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The Lay of Leithian or the Heroism of the Couple

The Lay of Leithian, an incomplete work of J. R. R. Tolkien, holds a particular place in thecorpus of the posthumous publications of the history of Middle earth. It is first of all about the longest of his narrative poems: around 4175 lines in the "lay" (or roughly the length of Roland's Song) taking the narrative close enough to the end, to the fourteenth Canto. The importance of this poem for Tolkien was continuous, as was the dissatisfaction for the composition which is evident in its construction, the period of writing of the text goes from the summer  of 1925 to the month of September 1931 (the longest period of sustained composition for a text of the Legendarium after the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit). There was also one period of total rewrite twenty years later (in 1951), after the writing of the Lord of the Rings, and this didn't get further that the first three Cantos. That we will consider therefore in the notes to the main text.

In 1937, Tolkien sent to Allen & Unwin a set of texts that comprised the Silmarillion as it then existed, in which was included  the Lay of Leithian. It is important because the majority of the texts of the history of Middle- Earth were submitted to a publisher. The critiques that  are given later, the incompleteness and the attempt to rewrite the entire text show Tolkien’s dissatisfaction, but this evidence must not hide the central place of this text in the corpus of the Legendarium, for it is one of the most developed from the point of details of narration, and one of the most personal to the author.

Indeed, the significance of the Lay of Leithian is in a sense unique as it is a work where the origins in the biographic material – which is so rare with Tolkien - is claimed clearly by the author.  The history of Beren and Lúthien being a poetic retelling of the author and his own wife, in effect.

Although our base text is clearly defined as the most developed version of the Lay of Leithian, various other versions of the history of Beren and Lúthien exist. We will refer often to the following among them:

- the Tale of Tinuviel belonging to the Book of the Lost Tales (CT), text in prose of 1917 and first version of the history,

- the prose version of the Silmarillion of 1930 or Qenta Noldorinwa (QN),

- the prose version of the Silmarillion of 1937, mainly inspired by the Lay of Leithian

- the first three Cantos of the Lay rewritten in 1951 (Lay II),

- the version published in the "final" Silmarillion, published by Christopher  Tolkien in 1977 (Silm).

The theme of the relationships in love, less rare in Tolkien than one often imagines, is not something that is  less generally developed or in a very limited and roundabout manner. The tales of love reasonably  developed in the Legendarium are the tale of Aldarion and Erendis, the histories of Aragorn and Arwen, Faramir and Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings and especially the one that concern us – Beren and Luthien.

This work is designated a "Lay" – which is curious when it comprises a narrative text of the length of a novel or a heroic or epic song, and must therefore instruct us by its form. So Tolkien, who was a medievalist, so named his poem  not purely because of the dimensions (1)  of the work, but rather for other motives. Two things immediately emerge from this.

In the first place, the Celtic roots that are at the sources of the genre (2).. However, the Lay of Leithian includes in its narrative many borrowings from the Celtic tradition (Welsh, Breton) which we can recognise (3). Secondly, Medieval lays used octosyllabic flat rhymes. Finally, the influence of Marie de France, (even though she is never directly quoted in the letters and tests of the author), may be the origin of the choice of this title. Tolkien’s judgment became quickly very critical on the Lay of Leithian. Since after the refusal of the 1937 Silmarillion which included the Lay, in a letter December 16 the same year he wrote:

My chief joy comes from learning that the Silmarillion is not rejected with scorn. I have suffered a
sense of fear and bereavement, quite ridiculous, since I let this private and beloved nonsense out;
and I think if it had seemed to you to be nonsense I should have felt really crushed. I do not mind
about the verse-form, which in spite of certain virtuous passages has grave defects, for it is only for
me the rough material. But I shall certainly now hope one day to be able, or to be able to afford, to
publish the Silmarillion !  (Letter 19)   (4)

But the beautiful passages he recognized there were sufficient so that he never abandoned it completely. Even after the rewriting attempt aborted in 1951, he came back to it again. Indeed, in a passage of Canto X, the revision of the name Inglor Felagund to Finrod Felagund shows one revision dating to at the earliest 1955.   (5)

But if the poem in itself left Tolkien  unsatisfied, he had a deep affection for the story itself which is testified by the numerous rewrites in prose.  From statements made by a study of the letters one can insist on the central place of the tale in the Legendarium.  (6)


The term "hero", in the original, etymological sense, of "demigod", is only applicable to one character of all the Legendarium and this character is Lúthien. (7) Even though the Ainur cannot be considered as gods in the strict sense but rather as angelic powers, it is exactly the term of "gods" that the narrators of the history of the First Age designate them. As the narrator of the Lay of Leithian defines Lúthien as "half elven-fair and divine half" (v. 493)  (8). Indeed, if her father is Thingol, king of the Elves of Doriath, her mother, Melian, is a Maia, an angelic power existent before the creation of the world that chooses to be embodied on earth. (9)  

So, logically, the term "knight" is absent from the Lay of Leithian,  but one doesn't discover anything less in the poem of the positive chivalrous attitudes, the first being - and it is not the least of the generic paradoxes of the work - Lúthien. Of course, she is not comparable to the other character, otherwise more obvious of the woman-knight, who is Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings, but this only prevents the quest of the Lay developing less by the acts of bravery of Beren that by those of Lúthien. The courage of Beren is of those that save, that prevent a misfortune, while those of Lúthien are really like the chivalrous exploits.

It is not just coincidental that Canto XII starts with an analepse evoking the elf king Fingolfin, who wounded Morgoth seven times, even mutilating him on the foot, before dying under the strokes of the Vala. This fight represents par excellence in Fingolfin the knight of the history of the elvish wars in Beleriand, especially as Morgoth himself is presented there under a knight's appearance – and this can only remind the familiar reader of the Arthurian world the satanic symbolism of the black knight, "lo regimental adjutant aversers." Indeed, Morgoth advances toward Fingolfin "black-armoured, towering, iron-crowned" (v. 3563) (10).

Canto XII  ends with the bewitchment of Carcharoth, while Canto XIII is constructed to mirror: Fingolfin’s war exploit, finally a failure. It is an answer in  the dance and the voice of Lúthien that delights Morgoth and throws him and his court into a sleep described like a cry to dead chivalry and a symbolic defeat of the royal power, since the crown which was triumphant before Fingolfin ("towering") finds the earth: "and extols lay Morgoth in his hall. / His crown there rolled upon the ground" (v. 4103-4). Then, Beren has only to seize the Silmaril, fulfilling the oath given to Thingol. If one analyzes the history objectively,

it is Lúthien that triumphs over the quest for him, freeing him from the Magician's island, bewitching Carcharoth, then Morgoth himself, so that her lover might accomplish the oath made to her father.

The Lay of Leithian conjugates the two types of devotion: the choice of death by love of Lúthien, at the time of the second catastrophe, whereas she can keep her elvish immortality – already in a pre-Christian sense in what is  hope in love. On the other hand, the courage of Beren in protecting Lúthien from the arrow of Celegorrn with his breast or thrusting his arm at Carcharoth, once again to protect her, is a heroism of devotion without hope, closest to that experienced by a soldier during war, close also to the Norse philosophy of courage.

This difference in the heroism exhibits a fundamental opposition of philosophical order between the two lovers, on one hand, Beren, whose courage is born of a reverence to love and to Lúthien that justifies in itself to have existed and therefore to die; on the other, Lúthien, who is born of one faith in the love to test all. This opposition is especially exemplified in Canto XI through two monologues. The one of Beren, standing alone before Thangorodrim, is the acceptance of death, of defeat and chaos, all having been deemed justifiable by the existence of Lúthien:

"Though all to ruin fell the world, / and were dissolved and backward hurled, / […] Yet were its making good, for this - / the dawn, the dusk, the earth, the sea - / that Lúthien on a time should be! " (v. 3328-33).

This concept of the value of the world, far more reveals the idolatrous love that Beren can feel for Lúthien, is the place of a sovereign confidence in the past, infinitely precious, worthy of praise and to which he addresses ("farewell").

On the contrary, Lúthien doesn’t invoke the world but their love, that is a dynamic at home and that even is turned toward the future "a love is mine,  as great a power / as thine,  to shake the gate and tower / of death with challenge weak and frail / that yet endures, and will not fail" (v. 3348-51).

The dynamics designated by clear words: love is a strength, a power, not a simple feeling. It is unlikely that the metaphor of the door and the tower of death, even though she certainly makes it only to designate Angband in Lúthien’s speech, doesn’t also carry a second significance that allows us to see as the Christian writer: it can be discerned like an almost unconscious mark of faith of Lúthien, a groping faith in a possibility that things don't end as darkly as it may seem. On the eve of his death, Aragorn, who doesn't have more knowledge of the Christian revelation than Lúthien, tells Arwen that as Lúthien made the choice of death: "Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of this world and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell » (11). This intuition, is also found in the subjects of Lúthien, although under a less conscious shape. The double sense of the metaphor is first understood by the reader who knows some of the prose versions of the legend in another perspective: while going down to the "halls of Mandos”, Lúthien will  truly make the doors of death tremble and will bring back Beren to the  realm of the living. To the picture of these words addressed to Beren, the faith of Lúthien in love will appear so strong and materialized so clearly by her acts, that it prefigures the spiritual hope of Aragorn in the existence of something beyond the known world, without being there is quite comparable. If the courage of Beren, his heroism, is one of the lover ready to follow his beloved into death without needing to believe in a future, and that he is not able to do this deed is close to Wiglaf having nothing to hope for while following his master to confront the dragon in Beowulf, the courage of Lúthien is rather one of a determination turned toward the future, of a serene confidence in active love, as far as seeing a strength in its fragility.


In his Tolkien article, “return and discomfiture of the king: political readings of Arthur",

V. Ferré underlines the ambiguousness of the Arthurian model for the author of the Lord of the Rings. The reference of Tolkien to Arthur is effectively two-fold: he is at the same time the "king of Faérie" (this is how he is named in the essay On Fairy Stories (12), but includes also according to Tolkien - in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - a dimension of "impulsiveness." This impulsiveness is analyzed to mean by V. Ferré to be a demonstration of a type of hubris that other medieval characters also possessed studied by Tolkien: Beowulf and Beorhtnoth. If Arthur's hubris is condemned by Tolkien as by the author of Sir Gawain, a point, fundamentally distinguishing the conception of royalty developed by the Arthurian literature  and Tolkien: in this case the king's physical engagement in an adventure, that is not a tragedy in itself for the author of the Lay of Leithian. The king of Nargothrond, Felagund, is the proof in the Lay of Leithian, as Aragorn/Elessar is in the Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, the situation of these two kings is not comparable: Aragorn in his quest for his royal identity is so disputed that he is not recognized as a king to start with, while Felagund makes the inverse journey, rejecting, the royal function in the name of a given oath. But the spectacular gesture of Felagund throwing the crown at the foot of the throne of Nargothrond doesn't question its royalty by any means. Even though V. Ferré proved that Tolkien’s conception of royalty was not ontologic but dynastic (13), Felagund keeps in the narration his title of king wherever he appears in the Lay. It is, all things considered, perfectly logical, because his difficult choice puts some meaning an attachment to royal duties assumed on behalf of society itself, and it matches the reading of a conception of royalty "by merit." The king's physical engagement in the adventure is a particular theme that appears in the works having affected Tolkien deeply, notably Beowulf, where the hero, prince of the Gautar, helps king Hrothgar against Grendel and his mother, and, king himself at the end of the poem, will oppose the dragon that ravages his country. Whereas Beowulf searches for glory, Felagund only acts to fulfill an oath of friendship. The other rare motive -: the abdication of the crown by a king - appears in the lay of Sir Orfeo where the king left the throne empty in order to leave to search for queen Heurodys. Felagund is an exemplary king whose abnegation is not rewarded: whereas the royalty of Aragorn is a kind of social apotheosis, the abandonment of his throne by Felagund ends in his death and an anonymity only broken by the presence of Beren. But the posthumous glory of the songs will put the character in his just place:

 ("Thus died the king, / as elvish singers yet do sing", v. 2636 - 7).


Beren brandishes the Silmaril in front of Carcharoth and loses his hand to the jaws of the wolf, earning himself the nickname of Camlost ("the empty hand" in Sindarin). The hero's mutilation to his hand is a regular theme in Tolkien: Frodo in the Lord of the Rings is deprived of the finger on which he had put the ring, taken away with Gollum to the bottom of Orodruin, the Mountain of Fire. In the two cases the success of the quest rests on this sacrifice: so if Beren had not brandished the Silmaril and had not lost his hand in the jaws of Carcharoth, one can suppose that he would have died devoured by the wolf  in company of Lúthien; and if Frodo had succeeded in keeping the ring on his finger, Sauron would have recovered it sooner or later. It is difficult not to evoke here a central moment of Nordic mythology that matches the Tolkienian texts, in this case the key passage of the Ragnarök where the god Tyr offers his hand to the jaws of the Fenrir wolf so that one can link the stories .(14) . That similarity had been underlined by Y. Cathelot without which no conclusion can be  drawn (15) from it.

Georges Dumézil showed that the god Tyr was part of the first phase of  Indoeuropean culture,  little by little supplanted by Odin, and that he symbolized the face of the "contract" permitting to the world to survive until Ragnarök (16). It is useless to try to see in Beren or Frodo any  representation of the Indo-European royal function to which they don't belong at all. However, the idea of a "contract" remained applicable although transformed completely even though its Indo-European significance got lost along the way. In the case of Beren which interests us here, one won't try to see a significance in the "contract" with king Thingol: the oath that he  made to him (Lay of Leithian, v. 1164-75) is of a strictly personal order and the fact that he  breaks it would not have put back to any degree the stability of the world. It is rather a sort of anti-contract, very involuntary (and also nuanced), because if he brandished  the Silmaril it was above all to protect Lúthien ("and Beren desperate then aside / thrust Lúthien, and, forth did stride / unarmed, defenceless to defend / Tinuviel until the end." 4209-12), but the consequence of his act was terrifying and it destabilized the whole Beleriand. In fact, when Carcharoth died, and the Silmaril was recovered, the political tensions between the various Elvish peoples, constrained up to this moment by the impossibility of reaching the Silmarils that were on the crown of Morgoth, are going to revive themselves and lead to the famous "kinslaying" of the Havens of Sirion, where the Noldor of the house of Fëanor, bound by the oath of Feanor are going to declare war on their brother Sindarin (17). Thus, the Scandinavian motive returned and the heroic amputation of Tyr permitting to confront a wolf who would have swallowed the world in his insatiable hunger finds a resonance  strictly opposed to Tolkien: the heroism of Beren, if he allows his personal history to continue, is the starting point of the fratricidal wars of Beleriand(18). The repercussions in policies of the gesture of Beren probably went far beyond his knowledge of elvish history, and we must consider it above all as an example of the determination of his quest in love - like an act of a  volunteer, a demonstration of the strength of his love. But this political background would deserve its own study.


Lúthien’s descent into hell contributes to the elements that make it, more than Beren, a chivalrous act. But her choice - very predictable from her lineage - doesn't possess a definite religious dimension since Tolkien wanted to situate his  universe outside the setting of Christian times. It doesn't stop the text from having an anti-dualistic content. Morgoth is in Tolkien’s Legendarium the first fallen angel, a pre-biblical picture of Satan, which is already an incompatible factor compared to dualism. He is however, the closest representative to what one can consider as absolute evil - that means one Evil the origin of all others, probably evolving out of all possibility of redemption. Yet, this same Morgoth doesn't remain insensible to the supreme beauty of Lúthien:

In slothful gardens many a flower
like thee the amorous gods are used
honey-sweet to kiss, and cast then bruised,
their fragrance loosing, under feet.

But here we seldom find such sweet
amid our labours long and hard,
from godlike idleness debarred.

And who would not taste the honey-sweet
lying to lips, or crush with feet
the soft cool tissue of pale flowers,
easing like gods the dragging hours ? (v. 4029-4039)

However, the beauty of Lúthien is as it proves to be again accessible to this thought and one can discern an emotional movement in Morgoth. At first a shape of regret behind the blackness of the underground life (v. 4033-5), then in the last two couplets a real capacity to be touched by a bucolic vision, very disturbing in the most fallen being in Middle earth. Certainly, the vision distorts itself nearly immediately it has passed, ("O hunger dire / O blinding thirst's unending fire! " v. 4040-1) to finish in desires of rape ("In his eyes the fire to flame was fanned, / and forth he stretched his brazen hand. Lúthien as shadow shrank  aside." 4044-5), but these features of human character applied to Morgoth don't decrease the unspeakable aspect of the evil he bears in the rest of the Legendarium.


One morning as asleep she lay
upon the moss, as though the day
too bitter were for gentle flower
to open in a sunless hour,
Beren arose and kissed her hair (v. 3228-32)

In these verses, the love of Beren for Lúthien contains a shape of anguish of the dawn, but

not in the sense that one hears expressed in the feeling that crosses characters of the Alba of one troubadour. He is not surprised and has more power to win over his Beloved who fears the unknown lover. There is no jealous husband, here,  or waiting for dawn either. Beren leaves alone, of his own will and the anguish of this separation, audible in the "sunless very symbolic hour" or in the adverbial expression "too bitter", merely foreshadows a more definitive separation,  death. The hour before the dawn, it is the hour when spirits are restless (20).

And this supreme doubt echoes to the shadow of death that hovers over the couple on their quest. This biblical expression that we already evoked and on which M. Devaux  commented returns to the fear of death in the conscious mind and to the despair that it engenders (21). To be in the shadow of death, for a Christian like Tolkien, means to forget God finally. But as the population of Middle earth doesn't have knowledge of Iluvatar anymore, and their time precedes the Evangelium (22), the very extensive sense of the expression limits itself here deprived of all hope and in total fear. M. Devaux evokes in its article the passages of the Lay of Leithian where the expressions "shades of death" (v. 225), and especially "deadly nightshade » (23) appears, before analyzing especially the version in prose (BLP, Silm). We are going to attempt to analyze the occurrence here of the expression under the form "death's shadow" in the rewrite of 1951 (Lay II) evoked in Canto II  dedicated to Gorlim, when the narrator describes the exile of Melkor/Morgoth in Middle earth:

He 'twas that laid in ruin black
the Blessed Realm and fled then back
to Middle-earth anew to build
beneath the mountains mansions filled
with misbegotten slaves of hate:
death's shadow brooded at his gate.

His hosts he armed with spears of steel
and brands of flame, and at their heel
the wolf walked and the serpent crept
with lidless eyes. (v. 113-122)

The expression is associated here with the doors of the fortress of Angband, a place where Beren must enter to accomplish his quest. The image that is created in these ten verses condenses the dangers (armies, flames, wolves, snakes) to make it an archetypal place of

the failure of hope. When Beren kisses sleeping Lúthien, he cannot describe Angband precisely (as he hadn’t seen it), but he doesn't doubt however that a feeling of the shadow of death is on his mind. He leaves without daring to turn around (the horse he took and rode away, / nor dared to turn", v. 3241-2) because he already leaves nearly without hope: the narration then moves to Fingolfin very near the doors of Angband, overhung by Thangorodrim. He loses there the energy needed for his quest. The shadow of death fills his heart so that he becomes indifferent to his fate, so much so, that he begins a lone song  risking the failure of everything.

Though Orc should hear, or wolf a-prowl,
or any of the creatures foul
within the shade that slunk and stared
of Taur-na-Fuin, nought he cared,
who now took leave of light and day,
grim-hearted, bitter, fierce and fey. (v. 3300-5)

The place (Angband and its immediate surroundings, Dor-na-Fauglith, or Taur-na-Fuin) is therefore imbued too much with despair not to communicate this shadow of death that he carries with him.  This despair, in Tolkien’s Christian thinking has a corollary, solitude, wherein the couple is at start the same as at the end: Adam and Eve initiate the former Will, Christ's union and of  His Congregation the New Will (and let's add to that the Hymn of Hymns is at the centre of the Bible). Thus, the mirror of the hope that the couple bear, is the solitude that brings in the shadow of death. Some details can't deceive: the gesture of Beren leaving a sleeping Lúthien, although heroic in itself, doesn’t make less or more for the hero the faltering of sure hope. But Beren is not, up to that moment, in a total solitude, because he leaves with his horse, which is the real mate in this test. However, once he stands before Thangorodrim, he decides to separate himself from the horse, for reasons certainly at first of convenience, but not solely those, for the horse and he were for a long time companions, so that freeing it severs his last contact with the world of the living.

'Good steed of master ill,' he said,
farewell now here! Lift up thy head,
and get thee gone to Sirion's vale,
back as we came, past island pale
where Thu once reigned, to waters sweet
and grasses long about thy feet.

And if Curufin no more thou find,
grieve not! but free with hart and hind
go wander, leaving work and war,
and dream thee back in Valinor,
whence came of old thy mighty race
from Tavros' mountain-fenced chase.' (v. 3286-97)

While addressing this wish to free the horse, Beren speaks of the world that he is going to leave in terms that  raise it not merely for the horse, but in the absolute: "Sirion's vale", "waters sweet", and "grasses long" designate the beauty of the world and therefore of life that he chooses to abandon for the "master ill." This negative self-defining view that Beren feels greatly paradoxes his situation: having left love to be able to get it, he now leaves the world for this love that he left.

As it is told, the biblical expression of the shadow of death is associated with the abandonment of hope. The conscious use of the connotations of the expression by Tolkien is reflected in the attitude of Beren: walking alone toward the doors of Angband, in a movement of descent which is very symbolic, he leaves behind him the last scraps of hope ("then turned to stride forth down the slope / abandoning fear, forsaking hope", v. 3340-1). Oblivion joins fear following an implacable logic: it is inherent to the real state of despair that always builds itself on nihilism. And it is when Beren finds himself in this extreme degree of solitude, enveloped in the shadow of death, that hope emerges, from the outside, by the arrival of Lúthien (‘A Beren, Beren !’ came a sound’ 3342). Hope returns with the motif of the couple and love. The role of Huan in this return in extremis of Lúthien is fundamental and contains, in our opinion, a very particular symbolism. It is he that brought back Thingol’s daughter against the will of Beren (24). The dog Huan is prescient and knows he has  a mission to accomplish (25); he spoke two times during his life and both times it was in order to save the couple (26). The fact that he came from the blessed realm of Valinor is not insignificant. Adjunct to the couple, he acts like an instrument of Providence. One will recall the love that binds  the two heroes (27). His intervention is not unlike Gandalf’s in the Lord of the Rings: come from Valinor and having to sacrifice himself in the flesh in Middle earth, he is predestined for a role in a vast history.  

If the couple is at the heart of the biblical message, it is also in a three-way dialogue with God. In the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul evokes the role of the faith of one of the two members of a couple (28) like a strength of sanctification. But it is especially Ecclesiastes [4: 11-12] which gives a poetic and clear picture of the Christian couple: "Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how cam one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him: and a threefold cord is not quickly broken." It is evident: solitude is a danger for Tolkien as it is here for Qohélet. Even though the biblical picture designates human fraternity, it is above all perfectly applicable to the couple. The couple in love can warm themselves – but to be stronger, they must take into account a third person, God. The presence of God in the couple is the insurance of a help in the test. In the Lay of Leithian, the situation is reversed at the same time and yet similar: the lovers cannot reach Iluvatar and so they ignore him. It is therefore he that, through Huan, intervenes in the history of this extraordinary couple. Christian love doesn't have just to do with the simple marriage between two people in Christian culture. Once again, God's presence is by no means incompatible with one of pagan context, taking place long before the revelation. Here, for example,  is a passage of the epistle to the Romans that Tolkien (just as, although in a very different manner, the author of Beowulf) certainly had in mind when he considered some of his characters: If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and I might save some of them.  For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world,  what shall the resolving of them be, but life from the dead?[…]. (Epistle to the Romans, 2, 14-15) Thus, the couple of Bisclavret are Christian by culture, but it falls apart at the test, whereas Beren and Lúthien are "pagan" but form a couple already pre-Christian in the sense of their love.

To conclude, one must remember that the theme of Lúthien of sharing, because of her love of Beren, his human mortality is central to the work, and although the incomplete poem doesn't reach that point of the story, it is evoked in a narrative foresight in Canto IV:

And thus in anguish Beren paid
for that great doom upon him laid,
the deathless love of Lúthien,
too fair for love of mortal Men;
and in his doom was Lúthien snared,
the deathless in his dying shared;
and Fate them forged a binding chain
of living love and mortal pain. (v. 786-93)

This chain that forges fate ("Fate") to bind the lovers can be read in two ways: either, as the French translator of the Lay, one accepts an ancient reading of the term "Fate", then as implacable as the fate in Sophoclean tragedy (29); or one sees in it intervention concealed by Providence where "Fate" and "Great Doom" would be similar to the fate which is at work in Beowulf, and a hidden God, unknown to the characters,: the love of the lovers will grow in life ("living love") through suffering the deadly condition, but not in its shade.

Indeed, the oxymoron of verse 793 must be thought in relation to the preceding one that forms with it one couplet, and therefore a unit: so "living love" and "mortal pain" is not put in opposition, or confrontation, but linked - the picture of the chain underlines it. The chain is elsewhere mimicked by the narrative structure: the two separations of the lovers (30)  lead to the setting up of the technique of the interlacing of the adventures of Beren ( Cantos VI and VII, beginning of Canto IX then the beginning of Canto XI) and Lúthien (Cantos V and VIII, end of Canto IX), link together around the theme of suffering for love of the other before their reunion which comes in the middle of Canto XI. So verse 793 is therefore perfectly illustrated by the very form of the poem. From then on, it is difficult not to see something like a prefiguration of the Christian thread in the chain of love and suffering, life and death: God, who has not yet been revealed, cannot be present in the thought of the lovers, but he can already bind the lovers in a chain taking account of life as well as death.

Let's put our hypothesis to the test with the letters of Tolkien. In the famous letter 131 to Milton Waldman, here it is how he summarizes the big themes of the history of Beren and Lúthien:

‘The chief of the stories of the Silmarillion, and the one most fully treated is the Story of Beren and Lúthien the Elfmaiden. Here we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama.’

The role of destiny is immediately emphasised: the wheels, or rather the cogs of the worldevoke this idea, and fate is not presented as comprehensible and linked to the Valar (even gods), but to a plan known only by God. The reference to the creator, named twice (One, God) in the history of Beren and Lúthien suggests the notion of fate, and therefore of a pagan vision. But the Drama (the history of Creation) is orchestrated around the mysterious and inscrutable role of God's Children (or Children of Iluvatar) that is to say, Elves and Men. What can there be, in this Lay, that suggests we  are dealing with fate or Providence?

‘In the primary story of Lúthien and Beren, Lúthien is allowed as an absolute exception to divest herself of 'immortality' and become 'mortal' — but when Beren is slain by the Wolf-warden of the Gates of Hell, Lúthien obtains a brief respite in which they both return to Middle-earth 'alive' – though not mingling with other people : a kind of Orpheus-legend in reverse, but one of Pity not of Inexorability.’ (Letter 153)

Pity is the real driver that shifts tragedy toward the divine comedy. That which inspired Mandos,  to go against his nature by allowing Lúthien to die and to get this "brief respite" of existence, comes without him knowing it from the Creator. The role of Huan, also seduced by the elf-maiden, works in the same way:  He acts, driven by forces that affect him but that he  feels perfectly. Rather than the intervention of Providence, one might speak perhaps of a divine acquiescence to Mercy that takes first Huan then Mandos. Tolkien very distinctly ensured that the mystery of this acquiescence remained whole and beyond all interpretation (31) because it is not humanly comprehensible that one legitimizes a love that generates wars and the complete ruin of the elvish kingdoms. But the existence of Evil precedes that of our heroes, as one can already take into account their happiness like a source of evil in itself on an Earth which is corrupt (Fallen as Tolkien saw it). One can assert besides that of Beren and Lúthien’s progeny will come, later on, the rapprochement between the Valar and the Elves, and with it the end of the reign of Morgoth. That one love, due to a lack of power to eradicate Evil, at the start of the end of the first fallen angel, is already a considerable eucatastrophe, that prefigures the real love saviour, who is Christ.


After this survey of the Lay of Lethian and that which Moriau Émeric dedicated to Tolkien’s central work, The Lord of the Rings, is it possible to speak of a real "Tolkienian heroism?" If one is suggesting a specific philosophical theory, the answer is no. This heroism is never fundamentally theoretical, but conceptual. Tolkien doesn't try to exploit the narrative in the two works, any more that in Farmer Giles of Ham, a new vision of heroism which would be a "guide of life" pre-established and previous to the practical approach to facing the test that constitutes every character's history. On the other hand, if one considers this idea of ' "Tolkienian heroism " in a more flexible manner, it proves to be a living, more complex and shaded notion - but however coherent - that cannot show itself to the hurried reader or the audiences of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation. The notion of  "Tolkienian heroism" is beyond a shadow of a doubt coherent in his approach to the universe, society, human behaviour, faith, etc. But it is not as far as it can be determined about a philosophy. 

If one compares the lucid critique, dry and almost systematic, of heroism in Farmer Giles of Ham with the glamourisation (although very nuanced as it has been shown) that is in the two other works, one can think that there are two approaches to the world: one entirely historic and the other legendary, that is to say a historic vision and a mythical vision of the world.

Certainly, Farmer Giles of Ham is a marginal work in its tonality in relation to the rest of the Tolkienian corpus whereas the Lay of Leithian is part of its structure. But Farmer Giles of Ham must not be disregarded. Tolkien is at the same time the man who glamourises the Scandinavian conception of courage and the one that tells us not to keep an illusion of the incentive (basis) of this courage: "It is of gold and alloy." The heroism of Tolkien is not therefore a philosophical concept, which means an idea subjected to a vision, an approach of the world. One can  look at Tolkien as a writer, of a man whose profession is to vary the  subject matter of his camera, a graphic and changing viewpoint,  turned on one hand toward the world of men, to which he belongs, and then, he can seem only critical, acerbic and virulent; or on the other hand, when his viewpoint is turned toward God, it evokes the transcendental character of spiritual heroism as a reality that is quite plausible and it distinguishes itself from the general tendency of modern western authors.

Yet as Émeric Moriau noted, the critique of the heroism is extensively present in the Lord of the Rings. And the spiritual heroism itself is not idealized: for Frodo’ heroism is a semi-failure - he won't show mercy to Gollum by any means on Orodruin and will claim the ring at the last moment. In this passage of the Lord of the Rings  the way in which Tolkien said that he had the Lord Prayer in mind when he wrote it, it is obvious as already noted by Shippey that it relates to the two verses:  lead us not into temptation / but deliver us from evil". Heroism, for Tolkien is bound undoubtedly to the theme of temptation: Frodo succumbing to the strength of the ring shows that spiritual heroism as much as the other is doomed to failure because God doesn't come to help man because human heroism (beyond the dichotomy chivalrous heroism / spiritual heroism), is corrupted intrinsically -and let's not put too heavy an emphasis and blame on this corrupt term: human heroism is not that of Boromir, it is that of Aragorn as much that of Giles, and in a certain manner as can take it, it is again that of Lúthien. Certainly, the love-agape, that is merely God, leads more easily toward victory, but, as Émeric Moriau noted,  would human love know how to be ever entirely pure.

Finally, while formalising the idea prevalent in the Lord of the Rings, the The Lay of

Leithian casts a sharp look over the limits of human heroism, signally, heroism transcended (by God's help, although it never directly refers to it). The history of Beren and Lúthien appears together in a wealth of heroic history of the First Age, but the type of heroism developed in the fresco of the lovers is distinct and right,  as it would seem, that remains: it is in an "anti-Fingolfin" way  that Lúthien succeeds in defeating Morgoth. As for Frodo (on a different level), without  faith in the strict religious sense as a driving force for his heroism, it is meanwhile drawing in an outside feeling of traditional war heroism that the couple will be able to succeed in their quest,: feeling recognition of the human limits and necessity of a transcendence, that only love brings.


1 Tolkien also wrote the Breton-inspired Lay of Aotrou and  Itroun and that corresponds well to the traditional form of the kind. He also translated into modern verse the lay of Sir Orfeo  which was composed in Middle English.

2 two etymologies are generally proposed for the term: either the Latin laïcus, borrowed to

the expression versus laïcus that designates profane works in vernacular language, or ugly Irish that means "song, poem" or "song of the birds." This last etymology is by far the most widely accepted by scholars.

3 the nomenclature gives indications of this influence: Beleriand was named Broceliand in the first versions of the Lay, before Tolkien decided to erase all cultural references of this type.

4 letter 19. I will always refer to the letters of Tolkien by the number that is assigned to them rather than by the page of a particular edition.

5 see the commentary of Christopher Tolkien: "From lines 2936 to 2965 no further changes were made (except Elfinesse Elvenesse to at 2962). In the preceding passage, Inglor Felagund of Finrod has become Finrod Felagund of Finarfin, which dates the revision to, at earliest, 1955, because the change had not been made in the first edition of the Lord of the Rings" (J.R.R. Tolkien, History of Middle Earth, Book. III: The Lays of Beleriand, p. 360).

6 "In places the story is (I think beautiful and powerful) heroic-fairy-romance, acceptable in itself with only very vague general knowledge of the background. It also has a fundamental link in the cycle, deprived of its full significance out of its place therein" (Letter 131).

7  numerous letters mention this (for example, letter 131 to Milton Waldman).

8 recall that the elves according to Tolkien are considered with the men as the Children of Iluvatar, and that they don't have anything divine: "Elves and Men are represented as biologically akin in this 'history', Elves represent certain aspects of Men and their desired talents incarnated in my little world. They exhibit certain freedoms and powers we should like to have, and the beauty and peril and sorrow of the possession of this thing is exhibited in them" (Letter 153).

9 Cfs. J. R. R. Tolkien, Silmarillion, p. 30-31.

10 Morgoth is condemned to keep this physical appearance, which distinguishes him from the other Valar, who, don't have a fixed physical form..

11 The Lord of the Rings, appendix A, p. 1100.

12 « It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps as such not of great importance), […] emerged as a King of Faerie. » (Tolkien, « Origins », On fairy-stories, in Tree and Leaf, p. 29).

13 V. Ferré, "Tolkien, return and discomfiture of the king: political readings of Arthur", King Arthur, in the mirror of time, dir. A. Besson, Dinan, Earth of Mist, 2007, p,. 83-106.

14 history is described in Edda of Snorri to admonish them 25 and especially 34 of the Gylfaginning: "No one wanted to offer his hand until Tyr offered his, his right one, and put it in the muzzle of the wolf. When this jammed itself, the knot hardened and, more the efforts that the wolf made, the more the knot hardened. Then all began to laugh, except Tyr. He left his hand there” (p. 64, translation. of François-Xavier Dillman) Gallimard, The dawn of the Peoples, 1991,

15 "he [Carcharoth] takes the Silmaril of Beren while snapping off the hand, as Fenrir, the wolf of Scandinavian mythology snaps off the hand of Tyr, represented thereafter as a one armed man", cf. Y. Cathelot, Beren and Luthien.

16 see notably Georges Dumézil, "The various functions in theology, mythology and the epic", Myths and God of the Indo-Europeans, p. 155-93, fields-Flammarion, 1986.

17 on the Indo-European structures of the peoples of Middle Earth, see F. Munier, "A trifunctional  interpretation of a poem of J.R.R. Tolkien", Tolkien in France, dir. E. Kloczko, Paris, A.R.D.A. publications, 1998, p. 77-103; for a revision of the question and the survey of the limits of the applicability of these structures, to see Laurent, Alibert, "The Indo-European influence in Arda and its limits", Tolkien, thirty years after (1973-2003), dir. V. Ferré, Christian Bourgois, Paris, 2004, p.117-136.

18 a more positive vision of this act on the political plan is not impossible although it requires a reading more long term of elvish history: the theft of the Silmarils will also be at the origin of the journey of Earendil across the sea to the land of the Valar who will allow Middle earth to be rid of the yoke of Morgoth by the intervention of the armies of Valmar

19 I am especially anxious to thank Jean-Philippe Qadri, who, through a conversation on his Tolkien works and the Christian sense of the couple, suggested to me without knowing the pages that follow.

20 to try to show interpretations in this passage, let's recall that in the crisis of fatalism Beren quails at the sight of Thangorodrim and that he is going not to return, separated at this moment by the journey northwards, as Beren already heads "with heart as  stone" (v. 3245).

21 the shadow of death is not feared unless one conceives death as a punishment. The work of the shadow consists in managing to equate itself to fear and to despair. It is said in the Akallabeth that "(…) the destiny of humans, that they must leave, was a gift of Iluvatar. It didn't become a fear for them until they came under the shadow of Morgoth. He believed himself surrounded with darkness of which they were afraid (…)"  Death frightens

because one conceives it confusedly. What frightens in death when one is under the ascendancy of the shadow is the shadow itself.  The shadow means Melkor or his lieutenants, who spread the fear." (M. Devaux, ""The shadow of death" in Tolkien", The company of the Leaf, Notebook of Tolkien studies, part1, Paris, The eye of the Sphinx, 2002, p. 60).

22 one will recall that Tolkien saw his legendarium like imaginary history, an uchronie describing a time long ago on our earth. The events related here belong to the First Age, several millennia before Christ's incarnation.

23 verses 227, 2060, 2808, 3273, 3407,. M. Devaux underlines the old English niht-scu(w)a as the origin of the expression and recalls that Tolkien gave the Sindarin translation of Gwath-Fuin-Daidelos then of Math-Fuin-Delos "designation in both cases of Taur-na-Fuin, the Forest of the Night" (M. Devaux, The company of the Leaf, p. 52).

24 certainly Lúthien should have asked, but one can see there a simple courtesy of subterfuge on behalf of Huan of which the foreknowledge allows him to know the failure of Beren, if he goes alone.

25 Cfs. Canto VIII, v. 2550-65

26 the first time in the moment quoted to the previous note (v. 2552-9), the second right after this passage, when the lovers take on the appearances of a wolf and a bat to allow them to enter Angband incognito.

27 ‘To such dark straits, alas! Now brought / are ye I love, for whom I fought.’ (v. 3436-7)

28 "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified: else were your children unclean; but now they are holy." (First epistle to the Corinthians, 7, 14). The infidel's sanctification by the believer, or the inverse, underline the birth of a new relation where God's presence in the couple is tangible.

29 "and the Destiny for their misfortune / bound the love to the pain", J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lays of Beleriand, ed. C.J.R. Tolkien, [translation. Elen Riot for the poems and D. Lauzons for the commentaries, dir. V. Ferré, Paris, Christian Bourgois, 2006].

30 Beren leaving the kingdom of Doriath (end of Canto IV) then parting with Lúthien (end of Canto X).

31 « For the capture of the Silmaril, a supreme victory, leads to disaster. The oath of the sons of Feanor becomes operative, and lust for the Silmaril brings all the kingdoms of the Elves to ruin » (Letter 153).


TOLKIEN, J.R.R. The Lays Beleriand of, History of Middle Earth, ed. CJR. Tolkien, vol. III., HarperCollins, 2002.

-, Silmarillion, HarperCollins, 1977.

-, The Lord of the Rings, 50th anniversary ed., HarperCollins, 2005.

-, "On fairy-stories", Tree Leaf and, HarperCollins, 2001.

-, The Letters J.R.R of. Tolkien, HaperCollins, 1981.

-, The Lays of Beleriand, ed. and foreword of CJRT. Tolkien, translation. Elen Riot and D. Lauzon, dir. V. Ferré, Paris, Christian Bourgois, 2006.

The Edda, translation. François-Xavier Dillman, Paris, Gallimard [The dawn of the Peoples], 1991.

ALIBERT, L., "The Indo-European influence in Arda and its limits", Tolkien, thirty years after (1973 - 2003), dir. V. Ferré, Paris, Christian Bourgois, 2004, p.117-136,.

CATHELOT, Y., "Beren and Luthien", on line publication on the JRRVF site (

DEVAUX, M., ""The shadow of death" in Tolkien", The Leaf of the company, Notebook of Tolkien studies, vol. 1, Paris, The eye of the Sphinx, 2002.

DUMEZIL, G., "The various functions in theology, mythology and the epic", Myths and God of the Indo-Europeans, Paris, Fields-Flammarion, 1986, p,. 155-193.

SHOE, V., "Tolkien, return and discomfiture of the king: political readings of Arthur", King Arthur, to, the  mirror of time, dir. A. Besson, Dinan, Earth of Mist, 2007, p,. 83-106.

MUNIER, F., "A trifunctional interpretation of a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien", Tolkien in France, dir. E. Kloczko, Paris, A.R.D.A. publications, 1998, p. 77-103.

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