In one of the most disappointing scenes in the extended edition of Peter Jackson's film, The Fellowship of the Ring, Strider and the hobbits are encamped in the wild. Frodo wakes to hear Strider singing The Lay of Leithian. When Frodo asks him how the story ends, Strider murmurs sadly: 'She died.' Given the fundamental and essential importance of the Tale of Beren and Lúthien to Tolkien's legendarium, as a lifelong reader of his works I could only be stunned by the choice Jackson made. I could only laugh in disbelief. I still do.
Now, whatever my opinion of the choice Peter Jackson made, it's his right as the film-maker to make it. Clearly, since he chose to undermine the moral stature of nearly every mortal human in the story, and to change Aragorn from someone who has labored all his life towards this hour into someone full of doubts who has avoided the path that is as much his heritage as his destiny, the Tale of Beren and Lúthien cannot play the same role. To be fair, these choices make it very difficult to include it in any other way than he has done, as a sad commentary on the choice Arwen must make if she is to be with Aragorn. It is a limited and personal perspective.
How different a role The Lay of Leithian plays in Tolkien. There, in a tense moment as the Ringwraiths are closing in on them, Strider sings a song not only of sorrow, but of joy and love, of sacrifice and victory against a heartless darkness. Unlike the bit of Bilbo's simple translation of The Fall of Gil-galad, which Sam had sung to them just that morning and which ends in sadness and uncertainty, Strider's rendering of the Lay is as lush and intricate as the fates of its heroes, with final words that echo onward through the reunion beyond death of Beren and Lúthien to the renewed triumph of Eärendil and the Silmaril that they had made possible.
The Sundering Seas between them lay,
And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
In the forest singing sorrowless
Like the earlier but harder to understand fairy-tale encounter with Tom Bombadil, or like Gandalf's prosaic and terrifying history lesson in The Shadow of the Past, this is one of the moments in the text when the world of Middle-earth suddenly opens up for both hobbits and readers alike. This was especially so for those of us who read The Lord of the Rings before The Silmarillion was published and before instant resources like The Tolkien Gateway came to exist. This poem was all we had. With the Lay's moving account, and with Strider's commentary not only on what the future held for Beren and Lúthien and their descendants, but even on the prosody of the verses he has just chanted, fairy-story and history come together and come alive as they have not done before.
Part of what accomplishes this blending is the aptness of the tale to the situation in which Strider and the hobbits find themselves, menaced by the same darkness that destroyed Amon Sûl centuries ago, the same darkness that centuries earlier than that Gil-galad had set forth from this place to fight. Though Gil-galad's star fell into shadow, Beren and Lúthien won a silmaril from the darkness against all hope, and to revive hope that jewel became a star to rise above all darkness.
Part of what accomplishes this is the unexpected elan with which the till now dour and wry Strider tells it. The depth of his sudden passion carries with it conviction:
As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood-fire. His eyes shone, and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky.(FR 1.xi.194)
Part of what accomplishes this is the enchanting beauty of the verses themselves. We've already heard quite a few poems before now, pub songs and bath songs and walking songs from the hobbits, the impossibly lofty hymn to Elbereth, the chill spell of the Barrow-wight, and the running wonder and delight of Bombadil. But we haven't heard anything that tells a story with such beauty and power. I'm sure I can't speak for everyone, but it was these verses in particular that first seized me and shook me and made me pay attention to Tolkien's poetry.
And the last part of what accomplishes this blending comes from outside The Lord of the Rings itself. For as Corey Olsen has recently argued, and I believe quite rightly, it is here, with the introduction of the story of Beren and Lúthien into this story, that The Lord of the Rings, and perforce The Hobbit as well, become once and for all part of the world of The Silmarillion. The literal globing of Arda that began with The Fall of Númenor is now literarily complete. The lines that were parallel on the flat world cross on the round. The Elrond, Necromancer, and Gondolin of The Hobbit are no longer lesser, alternate universe versions of themselves. This meeting of the worlds of myth and history gives a life to them that they did not have before, and so transforms the Tale of Beren and Lúthien into a means by which past, present, and future are linked together and may be measured against each other.
Thus Frodo and Sam's discussion of this tale on the stairs of Cirith Ungol gives them strength and courage to go on, and even to laugh at the darkness before they reach the pass; it gives Sam the courage to fight on against Shelob, just as Beren fought against the spiders in Nan Dungortheb; and when Frodo seems dead it gives him the resolve to go on living when all seemed lost, as Beren did, and as Túrin did not. (The names of both heroes are evoked in this episode.) And just as the light of Eärendil's star in the phial of Galadriel enables Sam to rescue Frodo from the tower, so the glimpse he has of the star itself allows him to grasp the meaning of the Tale:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.(RK 6.ii.922)
It is this same light and beauty arising from the Tale of Beren and Lúthien that moves Strider so in the dell beneath Weathertop. But the Tale plays more than one role here. For if Frodo and Sam are repeating it on the level of the quest, Aragorn and Arwen are repeating it on the level of the love story. At first of course the readers don't know that, nor do they receive the least hint until Arwen enters the scene at Rivendell, where she is described in a lofty language similar to that which Aragorn used of Lúthien herself:
So it was that Frodo saw her whom few mortals had yet seen; Arwen, daughter of Elrond, in whom it was said that the likeness of Lúthien had come on earth again; and she was called Undómiel, for she was the Evenstar of her people. Long she had been in the land of her mother's kin, in Lórien beyond the mountains, and was but lately returned to Rivendell to her father's house.
So we see here a connection established between Arwen and Lúthien, but her link to Strider remains unexpressed. Bilbo's words to Aragorn after dinner -- 'Why weren't you at the feast? The Lady Arwen was there' -- allude to it, but not so clearly that Frodo gets it, since he is surprised to see Aragorn at her side later that evening (FR 2.i.238). Yet, although the relationship of Arwen and Aragorn becomes more apparent with time (FR 2.vi.352; viii.375; RK 6.ii.775, 784; vi.847), it does not truly emerge until late in the tale that their love rehearses the key element of Beren and Lúthien's. Arwen herself makes it explicit: 'I shall not go with [my father] now when he departs to the Havens; for mine is the choice of Lúthien, and as she so have I chosen, both the sweet and the bitter' (RK 6.vi.974). It receives its fullest expression, however, only in The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen as the two confront the choice of Lúthien and its inevitable consequence: death.
Which brings us back to 'she died,' a summary not without its importance. When the Aragorn of the film says it, he does so as if there were nothing more to say: no victory over Morgoth, no return from death, no silmaril, no Eärendil, no star to dispute the darkness forever. It is a story, in short, with no hope. This very hopelessness, however, allows us to see how ripe with hope Aragorn's telling of this tale is in the book; and when we turn again to The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen the reason Aragorn finds such hope in The Tale of Beren and Lúthien becomes clearer:
'And Arwen said: "Dark is the Shadow, and yet my heart rejoices; for you, Estel, shall be among the great whose valour will destroy it."
' But Aragorn answered: "Alas! I cannot foresee it, and how it may come to pass is hidden from me. Yet with your hope I will hope. And the Shadow I utterly reject. But neither, lady, is the Twilight for me; for I am mortal, and if you will cleave to me, Evenstar, then the Twilight you must also renounce."
'Yet with your hope I will hope' and 'I will cleave to you, Dúnadan' -- these are the words that inspire Strider at Weathertop as he sings the same song as when he first met Arwen and mistook her for Lúthien. Even in that moment Arwen said 'maybe my doom will not be unlike hers' (RK A.1058). Thus The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen expands our view of this scene. For by her choice Arwen does not just pledge herself to him, or merely repeat the choice of Lúthien, as romantic as that might be. She renews that choice by embracing the doom of Lúthien,'And she stood then as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: "I will cleave to you, Dúnadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin."(RK A.1061)
This doom [Lúthien] chose, forsaking the Blessed Realm, and putting aside all claim to kinship with those that dwell there; that thus whatever grief might lie in wait, the fates of Beren and Lúthien might be joined, and their paths lead together beyond the confines of the world. So it was that alone of the Eldalië she has died indeed, and left the world long ago. Yet in her choice the Two Kindreds have been joined; and she is the forerunner of many in whom the Eldar see yet, though all the world is changed, the likeness of Lúthien the beloved, whom they have lost.
"I speak no comfort to you, [Aragorn said] for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men."
"Nay, dear lord," [Arwen] said, "that choice is long over. There is now no ship that would bear the hence,and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or I nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive."
"So it seems," [Aragorn] said. "But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!"(RK A 1062-63)
One of the most remarkable aspects of these passages from both tales, if taken together, is that in the end it is the Man who offers hope to the Elf. She must now hope with his hope, since she cannot foresee the end. Through the Choice of Lúthien the Man can offer the Elf something beyond memory, something beyond the bondage to the circles of the world to which the Elves are of their nature subject. What is more, since 'in her choice the Two Kindreds have been joined', and since through Arwen this choice was renewed, does this not suggest that the same hope may be in store for all Elves, and that they will not perish utterly with Arda at the world's ending? Is this then the 'release from bondage' which the very title of The Lay of Leithian proclaims?
To conclude that this is so would perhaps be hasty, and to argue that Lúthien and Arwen play some kind of messianic role would be foolish. Tolkien was seldom so clumsy. Yet it is clear that the Elves had their concerns about what would become of them after the end of the world (Silm. 42; Morgoth 311-26). The Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, moreover, discusses these matters of life, death, and 'immortality', specifically in the context of 'the gulf that divides our kindreds' (Morgoth 323, emphasis original). Finrod even suggests that part of the original role of Men might have been to help bring Elves across the gulf by facilitating the healing of Arda (Morgoth 318-19). Finally the dialogue of Finrod and Andreth ends with their discussion of the sad tale of the love of Andreth and Finrod's brother Aegnor, which could not bridge that gulf and join the kindreds as Beren and Lúthien were destined to do (Morgoth 323-25). Even so in its very last words Finrod asks Andreth to await Aegnor and himself in whatever light she finds beyond death (Morgoth 326), just as Lúthien later asks a dying Beren to wait for her (Silm. 186).
To be sure, some passages in the Athrabeth anticipate the biblical story of the Fall and the Incarnation, but that is hardly all there is. It is impossible not to see the Tale of Beren and Lúthien prefigured in the desperate lives of Andreth and Aegnor. This attention to their failure to join their kindreds, presented in the culmination of the Athrabeth's discussion of life and death and the fates of Men and Elves in and beyond this world, is not to be slighted. It underlines the importance of those later loves that succeeded in bridging the gulf between the kindreds. Lúthien's departure beyond the circles of the world is as significant for the future of the Elves as Eärendil's rising as a star in the West is for the struggle against The Shadow. Each of them is a pathfinder and a testament to the 'deeper kind' of Hope or 'trust', the Elvish word for which is Estel (Morgoth 320). It is also Aragorn's Elvish name, by which Arwen calls him in sorrow as he dies. The last word we hear from the mouth of Arwen Evenstar, who shared the doom of Lúthien and now shares the bitter gift of mortals, is hope.