The Silmarillion Recaps: Of Beren & Lúthien, Werewolves, and Half-Goddesses
Welcome back, fellow Tolkien fans (or just those curious about the extended edition of Middle Earth)! It’s been awhile since my last recap. I had a baby, no big deal! It’s taken some time to eek out brief minutes to write about Tolkien again, but here we are. And this one’s a doozy.
If you saw my last piece, where I concentrated on Fëanor the Uber Elf Jerk, the story of Beren and Lúthien should be a little bit of a palate cleanse. Not because there isn’t lots of tragedy and death (hoo boy is there), but there’s also epic love and badass werewolf fights and elves being awesome (and also a few who, well, aren’t. I’m looking at you, sons of Fëanor).
Just to reiterate: these recaps are not meant to be stand ins for reading The Silmarillion proper, but to give you some insight into selected “main” stories and help you navigate what can be a very intimidating tome. I’m sticking to The Silmarillion as published, though you’re welcome to check out the additional Lost Tales and others volumes where Christopher Tolkien shared some of the different drafts and extended stories. We just don’t have time for all that here.
If you’re looking for breakdowns of every little detail, all the family trees, region names, or how they differ in the Quenya or Sindarin languages, well…I would read the book. I’ve skipped over quite a few things on purpose. Sorry!
Like last time where I laid out some terms that will help keep things a bit more streamlined, here are some that relate to this story:
Maiar: Spirits or elementals usually associated with a particular Vala (for Valar description see Part 1). They come in all kinds of shapes and forms, including human/elvish if they so choose. They can also align themselves as good, bad, or neutral and have varying degrees of power. Some prominent Maiar you may know from Lord of the Rings: Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron. The Balrog Gandalf fights? A fire Maia originally aligned with Morgoth. They were notorious for killing elves, but had mostly disappeared by the time LoTR came around.
Sindar or “Grey” Elves: These elves started the journey to Aman like their kin the Noldor but never quite made it for various reasons and stayed in Middle Earth instead. They settled mainly in Beleriand and created kingdoms in several locations. They are often considered “lesser” elves because they never saw the light of The Two Trees. A comparison would be between Galadriel (Noldor) and Thranduil (Sindar).
The Halls of Mandos– This is where elf souls go after they die to reside for a time before being called back to life. It sounds cool but they actually wander around as sad ghosts and never get to know the peace of true death. This is a marked difference from Men who die and their souls leave the confines of the world. No one but Illuvatar knows their ultimate fate.
Atani– This is the name given to Men which means “The Second People”. This is because they literally came second, the Elves being the first to awaken and live in Middle Earth. Those Men that become friendly or allied with the elves were often called the Edain.
There are a bunch of differences between Men and Elves, the most significant being perma death. Men have much shorter lifespans which isn’t difficult when immortality is the baseline (though some very lucky ones lived to be 200+) and elves don’t tend to show many visible signs of age once they reach adulthood and they don’t get sick. This causes tensions between the two races because Men come to view their mortality as a curse when it was actually intended as a gift. Some of this is due to the machinations of Morgoth and Sauron, but it’s also naturally born of men watching elves never age or die (mostly) and envying what they don’t fully understand.
Angband and Thangorodrim: Morgoth’s stronghold in Middle Earth was built beneath 3 of the highest volcanic mountain peaks that he himself raised. The name Thangorodrim means “Mountains of Oppression” and this is where he amassed his hordes of orcs, dragons, and balrogs. The fortress had deep torturous prisons, furnaces, and smithies while the mountains had sheer precipices that could not be scaled or assaulted. Prisoners generally went mad there, if they lived. Fun fact: Angband was originally Sauron’s stronghold and Barad-dŭr was clearly based on it. Angband was aMorgoth’s second stronghold, his first was in Utumno where he created the orcs by practicing fell, twisted magic on captured elves.
Sauron: Most everyone is familiar with his role in LoTR but Sauron has been bopping around and causing grief for a lot longer. He was a Maia of Aule, the smith, and was not originally evil. He was possessed of a great knowledge in the making of things, which we later see twisted when it comes to the One Ring. As is common in Tolkien, Sauron is “seduced” by Morgoth, his own pride, and a desire for “order” that obviously gets way out of hand. He became Morgoth’s chief lieutenant and an important figure in several events in The Silmarillion.
In order to understand the story of Beren and Lúthien we need to go back a bit further and find out a little about the beginning of the elves and specifically her rather unique lineage.
The elves were first awoken in a place called Cuiviénen in secret, by the predetermined designs of Illúvatar, on an earth only lit by stars. The Vala, who have been anxiously awaiting their dawning, eventually locate them and invite them to the Undying Lands. One of these elves, Elu Thingol goes with two other elf lords to see if they actually want to go to the trouble of relocating. It turns out they do because it’s really pretty in Aman and there are these two awesome trees that bathe everything in the most flattering light ever. It also doesn’t have orcs running around and capturing/killing anyone so that’s a big plus. Thingol comes back to his people and tells them they should definitely check this place out. They set off with several other elf hosts and everyone is pretty stoked.
However, along the way, Thingol wanders off into the woods because he likes to do that and encounters Melian, a Maia of Yavanna. He is completely entranced by her and they fall in love because of course they do. Melian has major skills when it comes to enchantment and her and Thingol basically live in a blissed out state before Thingol remembers he’s a leader and should maybe check back in with his people. When they emerge Thingol’s hair is grey and many of his followers have stayed behind in Beleriand, unwilling to forsake him even though it’s been several hundred years. It must be nice to not have to worry about the passage of time very much.
Thingol and crew establish a new kingdom where several major forests intersect called Doriath. In the midst of this is a big hill where they have their major city and fortress, Menegroth. What makes it unique is that the city is beneath the hill in a series of resplendent caves. Thingol hires a lot of dwarves to help carve it out and it is designed to look like an underground forest, complete with sculptured trees, birds, animals, etc.
While all sorts of assorted shenanigans are going on in Valinor, the elves of Middle Earth have been dealing with nasty orc hordes, often under the command of Sauron. When Morgoth comes back to town Melian constructs an enchanted net around Doriath called The Girdle of Melian for their protection. It prevents anyone from entering without her or Thingol’s permission. It also confuses travelers and wanderers and waylays them, sending them off course or, in some cases, a bit mad.
Melian and Thingol have one child, Lúthien. The only offspring of Maia and elf (that we know of), Lúthien is considered the most beautiful person to ever blah blah. Here’s the thing: yes, she is unearthly in her loveliness. But. There’s a lot more to Lúthien than that so I don’t want to dwell too much on it. She is way more than a pretty face with amazing hair. Not that any of those characteristics are bad, but she’s also compassionate and brave and people tend to forget that part.
When Fëanor and the other Noldor show up, Thingol is not having any of that drama llama. They’ve been managing things in Middle Earth pretty well without the extra bullshit, and he is not okay with the kinslaying. Thingol tells the sons and followers of Feanor to eff off, but allows elves of other Noldorian houses to enter Doriath since they either atoned for, or took no part in, the massacre.
*Note: it’s actually Galadriel who tells them about the kinslaying while spending time in Doriath and learning quite a bit from Melian about both enchantment and, it turns out, bread baking. She also meets Celeborn there.
Now, while the elves are making kingdoms, shiny jewels, and fighting Morgoth, Men have awakened in Middle Earth. Wilder and less long lasting than elves, they are also subjected to Morgoth and his minions. Some of these men end up in league with Morgoth because he’s scary as hell and sometimes human beings suck. Even the really shitty elves never align themselves with Uber Jerk God Guy.
As the years go by, several “houses” of Men are established who become allies with elves. Two of the most notable are the Houses of Beor and Húrin. These two houses get pretty much rumble screwed over by Morgoth and/or entanglements with the Oath of Feanor.
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