Review: Tom Clarkon the last Tolkien

Speculative Philology: Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

þu eart endelaf    usses cynnes,
Wægmundinga.    Ealle wyrd forsweop
mine magas    to metodsceafte,
eorlas on elne;    ic him æfter sceal.

(‘Thou art the end and latest of our house of Waegmund’s line. All hath fate swept away of my kinsfolk to their appointed doom, good men of valour – I must follow them!’)

So says Beowulf in his final breaths. He says it to Wiglaf, the one loyal retainer who has stuck by him through his mutually fatal duel with a dragon, the dragon, who inspired John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s own Smaug, the firebreathing victim of a daring burglary by a hobbit, in The Hobbit. For any of us who hear the call of Tolkien’s mythologies, this folding of the glimpses of one story into the versions of another and vice versa is the point, the life’s work. And it is doomed. Those things we care about so much because we reflect on them often because we care about them so much that we reflect on them often: they are all dying around us.

Tolkien himself translated these lines from Beowulf into Modern English – or modern to a point – in his posthumously released (2014) translation of the epic poem that offered him so much material for his own stories. His version is filled with the same pathos that Beowulf utters. So is his essay on the poem, ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics,’ which did more than any other piece to establish his reputation as a scholar of Germanic philology.

Tolkien projected many of the myths he read and myths he himself made up onto his own private life, including the myth by which he symbolised his marriage to Edith Bratt and the courtship that preceded it. His letters reminisce about a moment that became a part of the myth. In 1964 he wrote:

The original version of the ‘Tale of Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren’ later in [1917] … was founded on a small wood with a great undergrowth of ‘hemlock’ (no doubt many other related plants were also there) near Roos in Holderness, where I was for a while on the Humber Garrison.

From 1972, the year after Edith’s death and the year before his, their youngest son Christopher recalls a letter that:

Returned … to the origin of the tale of Beren and Lúthien in a small woodland glade filled with hemlock flowers near Roos in Yorkshire, where [Edith] danced; and he said: ‘But the story has gone crooked, and I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos [the Keeper of the Dead].’

Even more strikingly, the headstone that JRR Tolkien commissioned for the grave he shares with Edith at Wolvercote Cemetery, at the northern end of Oxford, proclaims the affiliation for all time: it calls her Lúthien and him Beren.

Those two lovers, Lúthien and Beren, were first publicly known when Tolkien published his Lord of the Rings in 1955. There Aragorn relates the tale to Frodo – again, we see it emerge as a backstory – but it is a tale first conceived long before that book came to light—before The Hobbit too. It receives a more detailed explication in The Silmarillion, the first of many posthumous books from the Tolkien imaginarium, and more detailed again in his Tales of Beleriand, but it is older than both of them as well.

This new book, Beren and Lúthien, traces the tale extensively across its main manuscript versions and through some of Tolkien’s personal correspondence. Informed by the John-and-Edith romance, it offers an extraordinary new layer of backstory for one of the twentieth century’s most fertile literary backstories. Lúthien is an elf, Beren a human. That means she is immortal and he must die. How could such a couple reproduce? How might they hope to marry? (Tolkien was a conservative Catholic; if perhaps it is lazy to assume these questions matter to such a person, each version of the story offers suggestions that they mattered to him.)

It can never just be star-crossed lovers with Tolkien, though. There is so much narrative arc to allow; there are so many worlding details to work in. Tracing a tale across versions produces striking changes in the details and register of its telling, but the worldmaker’s obsession with plotting it is always strongly in view—as even a glib synopsis makes clear.

Beren is a wanderer, although the reasons why vary from version to version. He travels through the forests of Doriath and sees Lúthien dancing. He is smitten, and she is flattered to find herself so smiting. There is a clear need to clear it with her family, but that proves tricky because of the whole human/elf issue. Which is a thing, as you would understand. So Lúthien’s dad is all no way about it, and he says Beren has to bring back this totes precious jewel called a Silmaril. (That was, like, the story in that other book called The Silmarillion.) A Noldor elf called Fëanor made the three Silmarils, and they are incredibly beautiful and endophotonic and stuff.

Anyway, the biggest problem with the Silmarils is that they are all in the crown of Melkor, aka Morgoth (who is a fallen Ainu and clearly modelled on Old English poetic accounts of Satan and he stole them). People like that wear their crowns all day, every day. Even to bed, if they even go to bed. And so lover-boy has volunteered to go and get one or more super-precious jewels out of the Dark Lord’s crown as proof to the prospective father-in-law that he is serious about this marriage thing.

Again, there are different versions of what happens next, but it turns out to be a really, really hard challenge. If Lúthien doesn’t help him, it is just so over. No way. But she does help him, and she is a really powerful elf because she is from a really powerful elf family, and so her magic really helps him by putting Morgoth to sleep. And Beren cuts one Silmaril from the crown before anyone can wake up, but then the two of them have to beat it.

On their way out of that drear palace, somewhere between the Junius Manuscript’s version of Genesis and the Kalevala, Lúthien and Beren encounter the chief of the werewolves. Carcharoth (aka Karkaras) bites Beren’s hand off, in a bizarro-echo of that failed settlement between Tyr and the Fenris wolf in Snorri’s Edda, and then they all run away.

The guardwolf has Beren’s hand inside him now, as you can imagine, but the magic of the Silmaril that was in the hand makes him go all psycho-nuts. Beren goes to Lúthien’s dad and says I got that Silmaril you asked for and it is in my hand, but my hand is somewhere out in the forest, inside that wolf who is killing everyone he comes across. So there is a bit of a rapprochement there, but then they have to go out and get the wolf. So the wolf, you know, carcs it (aka karks it). And Beren dies when he kills the wolf, but Lúthien journeys all Orpheus-stylie to the realm of Mandos.

Mandos is way charmed by her dancing, and agrees to let Beren rejoin the world of the living. (The deal Mandos offers is that Lúthien can live with Beren and get married to him, but only if she relinquishes her immortality and agrees to die one day. But what’s death when you’re in love?) And so they lived happily ever after, except they died in the end.

That last bit isn’t a spoiler, by the way—I promise. It’s just, like, the whole point of the story.

Christopher Tolkien is the last.

Nobody has signed up to the poignant mission of JRR Tolkien more utterly than his youngest son, Christopher Tolkien. Christopher’s lot seems to have been a special understanding with his father. For, although it was his brother Michael Tolkien who shared with their father a dream of the huge, surging seas that swallowed Atlantis (JRR regarded their dream as hereditary, a ‘race memory’ of the fall of Atlantis, and used it to feed his rich mythology of the lost island of Númenor), it was Christopher who knew the stories well enough to draw their maps.

This gives us another clue to the last survivor complex in play here. What does it mean to inhabit someone else’s fantasy landscape like this? Or to offer that landscape out so generously to co-inhabitants, for that matter? These questions apply to every reader of Tolkien, and to every writer and reader of other fantasy and science fiction literature produced in his wake, as map-driven as so much of it has been. The more ‘into’ Tolkien one is, the more into him one really is—expressly by his invitation.

It is most evident in the project that has anchored Christopher’s working life since 1973: serving as literary executor for his father’s papers. Now into his nineties, he looks back on a career in which he has edited and published more of his father’s copy, both academic and fictional, than JRR himself did. For the fictional writings, the son/father ratio is almost triple.

In dubiously quantitative terms, then, nobody living has a deeper and more detailed knowledge of JRR Tolkien’s world and its ages. The heretical counterintuitive here is that the father could not have matched Christopher’s knowledge either. How much will we lose, irretrievably, when we lose the last living son? Even to care about this question is a bit ghoulish, let alone to spell it out. But the offering made by a last survivor is not so many stages removed from that of a wight in the burial down. Or a dragon under the mountain: I am, I occupy, and I own—but you, wandering dilettante, are all alone.

One of the people who taught me to read Old English poetry once recounted an exchange of letters with Christopher Tolkien. JRR Tolkien had given her an original piece of his writing, and she wanted to alert his estate to its presence. Christopher’s reply to her letter was distrusting, a fierce assertion of copyright and no apparent interest in engaging collegially with her about the document. Such defensiveness may have seemed fair enough, viewed from Christopher’s end: a complete stranger wanting to talk about his late father’s lucrative writings can hardly have been an easy matter for the son and literary executor. Even viewed from that perspective, though, we see a clear asymmetry of burden between the fallen hero and the final confidant, between the open-handed patriarch and his watchful heir.

And now, it seems, Christopher surmises his watch is nearing its end:

In my ninety-third year this is (presumptively) my last book in the long series of editions of my father’s writings, very largely previously unpublished, and is of a somewhat curious nature.

Christopher, Last of the Atlanteans, has used the decades of indefatigable work on his father’s papers to develop an unpretentious, personally credible way of working his own perspective into the extensive marginalia and supporting copy that underscores such a volume as this.

This book is the last.

What is ‘such a volume’? The dust-jacket is uncommonly low-key, as well as accurate, about Beren and Lúthien’s purpose:

In this book Christopher Tolkien has attempted to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history.

In other words, it is a philological edition, tracing the changes in a story across versions and manuscripts. This means changes of character, of their names, of the geography they move through, and of the historical moments they contribute to. All of this is fantastical, a speculative philology – if that insistence counts for anything – but the editorial method is entirely sober and meticulous.

Before JRR Tolkien had imagined the character of Sauron, for example, Melkor’s second-in-command was Tevildo, the prince of cats. To read this version is to read a fairy-tale rather than those grand monster-operas of Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. It is not so far removed from the tales he was making up to tell his children in the evenings. As writing, it sits as close to his Roverandom as to his ‘Lay of Leithian’:

‘Nay, get thee gone,’ said Tevildo, ‘thou smellest of dog, and what news of good came ever to a cat from a fairy that had had dealings with the dogs?’

The early cats-and-dogs fable has its echoes in the later versions. The divine hound Garm, on whom Lúthien rides in Alan Lee’s dreamlike illustration for the front cover, is surely the strongest.

But to be clear, the tale of Lúthien and Beren is an evolving one, which recurs in changing contexts through the history of JRR Tolkien’s career as well as through the speculative histories he made. The book of Beren and Lúthien unfolds a tale that itself unfolds, evolving and changing across the versions and over the decades of Tolkien’s telling. Or Tolkiens’ telling. The chief origamist, Christopher Tolkien, is offering one final lesson on how to unfold, on how to follow change in a phenomenon without tearing it to bits.

Each reader is the last.

When there are no philologists called Tolkien left to do the work, it will fall to each loyalist-in-exile to keep a candle burning by the window. Our bonnie prince is gone, smashed at Culloden by armies of balrogs and dragons, but they say his barge will return from Avalon one day, or Aslan will take us to him after a final battle between Daesh and the talking animals—or maybe it is I who must return because I keep that candle burning in my window. Whatever: it has been a high and lonely destiny so far, and nobody who sees rings of smoke through the trees is keen for that to stop.

Every reader is the last. Every movie viewer and talking book listener is the last. We are all, each of us, potential last survivors every time we walk past that shelf in the bookshop. Michael Warner would define the Tolkiens’ readers as a public, constituted by ‘mere attention’ to the stories, and sustained by their ongoing circulation. ‘A public is poetic world-making,’ he wrote—how much more so when that poetic world is made in the name of making poetic worlds?

One way I feel my own lastness is the dying of the music. Did you ever notice how little music there is in fantasy literature written this century? The denizens of these putatively medieval worlds barely sing; they ply and cry their trades without melody or verse; they worship in monotones; they go to war with perhaps a toot from some ancient or magically juiced-up antler, but no drums, no whistles, no pipes, no ballads (the ‘walking songs’). Through all the beautiful absurdity of fantasy worlds, this deadening effect must rate among the most preposterous dumbings down.

JRR Tolkien heard a music everywhere, it is clear in the moments his stories report. This must have struck him as a fairly straightforward dimension of the worlds and histories he created: he did not often analyse it directly, but his writings are full of songs, ceremonies, dances. It was through a dance that Lúthien did that smiting job on Beren’s heart, as Edith had done to the young John in a Yorkshire glade during his break from the trenches of world war one. It was through another dance that she enchanted Melkor/Morgoth to sleep, enabling Beren’s theft of a Silmaril from the thief who possessed it. A third time she danced for Mandos and it restored her dead lover to the world of the living.

This is no coincidence, of course. At no moment do JRR Tolkien’s many writings depart from the Steward’s creed in Sir Orfeo, a fourteenth-century English poem he also translated, which fuses chivalric romance with the Greek legend of Orpheus:

Everich gode harpour is welcome me to
For mi lordes love Sir Orfeo.

(‘All harpers good I welcome make
For my dear lord Sir Orfeo’s sake.’)

More positively put, the worlds JRR Tolkien has created are ubiquitously musical. Their characters sing when later generations of authors would have them speak.

It is not a complex or diverse musicality, mind. When Donald Swann arranged a collection of songs from Middle Earth, The Road Goes Ever On, JRR Tolkien the lyricist expressed a delight that these melody-driven arrangements of elf, halfling, and ent voices had captured his intent entirely. It is a milieu in which aesthetic difference necessarily entails some kind of enmity: not the sort of musicoverse we might have belonged to in our suburban marches, if we listened to ABC Radio National over the 25 years to 2016, say.

One last, desperate stand.

I must mention the Michael Mason and Michelle Guthrie silencing of ‘our music’ – Radio National has until recently been the main broadcasting vehicle for the now-multicultural genre that people call Australian folk – because their desecration is so utterly of a piece with work done for late modernity everywhere. For us, music occupies an ever more demarcated position – largely confined to childhood, to intoxication or madness, to moments of privacy, and to the output of professional artists – so much that a twenty-first-century consciousness is unlikely to conceive of anything different.

Instead, we imagine a medieval world of exotic and religiously hyper-determined sights, of quaint theory and technology, and of the radically other ethics of the body that find their most spectacular expressions in punishment and sexuality. The prosiform consciousness that shapes our medieval imaginings has more in common with medieval-on-yo-ass modes of life – such as we see under ISIS or the Khmer Rouge – than it does with any accounts of life in Eurasia’s middle ages that scholars might call authoritative.

In economics, the prosiformity expresses as neoliberalism. In language, it is thenominalism which characterises all those clean-faced young geriatrics who rule our post-democracies. And in speculative history, it presents as ‘fantasy realism’—which is to say unversed dialogue and CGI-enhanced action.

Prosiformity certainly marks the broad sweep of twenty-first-century fantasy, including twenty-first-century reflexes of Tolkien. For the former, the obviously presenting example is Game of Thrones. How often does a character or extra sing, versify, or play music across the volumes we have read or the seasons we have seen so far? There are moments of performance and ceremony, to be sure, and doubtless the HBO series’ theme tune is integral to its poetic world-making tactics, but this putatively medieval world is less musicful by many orders of magnitude than the medieval worlds that academically credited histories, archaeologies, mythologies, and musicologies attest to.

We may compare this to other popular sources:  the witheringly long series of witheringly long books; the many movies and television shows that have drawn audiences; the fantasy roleplaying games (both online and face-to-face); and the reenactments and dramatisations. How many dance steps were there in Hawk the Slayer, for example? Or when did your friendly Dungeon Master last advise you to sing a short ditty before you rolled assorted polyhedra across the dining table? Some children’s books and shows stand against the trend, but we adults have essentially pulled up our drawbridges since Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

For an illustration from Tolkien’s world, think of the music in Peter Jackson’s films. There is much use of soundtrack-syrup to set a mood. There are momentary glimpses of a musicality between elves (for example, deepening the sense of wonder at Rivendell). In the calamitous passage through Moria, drums remain a central plot device. But when Jackson’s first instalment of The Hobbit indulged screentime for a washing-up song of the dwarves, so vividly central to Tolkien’s original depiction of them, the film was panned and the remaining episodes reverted to the fantasy realism norm. Whether actual or speculative, the middle ages are only musical if we have ears to appreciate.

This question of music underscores one of the deep contradictions of JRR Tolkien, the conservative and the cosmopolitan. On the one hand, there is a clear and passionate affiliation to monoculture. A given landscape is the terroir for one body of poetry and story and song and music and dance. It is the basis for one cuisine—could he even have imagined the crew from Milwall taking a curry and a lager after the game? It is a patchwork of parishes for one religion, schisms and heresies notwithstanding. Each landscape hosts one tradition to rule all its subjects, one tradition to bind them.

Against that singularity, though, stands JRR Tolkien’s extraordinary pursuit of languages—outpaced by Ezra Pound, perhaps, but matched by very few published authors. He learned Greek and Latin (of course), French, German, Esperanto, Welsh, Finnish, Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Old Norse, Old Saxon, Ostrogoth and Visigoth, some of these years before any curriculum or assessment required him to.

Humphrey Carpenter’s biography tells that King Edward’s School used to hold debates for the students as a reconstructed Roman Senate, in Latin. The 16-year-old Tolkien thought this a bit easy, so he decided to present as a barbarian envoy. There he gave a speech in Visigothic, to the reported bewilderment of his fellows. There is no suggestion that any of them hated him for this.

The quieting of music also brings home something about Christopher Tolkien. He is an aged Ranger now, a pundit largely outside universities and their putatively authoritative studies. Keeping a watch from the Frankish marches, he sustains songs and ceremonies and tales that are as old, speculatively, as any known to human civilisations. In the world around him philology is dying, music is dying, the monoculture dissipates and fades. This is quintessential Old English elegy, as The Wanderer represents the type. Again I quote JRR Tolkien’s translation here—it reminds us just how deeply this type has influenced his Beren (which is to say, himself):

Hwær cwom mearh, hwær cwom mago?    Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?    Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala, beorht bune!     Eala, byrnwiga!
Eala, þeodnes þrym!    Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under niht-helm, swa heo no wære!

(‘Where is the horse gone, where the young rider? Where now the giver of gifts? Where are the seats at the feasting gone? Where are the merry sounds in the hall? Alas, the bright goblet! Alas, the knight and his hauberk! Alas, the glory of the king! How that hour has departed, dark under the shadow of night, as had it never been!’)

When there are no philologists called Tolkien left to do the work, there will still be a Wægmunding. He or she will still be reading the books that Christopher Tolkien edited by the light of that candle, setting a lead for the tens of millions who stop with the stories his father published before 1973, or for the hundreds of millions who stop with the movies. To lead in speculation is precious.