There is no phrase in English more thrilling or full of promise than “Once upon a time…”
I know I’m not the first to say so or think so. And yet, Tolkien’s multi-canto poem The Lay of Leithian manages to create the same thrill without ever using that phrase. It tells the history of Beren One-Hand, a mortal man who won the heart and the hand of Luthien Tinuviel, an Elvish princess of extraordinary courage and beauty. It is one of Tolkien’s oldest stories, and clearly one that was of great importance to him. In a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, I read that he wrote the initial versions while on sick leave from the army in World War One, where his future wife, Edith, would meet him in the woods and dance with him under the trees, as Luthien does with Beren. On the headstone for himself and his wife are inscribed the names of Beren and Luthien – surely a statement of how he saw himself and his wife – the mortal man who wins an elf so entirely that she gives up immortality for him.
Hi, my name is Elspeth and I’m a Tolkien-o-holic.
Arguably Tolkien’s most spectacular literary creation, the Lay of Leithian is barely referenced in The Lord of the Rings and not at all in The Hobbit. The long poem is unfinished, as are nearly all of Tolkien’s works – I get the impression that he was the worst kind of authorial perfectionist, always revising and never done.
Sidebar: there is a passing comment late in Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery novel Gaudy Night in which the main character, who has been helping a professor with writing a book, describes grabbing the edited manuscript and fleeing for the publisher’s. Clearly nobody did that for Tolkien!
Loving fantasy stories as I do, it was inevitable that I should join the hordes of Tolkien enthusiasts who adore the astonishingly detailed world he created. However, I would argue that the stories would not work anywhere near as well without Tolkien’s linguistic abilities. He was, first and foremost, a linguist, a professor of Anglo-Saxon, otherwise known as Old English.
At times his writing reads like an old-fashioned epic and at other times it reads like the King James Bible, and the combination of the two divides the audience into those who can’t follow along and those who are swept away by the river of words. (The road does, indeed, go on and on, down from the door where it began!)
Here is the first part of the Lay of Leithian. For the rest, please see History of Middle Earth: The Lays of Beleriand.
A king there was in days of old:
ere Men yet walked upon the mould
his power was reared in cavern’s shade,
his hand was over glen and glade.
His shields were shining as the moon,
his lances keen of steel were hewn,
of silver grey his crown was wrought,
the starlight in his banners caught;
and silver thrilled his trumpets long
beneath the stars in challenge strong;
enchantment did his realm enfold,
where might and glory, wealth untold,
he wielded from his ivory throne
in many-pillared halls of stone.
There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,
and metal wrought like fishes’ mail,
buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
and gleaming spears were laid in hoard –
all these he had and loved them less
than a maiden once in Elfinesse;
for fairer than are born to Men
a daughter had he, Luthien.
Such lissom limbs no more shall run
on the green earth beneath the sun;
so fair a maid no more shall be
from dawn to dusk, from sun to sea.
Her robe was blue as summer skies,
but grey as evening were her eyes;
’twas sewn with golden lilies fair,
but dark as shadow was her hair.
Her feet were light as bird on wing,
her laughter lighter than the spring;
the slender willow, the bowing reed,
the fragrance of a flowering mead,
the light upon the leaves of trees,
the voice of water, more than these
her beauty was and blissfulness,
her glory and her loveliness;
and her the king more dear did prize
than hand or heart or light of eyes.