Lay of Leithian
|Lay of Leithian cantos|
The Lay of Leithian was a long Elvish lay that told the story of Beren and Lúthien, their Quest for the Silmaril, and their return from Mandos. It was said to be the second longest of all such tales (with the longest being the Narn i Chîn Húrin, the story of Túrin and Nienor).
The Lay tells the story of Beren's escape from Dorthonion after the loss of his father Barahir. Coming into the south, he entered Doriath and came across Lúthien Tinúviel in the woods. They desired to wed, but Lúthien's father Thingol set an impossible bride-price on his daughter—a Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth in the deepest pits of Angband. Beren set out on his hopeless quest with the aid of Finrod Felagund, but they were captured and imprisoned by Sauron. Lúthien came to their aid through many troubles of her own, and with the help of Huan the Hound she rescued Beren. Using her magical arts, they penetrated Angband and stole one of the Silmarils, but in their escape Beren's hand, holding the Silmaril, was bitten from his wrist by the great wolf Carcharoth. Eventually, the wolf was hunted and slain, and the Silmaril recovered, but only at the cost of Beren's life. Then Lúthien, too, passed away, and pleaded before Mandos himself. Both Beren and Lúthien were returned to life, and they dwelt in the south of Ossiriand for a time. Lúthien had become mortal herself, and she passed away at last with her beloved beyond the Circles of the World.
The Lay is not a mere literary invention — it does substantially exist in English, in the form of iambic tetrameter, and is contained within volume III of The History of Middle-earth, appropriately named The Lays of Beleriand. Though the extant lay runs to 4223 lines and fourteen Cantos, Tolkien never fully completed the poem. The fragment terminates right at one of the climactic moments of the tale, as Beren's hand is torn from the wrist by the monstrous guardian of Angband's gate, Carcharoth.
The first recorded date of the writing of the Lay was at Line 557: August 23, 1925. The next date is two and a half years later, 27-8 March, 1928, at line 1161. Over the next nine days he wrote fully 1769 lines, up to 2929. These dates are for the copying out of the manuscript, not for their writing, so Tolkien may have had many passages earlier before he put them together. In September, 1931, he abandoned the Lay. He sent it to C.S. Lewis, who wrote back the following:
- "I sat up late last night and have read the Geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves in the rëaf [ OE: 'garments, weapons, taken from the slain']. I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend's work had very little to do with it. I should have enjoyed it just as well as if I'd picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author. The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader"
- ― The Lay of Leithian introduction
Later he wrote a detailed criticism, which pretends to treat the Lay as if it were a historical document. Tolkien was influenced by Lewis' comments, and made several minor changes based on them.
The exact derivation of the word is peculiar since it is the only occurrence of a verb becoming a noun simply with the ending -n, although it could be related to the Primitive Quendian ending such as -nê, -nâ.[source?] In this case, the noun leithian is derived from an earlier Old Sindarin *lektiane.[source?]
The most likely meaning of the title can be found at one of the key moments in the poem, the point at which one of the Silmarils, the magical gems of Fëanor, is cut from the crown of Morgoth by Beren:
Behold! the hope of Elvenland
the fire of Fëanor, Light of Morn
before the sun and moon were born,
thus out of bondage came at last,
from iron to mortal hand it passed.The Lays of Beleriand, p. 362
This moment is also central to the over-arching story-line of The Silmarillion, in which the gem is used to bring hope to the scattered peoples of Middle-Earth and is ultimately set in the heavens by the mariner Eärendil as a sign of their coming salvation.
The name of the poem is therefore likely an attempt to underscore the importance of the Lay relative to other tales from the first age. Though honor, bravery and vengeance drive the Elven hosts forward to war with Morgoth, it is only love that can overcome all obstacles to wrest a Silmaril from his crown.
Recycling the Lay
Tolkien recycled parts of the older version of the Lay, most notably in The Lord of the Rings, where Gimli sings of Moria to the rest of the Fellowship. Following is a piece found in both the Lord of the Rings and the Lay:
...There might and glory, wealth untold
Were 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. . .
Lord of the Rings
...There forged was blade, and bound was hilt;
The delver mined, the mason built.
There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,
And metal wrought like fishes' mail,
Buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
And shining spears were laid in hoard.
- Cantos of the Lay of Leithian
- Lay of Leithian continued
- The Lay of Leithian Adapted
- Of Hunters Lore... OpenMic Video: Excerpt of the Lay of Leithian (Canto II) by Loren & Strumstick Messiah
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