Author note: we are grateful for this post by guest blogger Nessa Hake. She is a senior in high school and gave permission to her father, regular blogger Jesse Hake, to post this paper that she wrote for a school assignment.
J. R. R. Tolkien disagreed with the practice of allegory for the most part as he states in a forward to the Fellowship of the Rings:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned – with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. (Beal 5)
An allegory, if too direct, can take away some of the personal experience of reading. The ability of writing to reflect every reader’s experience is more important to Tolkien than any allegorical meaning (Beal 6). One of his personal favorite stories—the Beren and Lúthien tales written and rewritten over his life—is an allegory of his own life in a way, though Tolkien is careful to maintain it as a story in and of itself so that it is, most fundamentally, applicable to his life and everyone’s.
As evidence for the claim that this story was one of Tolkien’s personal favorite tales, he first conceptualized Lúthien and her tale as he watched his wife dancing in a forest of hemlocks while on sick leave during his service in World War I (C. Tolkien 18, 34). When his wife Edith passed away, Tolkien had “Lúthien” inscribed below her own name on the headstone. Later, when Tolkien passed, his children had “Beren” inscribed on their headstone. From its beginnings, Tolkien worked and reworked the story many times, over the course of his whole life. The tale of Beren and Lúthien became a turning point within the mythology of Tolkien’s imagined world. (C. Tolkien 16)
When Edith Tolkien passed away in 1971, Tolkien wrote of her to his son Christopher, “In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing — and dance.” Lúthien is described similarly in the tales. Beren first meet Lúthien dancing or singing, depending on the version. (J. Tolkien 194) Edith inspired Lúthien. “[The original ‘Tale of Lúthien Tinuviel and Beren’] was founded on a small wood with a great undergrowth of ‘hemlock’ (no doubt many other related plants were also there)” (C. Tolkien 33). Here is a similar description of the forest in the “Tale of Beren and Lúthien” in the Silmarillion, “Now the place that they loved the most was a shady spot, and elms grew there, and beech too… but the ground was moist and a great misty growth of hemlocks rose beneath the trees” (J. Tolkien 46). Most importantly, like Lúthien giving up her family and immortality for Beren, Edith gave up her music practice and her Protestant faith. Edith had to renounce a man she was engaged to, to marry Tolkien, and at the same time convert to Catholicism. Soon after this, Tolkien left her to fight in World War I. Edith was unhappy in Catholicism and had to move around frequently at the beginning of their marriage. She made many sacrifices to be with Tolkien. (“Edith Bratt & JRR”)
As Edith inspired the character of Lúthien, so Tolkien put some of himself into the character of Beren. Tolkien’s father died when Tolkien was four years old, and his mother passed away eight years later (“Edith Bratt & JRR”). Beren was an orphan as well in the tale (J. Tolkien 189). When we first meet Beren, he had been wandering around after the death of his father who was slain by orcs (J. Tolkien 192). Later on, while Tolkien was in high school, he was banned from courting Edith—a fellow student at the time—by his guardian, a Catholic priest. The priest, Father Francis, was against their relationship because Edith was not Roman Catholic (“Edith Bratt & JRR”). Lúthien’s parents were great elves (J. Tolkien 193) and when her father, Thingol, found out about Beren, he forbade their love and sent Beren on a seemingly impossible quest (J. Tolkien 196). Tolkien, like all writers, expresses many of his real-life experiences in his literature, whether on purpose or not. Lúthien’s sacrifices and image greatly resemble Edith. Beren is an orphan who falls in love with a woman he is not allowed to love, just like Tolkien. Even though the tale of Lúthien and Beren resembles Tolkien’s life in many ways, it was fashioned beautifully to be more than an allegory for the sake of his readers. The story of Beren and Lúthien is a tale of love, sacrifice, promises, jealousy, pride, faithfulness, and friendship: all things that make a story great and relatable to its readers.
First and foremost, the tale is a romance. It is a story of love at first sight for two star-crossed lovers. When Thingol found out about Lúthien and Beren he “was filled with anger.” He loved Lúthien “above all things, setting her above all the princes of the Elves; whereas mortal Men he did not even take into his service.” (J. Tolkien 195) He banned their love, telling Beren to give him a Silmaril from Morgoth before he could take Lúthien (J. Tolkien 196). Beren agreed to this, even though it was a seemingly impossible task. Morgoth was the most powerful and evil being on Middle Earth, originally known as Melkor who first started to sing a discordant song as Eru sang the world and all that is into being (J. Tolkien 4). During his reign on Middle Earth, Morgoth had many mighty servants, and the Silmarils were one of his most precious possessions.
Many times Beren proved his love for Lúthien by saving her, once taking an arrow in his chest that had been aimed at her ( J. Tolkien 209, 210, 214). In the tale, Beren had to choose multiple times what the best decision is between three options: 1) to either be with Lúthien but banished to the wilderness with her or 2) to try to get a Silmaril so that they could be together in her home or 3) to forget the Silmaril and leave her behind and safe without him (J. Tolkien 216). He wanted Lúthien to be happy and to be safe. However, in the end, Beren realized that Lúthien’s fate was already set and that if he left her behind she would just die alone. Therefore, the two decided to travel together to find a Silmaril ( J. Tolkien 210-211).
Lúthien’s love for Beren is made obvious by the fact that she gave up her family, people, home, safety, and even immortality to be with him (J. Tolkien 203, 222). At one point she said:
You must choose, Beren, between these two: to relinquish the quest and your oath and seek a life wandering upon the face of the earth; or to hold to your word and challenge the power of darkness upon its throne. But on either road I shall go with you, and our doom shall be alike. (J. Tolkien 209)
Lúthien wandered through the wilderness with Beren, traveled under the disguise of horrid beasts, used her evish power to resist Morgoth, and put up with captives to be with and help Beren (J. Tolkien 207, 216, 212, 214, 204). At the end, when Beren was killed by a huge wolf, Lúthien’s spirit left her body and traveled to Mandos—the name of the judge and of the resting place for the mightiest of the immortals (J. Tolkien 221, 410). She sang a song, more beautiful than any other words ever spoken, about the pain of both humans and immortals. Mandos heard and took counsel. He was moved to offer Lúthien a choice between two options: to go to Valimar alone (the city of the immortals outside of Middle Earth) or to go back as a mortal woman to Middle Earth and restore Beren from death (J. Tolkien 221, 222, 427). Lúthien chose mortality, and she and Beren went to live alone together in Middle Earth until their second deaths (J. Tolkien 222, 223).
The themes and characters of stories must display the aspects of life, from the good people do to their sins and from life’s hardships to its joys. Loyalty and bravery were shown in wolf-hound Huan and immortal king and friend Felagund (J. Tolkien 199-220). Life’s joys were depicted through Tolkien’s descriptions of the forests of Doriath and Beren and Lúthien’s wanderings together. The characters Celegorm, Curufin, and Morgoth displayed jealousy for power and lust for Lúthien’s beauty (J. Tolkien 200, 213). Hardships came into the story when characters face death and decisions between right and wrong.
The tale is one of love overcoming death. Tolkien wanted to share his own experience of love overcoming the various deaths in his lifetime through a story that would apply to all people. He worked on the story throughout his life: highlighting the sacrifices that characters made and the pain they went through to show the power of love over death. In the end, he created a beautiful story with many allegorical aspects of his life that, more importantly, were applicable to Tolkien for all of his life and to all other lifelong readers as well.
- Tolkien, Christopher, ed. Beren and Lúthien. Edited writings of John Tolkien. New York, Mariner Books, 2018.
- Tolkien, John. The Silmarillion. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. 2nd ed. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
- Beal, Jane, PhD. “Orphic Powers in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legend of Beren and Lúthien.” Journal of Tolkien Research: Vol. 1: Is. 1 (2014), Article 1.
- Rojas Weiss, Sabrina. “Edith Bratt & JRR Tolkien’s Real Love Story Is Legitimately Breathtaking.” Refinery29. 3 May 2019. https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/05/231353/jrr-tolkien-wife-edith-bratt-true-love-story. Accessed 24 December 2021.