before the two can be married, said HarperCollins, which will publish Beren and Lúthien next May.
The texts about the legend are “presented together for the first time”, said HarperCollins…”
Note the wording, “presented together for the first time“, because most of the surviving Beren and Lúthien redactions have been published in several previous editions. Versions of the legend are found in “The Silmarillion” (1977), “The Book of Lost Tales, Parts I and II” (1983-4) and the aforementioned “The Lays of Beleriand” (1985). While the first three books are fascinating the “Lays” are not for a general readership – as many an unfortunate purchaser has found out.
In truth, the twelve volumes of the “History of Middle-earth” would have fitted quite comfortably into four or five books if all the extraneous materials, imaginative diversions and literary cul de sacs had been eliminated and Christopher Tolkien had concentrated on presenting a handful of near-coherent stories. Which, of course, is what most “fans” wanted. With the future publication of this tale Tolkien’s son is revising both his own works and his father’s. The starting point for this labour was probably 2007’s “The Children of Húrin“, undoubtedly the most accessible – and satisfying – example of the legendarium published since the “Unfinished Tales” in 1980. If the compilation of the Beren and Lúthien stories match that book in narrative quality then a return to the First Age of the world will be a welcome one indeed.