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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 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 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). It 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 and meets the beautiful elf-lady Findulias, and never reaches the battle with the dragon, who is still called Glorund rather than Glaurung (the final form in the published Silmarillion). There is a second version, but it does not even reach beyond the days of Turin's fostering.
Following this is 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. 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. "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.
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, but Tolkien stuck with it through fourteen cantos, taking the story to the point where Beren and Luthien are escaping Angband with the Silmaril and the Wolf bites off Beren's hand. There the poem disintegrates into tentative fratments jotted on various slips of paper, along with some various synopses that would have carried the story further.
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. 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.
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.
Subsequent to Lewis's critique, Tolkien returned to the Lay of Leithian and sought to completely rework it in the light of his friend's advice. Sadly, that impulse soon ran out, and he returned entirely to works in prose.
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Review posted October 26, 2000
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