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Tolkien Discussion Group Meeting - February 26, 1983
February 26, 1983
On a cold afternoon in February, the group met in front of a crackling fire, fortified with mugs of mulled cider, to discuss the chapters "Of Beren and Lúthien" and "Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad." Hargaret introduced the first chapter with a rendering of "The Song of Beren and Lúthien" from The Lord of the Rings. Alexei was then asked to give us some thoughts on the importance of the hound in Celtic legend (which topic had been mentioned briefly at an earlier meeting). He replied that though hounds do figure in Celtic legend, the inspiration for Huan might very well have been something quite different: an illustration of a Russian fairy tale. A book of illustrated Russian fairy tales was published in England just around the time when Tolkien was writing what would eventually become The Silmarillion, and Alexei suggested that "The Princess on the Grey Wolf" might have suggested the image of Lúthien riding on Huan's back. That Tolkien was inspired by pictures we know from the example of "Der Berggeist (The Mountain Spirit)," a painting by Joseph Madelener that was the inspiration for Gandalf. "Right," said Lissanne, "he took his inspiration from illustrations and then wrote a story that is impossible to illustrate." Another Russian fairy tale that might have provided ideas for the Beren and Lúthien story is "The Firebird," in which a female character helps a male character steal a magic jewel from an evil lord by singing him to sleep. Did Tolkien know Russian? Margaret said that she thought she'd read in the Letters that Tolkien had studied the Slavic languages but found them difficult to learn. Alexei said that Tolkien mlght well have llked Russian, since it has the same contrasts of mellifluous and harsh sounds that attracted him in Welsh.
The story of Beren and Lúthien is mythic, rather than novelistic. While the story of Eöl and Maeglin, as we noted last time, makes one wish for a novelistic treatment that would deal with the complex motivations and character interactions, Beren and Lúthien's tale is of a different order, and is better suited to the format in which it is presented. Margaret recalled thinking when she first read The Silmarillion, that the tale of Túrin should be done as an opera, and the tale of Beren and Lúthien as a ballet.
Alexei introduced the startling idea that the tale is an illustration of what Charles Williams called "coinherence" and "substitution." Beren and Lúthien, through their love, become as one person, suffer the same pains and trials and ultimately the same fate. Beren partakes of Lúthien's elvish nature insofar that he returns from the dead, while Lúthien shares his mortal fate and eventually passes with him outside the circles of the world. Alexei also suggested that Tolkien may have resented Williams' intellectualization of the "theology of romantic love," which he may have felt was more appropriately expressed in mythic form, and also Lewis' enthusiasm for Williams' version of it. Presumably Lewis had already seen The Silmarillion when Williams came on the scene: Tolkien's attitude may have been, "You didn't get so excited when I showed you that."
The story of Beren and Lúthien begins with a common folklore motif: a treacherous murder and the appearance of the murdered person's ghost with a warning. Beren receives Gorlim's warning too late to save his father and the rest of the outlaw band, however. The appearance of the carrion birds in Beren's dream and at the outlaws camp sparked off a digression on the Birds of Rhiannon. Someone asked if Rhiannon's birds were nightingales. No, said Alexei, they were a kind unto themselves. Kenneth Morris said they were green, white and red. Alexei suggested that this might be an alteration of an older black, white and red, which is an alchemical triplicity (nigredo, albedo, and rubedo).
Anyhow, Beren arrives too late to save his companions but does retrieve his father's hand and the ring of Felagund from the raiding ores. Being "defended by fate," he escapes. This is the first instance in the tale of the oft-recurring theme of "fate" and "doom." Sometimes, as here, "fate" means something on the order of Divine Providence. In other places it is seen as the outcome of personal choice, as when Lúthien chooses to give in to her love for Beren.
The solitary Beren now becomes a vegetarian and a friend to the animals of the forest, who help him to evade Sauron's hunters. The significance of his abstention from eating flesh was discussed. Alexei said that vegetarianism is often considered a first step towards sainthood, and in many Eastern cultures signifies a closer communion with the universe. Lissanne wanted to know what he ate in the wintertime. Margaret suggested that he stored nuts. Lissanne opined that he was nuts.
After several years of living as a solitary outlaw, Beren makes his way into Doriath, despite the Girdle of Melian, again being guided by fate. There he first sees Lúthien, who is described, as Alexei pointed out, as a kind of "living Silmaril," in images of light, beauty, and generative and healing power. Thus, Thingol's possessiveness of his daughter parallels Fëanor's of the Silmarils, and his demand that her bride-price be one of the holy jewels takes on a certain equity of exchange. The lovers are betrayed to Thingol by Daeron the minstrel, who also loves Lúthien. Since elves fall in love only once in their lives (as we noted at an earlier meeting), this poor fellow is doomed to immortal unrequited love. However, the beauty of Lúthien and his love for her inspire him to become the greatest elven minstrel of all time.
Having received Thingol's ultimatum, Beren makes his way to Nargothrond to seek the help of Finrod Felagund. Finrod's reception of Beren stands in direct contrast to Thingol's, for where only Lúthien's intervention prevented Beren's being dragged before Thingol as a prisoner, Finrod welcomes him warmly and unhesitatingly offers him aid. It is at this point that two of the sons of Feanor, Celegorm and Curufin, appear in the story. They immediately make it plain that they are going to be the villains of the piece as they play palace intrigue. Their influence is enough to send Finrod and Beren out with only ten companions. Beren + Finrod + ten "monster fodder" (as the unnamed companions were characterized) = the significant number twelve.
Despite their being cleverly disguised as orcs, the twelve companions are captured by Sauron. Finrod engages him in a contest of songs of power (Alexei noted that Elvish culture is shamanistic in its regard for the magical power of song), but in the end loses because of the taint of the Kin-slaying that lies upon all the Noldor; the fragment quoted from the "Lay of Leithian" makes it clear that this is the chink in Finrod's armor. Though unmasked, the companions still do not reveal their errand, and Sauron throws them all into a pit, where they are subjected to the (Norse) ordeal of being successively devoured by a werewolf.
Meanwhile, back in Doriath, Lúthien is imprisoned by her father to prevent her following Beren, but she escapes by weaving a cloak of shadow and a rope out of her hair. Alexei commented that hair is often used as a symbol of the person as a whole (e.g. Samson, whose power was in his hair). Lúthien becomes a kind of Rapunzel in reverse, using her rope of hair to climb down from her lofty prison. Traveling towards Nargothrond, however, she is waylaid by Celegorm and Curufin and imprisoned again.
It is at this point in the story that Huan, the Hound of Valinor, appears. Huan is to Sauron's werewolves as an elf is to an orc or a Maia to a Balrog. The werewolves are evil spirits of Sauron in wolf bodies; Huan is a follower of Oromë in a hound's shape. Alexei noted that Oromë is lord of hounds as well as horses in his role of Master of the Hunt. Huan's ability to speak with words three times in his life parallels similar abilities of other animals in folklore and legend (one of the horses in the Iliad is similarly permitted limited speech). Huan is true of heart, a servant of truth. Though it is his outward duty to be faithful to his master, Celegorm, his love for Lúthien and Beren causes him to transcend that duty several times. In the end he deserts Celegorm when his master has become essentially a lie. There are parallel instances of a sorcerer losing his externalized animal-self when he becomes false to himself.
With Huan's help, Lúthien escapes from Nargothrond and goes to rescue Beren from Sauron's clutches. She arrives just after Finrod has sacrificed his life to save Beren's by fighting to the death with the werewolf. By this deed his part in the Kinslaying is atoned for and his sin is expiated. The words, "Finrod walks with his father Finarfin upon the grass in Eldamar" indicate his redemption: unlike Fëanor, he has been reincarnated.
Lúthien's songs of power arouse Beren and alert Sauron to her presence, while Huan kills the werewolves that are sent one by one to the bridge. When Sauron discovers what is going on, he remembers the fate prophesied for Huan (which, interestingly enough, seems to be common knowledge in Middle-earth at the time), and decides pridefully that he will fulfill it. His defeat by Huan is typical of what happens to people who consciously try to fulfil prophecies to their own advantage.
After the rescue of Beren from Sauron and the cleansing of Tol Sirion, Beren and Lúthien walk in the woods for a time. Beren wants to leave Lúthien behind and continue the quest for the Silmaril by himself, but she will not allow this. While they are discussing the matter, Celegorm and Curufin turn up again (like a bad penny). A very cinematic fight scene ensues, in which the brothers are soundly defeated. They ride off in chagrin, proving their complete degradation by attempting to shoot Lúthien. Huan catches the first arrow and Beren takes the second one in the chest. Huan deserts Celegorm once and for all and chases the brothers right out of the story. With his help, Lúthien heals Beren of his wound. and once more follows Beren when he tries to leave her behind. Huan advises them to disguise themselves with the pelts of Draugluin ahd Thuringwethil, and in these shapes they set out for Angband.
Alexei commented on the vivid word-picture of Beren and Lúthien's arrival at Angband, well worthy of the most impressive filmic effects. The two are dismayed by the appearance of Carcharoth, but Lúthien is suddenly gifted with a flash of divine (Maia) power, and plunges the wolf into sleep. The occurance of the ancient idea of spiritual inheritance was noted--Lúthien's power comes from her mother, Melian the Maia. The argument about whether or not a Maia could pass on physical characteristics to its offspring was also briefly revived.
Beren and Lúthien enter the presence of Morgoth, and here the "Firebird" parallels become evident as Lúthien sings Morgoth and his court to sleep (also a common motif in folk ballads). Margaret pointed out the "sound effects" in this scene: the song of Lúthien, the thunderous fall of Morgoth from his throne, the ringing of the Iron Crown as it falls from his head and rolls on the floor, and then dead silence. Beren is roused by Lúthien and uses the knife Angrist ("Iron-cleaver"), which he took from Curufin, to cut a Silmaril from the crown. He goes too far, however, when he considers trying to take all the Silmarils--the knife breaks, one of the shards hits Morgoth in the cheek, and he and all the other sleepers stir. Beren and Lúthien finally panic and make a dash for the door. There they are met by Carcharoth, who has also awakened. Beren, possibly imitating Lúthien's grandstand stunt on the way in, tries to intimidate the wolf with the Silmaril and gets his hand bitten off. Carcharoth quickly discovers that swallowing a Silmaril is not the wisest of strategic moves as his insides begin to burn up. The maddened wolf rampages away, and Beren and Lúthien are rescued from Thangorodrim in the nick of time by the eagles.
Meanwhile, back in Doriath, everything is going wrong. Daeron has wandered disconsolately off, war with the sons of Fëanor is only narrowly avoided, and to top it all off, Carcharoth comes charging through the Girdle of Melian. In the middle of all these misfortunes, Beren and Lúthien return. Thingol is at last won over, and the lovers can finally be married. Ail is not well, however, while the Wolf is still at large, and he must be dealt with. In the Hunt of the Wolf the Silmaril is recovered, but Huan dies slaying the wolf, and Beren is mortally wounded protecting Thingol.
The creative power of romantic love is exemplified in the closing scenes of the tale. Lúthien bids Beren wait for her in the Halls of Mandos, and her spirit follows him there. Her song of their love and sorrow moves Mandos to pity, an unprecedented occurence. The beauty and sorrow of Lúthien are too great for the world to contain as it is; Mandos cannot deal with it. Through her love, Lúthien has become a creator, answerable only to Ilúvatar and to herself. Because of this love the world is remade, and Lúthien transcends the limits of destiny. She is allowed to choose her own fate: to take Beren back to Middle-earth with her, and eventually to die with him and leave the circles of the world.
A general comment on the story was that Lúthien seems to do all the work the entire tale, Margaret noted, is a long series of "Beren gets himself into a mess and Lúthien gets him out of it." Lissanne wondered if "Beren" is the Elvish for "useless."
At this point the discussion shot off on numerous tangents, possibly because nobody wanted to face the awful defeats of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. However, we finally managed to drag ourselves, kicking and screaming, back to the topic.
Maedhros' plan of uniting all of the forces in opposition to Morgoth is a good one in itself, though it was pointed out that nowhere do the Noldor seem to take the immense power of Morgoth himself into account. Be that as it may, Maedhros' plan is marred from the start by the previous deeds of the sons of Fëanor. Celegorm and Curufin's actions have obviated the possibility of getting much help from Nargothrond, and Thingol has been alienated by the brothers' demands for the recovered Silmaril. These defections leave Maedhros' own forces and those of Fingon to bear the brunt of the fighting. They receive unexpected reinforcement when Turgon and the Gondolindrim appear out of nowhere, but there is also treachery afoot among some of the Easterlings in Maedhros' army. It is this treachery that in the end loses the battle for the Noldor.
The dwarves win renown by defeating Glaurung, the father of dragons (they are more resistant to fire than others, and their habit of wearing battlemasks also helps). The Edain distinguish themselves by their valor, the last stand of Húrin and Huor allowing Turgon to escape back to Gondolin. But Fingon, the High King of the Noldor, is slain by a Balrog after a grim battle.
The white flame that springs from Fingon's helm when he is struck down was pointed out by Alexei as being a representation of his vital force, localized in the head (the idea is that the more spiritually advanced the being, the more the vital force will be localized there). This led to a discussion of haloes, which despite their frequent depiction in religious art, are only supposed actually to be visible to adepts. Someone wondered whether Elves had ever been depicted with haloes. Margaret replied that she'd seen them drawn with visible auras, but not haloes as such. Alexei speculated on what an orkish adept would be like.
The aftermath of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad: because of the treachery of the Easterlings, Elves are estranged from Men, except for the Three Houses of the Edain. The hill of the slain grows green in the midst of a barren land--a minor victory. Turgon tries again to send for aid from Valinor, but it doesn't work this time, either. The capture of Húrin and Gwindor sets the stage for the tale of Túrin and the tale of Tuor is prefigured in Huor's prophecy to Turgon and in the mention of Voronwë. But these are matters for subsequent meetings.
-- reported by Margaret R. Purdy
Note: The order of this report has been rearranged somewhat to follow the story line more closely.