This article, and others about one of the world's most celebrated writers, is featured in Newsweek's Special Edition: J.R.R. Tolkien—The Mind of a Genius.
During a year-long convalescence in Yorkshire from trench fever contracted in the hellish mud-filled landscape of World War I France, J. R. R. Tolkien found the spark of inspiration for the tale that became the cornerstone for The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings.
While the war raged on a country away, Tolkien and his wife, Edith, took respite from the constant conflict in a peaceful “woodland glade” in Yorkshire. Edith began to dance for Tolkien among the trees, imprinting the moment vividly in Tolkien’s mind. “In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing—and dance,” Tolkien wrote in a July 11, 1972, letter to his son Christopher almost a year after his wife’s passing.
Drawing from that afternoon, Tolkien began to write a love story. He imagined Edith as an Elvish princess, Lúthien, and equated himself to a mere mortal human, Beren. The story of the two lovers was so precious to Tolkien that when his wife passed away, he had “Lúthien” written on her gravestone and later instructed “Beren” would be written on his own. “...For she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien,” the author wrote.
Living thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit, Beren was the last human in a group of men that had resisted the Dark Enemy, Morgoth. As Morgoth conquered vast swaths of Middle-earth, Beren ran to hide in the Elvish community of Doriath. There, he meets the love of his life, Lúthien, singing and dancing in a glade, but their love can never be, as she’s an immortal Elf and he’s a human destined to die. Her father, King Thingol, disapproves and decides to send Beren on a task he knows the man will never be able to complete.
He wants Beren to steal back one of the Silmarils, the three hallowed jewels made by Fëanor, which Morgoth stole, before he can marry Lúthien. The pair goes on a quest and manages to recover the jewel from Morgoth’s crown, but Beren dies in the process and Lúthien then dies from grief. The Vala Mandos, The Judge of Death and Doom, is touched by their plight and both are resurrected, living—for awhile at least— happily ever after.
From this building block, Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. While he was teaching at the University of Leeds in the 1920s, he published in the university’s magazine the first version of the song Aragorn sings about Lúthien for the Hobbits at Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Ring. But this isn’t the only instance in The Lord of the Rings where the star-crossed pair is instrumental in the backstory and plot. Elrond and Arwen are both descendants of the lovers, proving that this original inspiration stayed with Tolkien well into the final drafts of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien’s son, Christopher, certainly believes in the story’s importance to understanding Tolkien’s world. A century after his father first wrote the monumental story, Christopher put together a book titled Beren and Lúthien, which chronicles the evolution of this iconic tale and will be released in May of this year. For fans of Tolkien, it’s a book worth the wait.
This article, written by Assistant Editor Alicia Kort, was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition: J.R.R. Tolkien—The Mind of a Genius. For more on the man who crafted one of fiction's most influential worlds, pick up a copy today.