Friday, September 10, 2004

Beren and Lúthien

Because it's what we're all here for really..

A very different kind of Tolkien-Zen moment.

My friend just posted this little taster on his Blog. Oxford Inklings He says it contains his all-time favourite quote of the 20th Century. That's quite a claim. Here is what he says about it:

The Geste of Beren and Lúthien.

This wonderful epic poem is the core work in the Tolkien corpus. It may be read in it's entirety in "The Lays of Beleriand" available in Hard or Paperback at any bookshop. Why the core work? On the headstone of the Tolkien grave at Wolvercote are two words from his whole life's work: "Beren & Lúthien".

"A king there was in days of old:
ere Men yet walked upon the mould
his power was reared in cavern's shade,
his hand was over glen and glade.
His shields were shining as the moon,
his lances keen of steel were hewn,
of silver grey his crown was wrought,
the starlight in his banners caught;
and silver thrilled his trumpets long
beneath the stars in challenge strong;
enchantment did his realm enfold,
where might and glory, wealth untold,
he wielded from his ivory throne
in many-pillared halls of stone.
There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,
and metal wrought like fishes' mail,
buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
and gleaming spears were laid in hoard —
all these he had and loved them less
than a maiden once in Elfinesse;
for fairer than are born to Men
a daughter had he, Lúthien."

The first 22 lines (of 4,223) of The Geste of Beren and Lúthien
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Well I just thought it might be nice to ponder it and compare it to other slices of epic poetry or prose in Tolkien's works. The silver trumpets theme is appearing again. And it reminds me a lot of the dream Frodo had about a man with an emerald star on his forehead. And the poem that Sam recites about Gil-Galad. (Or maybe the tale that Strider tells them in the wild on Weathertop).

What do you notice about it? And what interests you?

Why is it my friend's favourite quote? In his own words:

Lúthien... can only be a thing of beauty to me. "A daughter had he, Lúthien"... the greatest line in English Literature. (I know, I have a daughter)!

Don't know why, but that touched my heart!


At September 10, 2004 at 12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing that always strikes me about this is that Tolkien must have really liked some of that verse, as he stole it from that poem, and placed it within the lines Gimli recites about Khazad-Dum in FotR:

There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,
and metal wrought like fishes' mail,
buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
and gleaming spears were laid in hoard —
appears in both passages.

I wish I had the time to discuss this in great detail, there is so much richness in it to discuss-- the rhyme, the meter, the form, the choice of words, and how the stanza builds to the last line "A daughter had he, Luthien." Lays of Beleriand is a great book, IMO.

Thanks for sharing. I hope others have more time to spare on this.


At September 10, 2004 at 12:06 PM, Blogger jesusandME said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At September 10, 2004 at 12:08 PM, Blogger jesusandME said...

What always strikes me - about the whole saga - is how abruptly it stops! It says a lot about Tolkien's writing style that he came to so crucial a moment and then couldn't continue. It reminds me of what happened when Strider first appeared at the Prancing Pony, he was so shocked by the Ranger's sudden appearance that he didn't know what to do with it. And went away for a long time to decide whether he was to be a friend or foe..

I think sometimes he was a little daunted by the more dramatic moments. Was he so attached to his characters that he felt what they were going through deeply? Was it that it is harder to find the words to describe the more powerful moments? Or was it that he did not know at that time what was going to happen next?

of silver grey his crown was wrought,
the starlight in his banners caught;
and silver thrilled his trumpets long
beneath the stars in challenge strong;
Here is that theme again linking elves and stars. I have always loved that Tolkien associated the one with the other.. And it always makes me think of magic, which usually makes me feel a little guilty seeing as the hobbits are so specifically told that elven lore is not 'magic' as such. So I guess that makes the next line 'enchantment did his realm enfold,' even more reassuring!

The whole thing sounds so much like a fairytale, it has the ability to whisk you off into another world even more I think than his prose. Perhaps that's why he believed that writing in rhyme and meter was so very important, it weaves an enchantment of its own over the story that it is telling.....

What does surprise me about the Sil and the Lays (and the Hobbit too I suppose) is that so many of the Elves dwell in caverned halls underground.. I always pictured them as dwellers in the living parts of nature, but then as a dwarf might say, what makes a rock any less alive than the rest of the world?!

At September 10, 2004 at 12:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was more of a change than a stop because he did finish the tale - only he finished it in prose rather than verse. I suppose prose is easier to write (I certainly find it so) especially if you're writing in that complicated meter, and also, let's be honest, it's easier to sell to readers.


At September 10, 2004 at 12:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CS Lewis commented thus on the last four lines: "The description of Lúthien has been too often and too justly praised to encourage the mere commentator in intruding".

At September 10, 2004 at 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting to compare The Lay of Leithian with the Lay of the Children of Húrin. Particularly as the latter was abandoned for the former, and then the former was abandoned too. I prefer Túrin's tale to Beren and Lúthien (call me morbid!) but I'm not sure I prefer the poem. The alliterative style is so different, yet many of the same skills are demonstrated:

Lo! the golden dragon of the God of Hell,
the gloom of the woods of the world now gone,
the woes of Men, and the weeping of Elves
fading faintly down forest pathways,
is now to tell, and the name most tearful
of Níniel the sorrowful, and the name most sad
of Thalion's son Túrin o'erthrown by fate.
A very different mood - yet still it's all mood, all atmosphere, instantly setting the tone of the tale. Here it's doom and gloom from the start, whereas the structure and style of Leithian is definitely high romance. Lots of alliteration in both - obviously in Túrin, because it's alliterative verse - but just as skillful.

Shame, really, he didn't finish either in verse.


At September 10, 2004 at 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me that I want to go back to Lays of Beleriand and read it in full (I just skimmed it when I got it this spring). Tolkien spent the 1920s attempting to compose epic poems about the legendary world he had invented after the Great War. He eventually abandoned the effort, and went back to prose. But the poems survive, unfinished or unpolished. And he never forgot them, and recycled them, as Inferno notes.

Aragorn sings several stanzas of this poem in Fellowship of the Ring, to comfort and distract the Hobbits as they await the Nazgul on Weathertop:
"The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering." - FotR, p. 252

He does not sing the passage Amatire has brought us today, because it is really just the introduction to Thingol, Luthien's father. Aragorn (and Tolkien at this point in the story) is intensely focused on his identification with Beren. Arwen, of course, is his Luthien, and he met her in a similar way, as his recital tells.

Strider comments, "' is a long tale of which the end is not known;'" and "'That is a song in the mode that is called ann-thennath among the Elves, but is hard to render in our Common Speech, and this is but a rough echo of it.'" I love stuff like this! Tolkien is letting us know he never finished the poem; and also that if we don't like his poetry, we can blame the difficulty of translation from ann-thennath! (And I wonder if he first wrote it in Elvish, purposely making it difficult to translate into English?) Anyway, fancy tarting up good old iambic quadrameter by saying it's a "rough translation" from a fiendishly difficult Elvish meter!

Similarly, I kind of hate that Gimli's poem of Khazad-dum recycles the Lay of Beren and Luthien. It seems to cheapen the effort of bringing the poetry of the Dwarvish culture into LotR; but it really only shows that Tolkien desperately wanted to use what he considered some of his best poetry.

We might also guess that both dwarves and elves of the First Age used oral formulas to compose their heroic lays, and that both poems here quoted are drawing on the same lyric tradition -- more difficult is the idea that one was Dwarvish, and one Elvish (ann-thennath, no less!), and yet the "translator" of Lord of the Rings recognized the lyric identity across both languages, and deliberately re-united them by using the same English lines in both translations.

Ah well, we could rant like this for hours, couldn't we?

I find the last line, the one your friend so loves, a little odd. The lines are generally broken in mid-line (4-4) grammatically, to allow for easy breathing while chanting. "A daughter had he, Luthien" breaks 5-3; you want to pause after "he," to give the climactic revelation of her name a little emphatic frame, yet the poem's meter wants you to pause at "had". Of course, this device also forces the reader to focus on how he will deliver the line, and the break in rhythym declares the importance of the final line.

Gotta go crack open Lays of Beleriand tonight.

- Squire

At September 10, 2004 at 12:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

and here I was wondering to take on vacation

I even have the Lays of Beleriand.


At September 10, 2004 at 12:33 PM, Blogger jesusandME said...

I am glad to have prompted you like that. It is a treasure-trove to read, time and again!

On the use of the same original Lay for both Dwarvish and Elvish poetry in LOTR, I have wondered if it was deliberate in an entirely different way. Perhaps it was done to show the reader that Elves and Dwarves, despite their animosity now, were once far closer than we imagine at that point in the story. And that they actually have a shared oral history.

It certainly fits with the relationship that Gimli and Legolas develop, perhaps this event in Moria is the first grains of it. I am sure that Legolas would have heard the great poem of Beren and Lúthien before, and may well have recognised Gimli's use of those lines. Perhaps it made him more disposed to relate better to Gimli. In any case, a dwarf spouting poetry is bound to have a curiously endeering effect on an elf IMHO!

I must say, the part that Aragorn recites (thanks for that I haven't got my copy of FOTR with me here so I couldn't remember which bit it was) is at the moment my favourite.

I just adore the way that the fourth and last line of each verse ends with something so different from the rest of it.

Again she fled, but swift he came.
Tinúviel! Tinúviel!
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinúviel
That in his arms lay glistening.
It has a similar effect to the last line of this first segment, (indeed, unless my rhythm is completely out, I'd say it requires you to change the meter in just the same way as 'A daughter had he, Luthien' but perhaps the fact that it is done repeatedly and at set intervals makes it seem less abrupt) adding emphasis and insisting the reader take a pause to wonder at what has been said. At such a crucial moment in the whole story it's as if Tolkien was wanting to make us stop and really take in what is happening as Man courts elf...

I too think that this is the finest example of Tolkien's poetry you will ever see. I'd recommend it to anyone!

At September 10, 2004 at 12:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Iambic quadrameter can get a bit tiring for me, especially in such a long poem, so this is not my favorite. Perhaps I would have preferred iambic pentameter -- I certainly do when Shakespear uses it. The regular four beats just seems to get sing-songy -- does that make any sense?


At September 10, 2004 at 12:36 PM, Blogger jesusandME said...

I agree. But I wonder if Tolkien didn't prefer the balance of quadrameter because it echoes the split-stanza form of the alliterative Anglo-Saxon mode that Eledwhen is noting he tried first.

Pentameter is unbalanced (and freer for it) and Shakespearean and Miltonic - not really Tolkien's cup of tea.

I should have added, when commenting on the simplicity (or 'sing-song', as you cruelly but accurately put it ) of the meter, that the rhyme-scheme is quite intricate, ABAD.BABD. Perhaps ann-thennath is all about rhyme and word-sound with only an incidental meter. That would seem to be Tolkien's angle, as always.

Does anyone know what poetic qualities the Elvish languages tend toward? I would be surprised if those languages had nothing to do with Tolkien's poetic style in English.


At September 10, 2004 at 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elu Thingol is one of my favorite characters in all of Tolkien's work. Proud and noble. I often think of how glorious life would have been in Doriath of old, ere the return of the Noldor.


At September 10, 2004 at 12:38 PM, Blogger jesusandME said...

He is certainly given one of the most romantic moments in Middle-Earth's history!

Imagine coming across Melian in a woodland and being so enchanted, that upon taking her hand, a whole age passes before you stir again from gazing on her beauty!

At September 14, 2004 at 2:28 PM, Blogger Roger R. said...

How about Morgoth (whose mere servant rejoiced in the name of Sauron)... you can feel the darkness:

Beneath a monstrous column loomed
the throne of Morgoth, and the doomed
and dying gasped upon the floor:
his hideous footstool, rape of war.
About him sat his awful thanes,
the Balrog-lords with fiery manes,
redhanded, mouthed with fangs of steel;
devouring wolves were crouched at heel.
And o'er the host of hell there shone
with a cold radiance, clear and wan,
the Silmarils, the gems of fate,
emprisoned in the crown of hate.

The Geste (Lines 3892-3903)

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