Tolkien: The Lays of Beleriand

January 19, 2010

The Lays of Beleriand
J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
393 p.  First reading.

Beleriand, if you don’t remember, was the region of Middle Earth in which the Elves settled when they first arrived from the Western Isles.  It was inhabited by the Noldor (at the great hill fortress of Nargothrond), by the Sindar (in the forests of Doriath), and also, in the course of time, by Men. To the north lay Angband, the underground fortress of Morgoth, who was (and is) the greatest and most wicked of the Ainur.

I am actually not much of a Tolkienian.  Like everyone else, I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Like a great many people, I have also read (with, on reflection, an appalling lack of attention) The Silmarillion, and a few years ago I read The Children of Hurin.  But this is my first foray into the really obscure parts of Tolkien’s legendarium.  It look me a long time to get that first paragraph right (if I did get it right).

The events related in the Lays of Beleriand took place in the First Age of Middle Earth, about six or seven thousand years before the more familiar events from The Lord of the Rings, which are set in the Third Age.  Given the long time gap, the two periods have no characters in common — except perhaps for Morgoth, of whom brief mention is made in LOTR, and for whom Sauron is but a lieutenant. Hobbits are nowhere to be found in these tales.

The Lays of Beleriand contains two long poems: The Lay of the Children of Hurin, and The Lay of Leithian.  Each poem exists in two distinct versions, and each is incomplete.

The Lay of the Children of Hurin tells the story of Turin and Nienor, the two ill-fated children of the elf-warrior Hurin.  (Tolkien also wrote prose versions of this story, and it was from those manuscripts that The Children of Hurin, published a few years ago, was compiled.) The first version of the story is about 2300 lines, and the second version only about 800.  Neither progresses very far into the tale — Turin’s sister Nienor hardly gets a mention.  The main reason to read the poems, in my judgement, is their form: they are written in alliterative verse, in conscious imitation of Old English poetic models like Beowulf, and there are few, if any, other modern examples of this kind of versifying on this scale.  Here is a short passage for purposes of illustration, describing Turin’s wanderings in the woods around Nargothrond:

The ways of the woods \hspace{0.2cm} he wandered far,
and the land’s secrets \hspace{0.2cm} he learned swiftly
by winter unhindered \hspace{0.2cm} to weathers hardened,
whether snow or sleet \hspace{0.2cm} or slanting rain
from glowering heavens \hspace{0.2cm} grey and sunless
cold and cruel \hspace{0.2cm} was cast to earth,
till the floods were loosed \hspace{0.2cm} and the fallow waters
of sweeping Narog, \hspace{0.2cm} swollen, angry,
were filled with flotsam \hspace{0.2cm} and foaming turbid
passed in tumult; \hspace{0.2cm} or twinkling pale
ice-hung evening \hspace{0.2cm} was opened wide,
a dome of crystal \hspace{0.2cm} o’er the deep silence
of the windless wastes \hspace{0.2cm} and the woods standing
like frozen phantoms \hspace{0.2cm} under flickering stars.
(v.1, 2100-13)

My recollection of permitted line types in Old English poetry is dim, but Tolkien knows them and is, I expect, doing his best to follow the rules.  Although frequently called “alliterative verse”, the alliteration is actually an optional decoration (note its absence in line 2110); the poetry is built on a system of long and short syllables.  Personally I find that underlying structure hard to parse; alliteration is the attraction for me.

The second poem is more ambitious than the first. The Lay of Leithian tells the story of the tragic love between the man Beren and the elf Luthien.  Tolkien considered it one of his most important stories; the tombstone beneath which he and his wife are buried bears the names of the star-crossed lovers.   The poem is written in octosyllabic couplets, and again exists in two versions.  The first version has about 4200 lines, and completes thirteen of a projected seventeen cantos.  The second version begins in much the same way as the first, but soon begins to expand the story in scope and power; however, Tolkien only completed four cantos (about 650 lines) before abandoning the effort.  It is a pity that he never finished the poem, for it is a beautiful and memorable tale, and his narrative verse, while not “great poetry” on a world-historical scale, and despite the sing-song quality that sometimes creeps into the couplets, is well-executed.

Consider, for example, this passage, which describes Beren’s encounter with Luthien.  He sees her dancing and singing in the forest of Doriath:

The wind of winter winds his horn;
the misty veil is rent and torn.
The wind dies; the starry choirs
leap in the silent sky to fires,
whose light comes bitter-cold and sheer
through domes of frozen crystal clear.

A sparkle through the darkling trees,
a piercing glint of light he sees,
and there she dances all alone
upon a treeless knoll of stone!
Her mantle blue with jewels white
caught all the rays of frosted light.
She shone with cold and wintry flame,
as dancing down the hill she came,
and passed his watchful silent gaze,
a glimmer as of stars ablaze.
And snowdrops sprang beneath her feet,
and one bird, sudden, late and sweet,
shrilled as she wayward passed along.
A frozen brook to bubbling song
awoke and laughed; but Beren stood
still bound enchanted in the wood.
(685-706)

That is lovely, and there is music in it.  Tolkien can do dark and stormy as well, as when he is describing Morgoth’s reign of terror in the early days of Middle Earth.  I mentioned above that the second version of The Lay of Leithian improved on the first, and this is a good example.  Here is the relevant passage from the first version:

Unconquerable spears of steel
were at his nod. No ruth did feel
the legions of his marshalled hate,
on whom did wolf and raven wait;
and black the ravens sat and cried
upon their banners black, and wide
was heard their hideous chanting dread
above the reek and trampled dead.
With fire and sword his ruin red
on all that would not bow the head
like lightning fell.  The Northern land
lay groaning neath his ghastly hand.
(v.1, 115-26)

And here is the corresponding passage from the second version:

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.  Now forth they leapt,
his ruinous legions, kindling war
in field and firth and woodland hoar.
Where long the golden elanor
had gleamed amid the grass they bore
their banners black, where finch had sung
and harpers silver harps had wrung
now dark the ravens wheeled and cried
amid the reek, and far and wide
the swords of Morgoth dripped with red
above the hewn and trampled dead.
Slowly his shadow like a cloud
rolled from the North, and on the proud
that would not yield his vengeance fell;
to death or thralldom under hell
all things he doomed : the Northern land
lay cowed beneath his ghastly hand.
(v.2, 119-38)

That’s a real improvement.  The ravens no longer sit and chant (do ravens chant?) but wheel and cry; Morgoth’s armies no longer bring an abstract “ruin red”, but their swords actually drip with blood and their enemies lie hewn and trampled; we see the elanor and the finch driven out; and the image of the dark cloud rolling south is downright scary.

I won’t go into the details of the story lest I spoil it for anyone; suffice it to say that Beren must complete a great quest if he wishes to win the hand of Luthien.  A prose version of the story can be found in The Silmarillion.  It occurs to me that this story would make a good film, and I wonder whether, once The Hobbit has hit screens, enterprising film studios might go searching through the Tolkienian backwaters in search of other adventures from Middle Earth.  Probably not, but it would be great if they did.

This volume is filled out with a few other, minor and fragmentary, poems about events in the First Age, and a considerable portion of the book is given over to detailed commentary.  If you ever had the itch to study variant readings of certain lines, you would be very well pleased indeed by the critical apparatus which Christopher Tolkien has included.  The best of the commentary, however, comes from C.S. Lewis, who cushions the blow of his sometimes sharp criticism of the first version of The Lay of Leithian with some wonderful English don humour.  He pretends the poem is of medieval provenance, and conjures up a group of scholars (Pumpernickel, Peabody, Schuffer, and Schick) to comment upon it.  It is a charming cherry atop the cake.

9 Responses to “Tolkien: The Lays of Beleriand”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    I also enjoyed these poems; only a pity that they weren’t finished. C.S. Lewis once said of Tolkein: “No one ever influenced Tolkien — you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism: either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.” Unfortunate for us . . .

    Also, line 2110 does alliterate: vowels always alliterate with one another in OE poetry. To mention C.S. Lewis yet again, he wrote a very accessible introduction on how OE poetry works — I can’t remember the name off the top of my head unfortunately. You can find it in one of the collections of essays. Tolkein’s essay “On Translating Beowulf” is also a good introduction.+

  2. cburrell Says:

    I think you told me before that the essay in question was in Lewis’ Rehabilitations. I really should read it. It’s hard to find, but I expect the university library has it.

    I read these poems on your recommendation, Adam, so I am happy to have the opportunity to thank you personally: Thanks!

  3. Christina A. Says:

    Craig, I had a sneaking suspicion that you were reading these on Adam’s recommendation!

  4. cburrell Says:

    What are you doing up at 6 am (or was it 5 am)?

  5. Christina A. Says:

    It was closer to 4am and for some reason, the baby slept peacefully through the night (10pm-8am) and I was sleepless for hours ;-(
    I am beginning to doubt my ability to drink the rare decaf coffee in the evenings…

  6. cburrell Says:

    My condolences. Truly, coffee (whether decaf or not) is the devil’s drink.


  7. These do look very much worth reading, and I’m somewhat surprised. I love The Lord of the Rings very deeply, like The Hobbit very well, took up The Silmarillion with enthusiasm that waned pretty quickly, and have never been much interested in reading the numerous fragments that have appeared since. But I may make an exception for this.

  8. cburrell Says:

    I think they are worthwhile, though it is a pity that they are incomplete. The book is almost 400 pages long, but I’d estimate that only about half of that is poetry; the rest is commentary, etc.


  9. […] poetry for these stories is quite different from that he wrote in, for instance, The Lays of Beleriand.  There are similar insofar as medieval poetic forms are clear inspirations, but the details are […]


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