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, King 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 King 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 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.
—Canto XIII, Verses 4-8
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.
- Main article: The Lay of Leithian
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.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lost Road and Other Writings, "Part Two: Valinor and Middle-earth before The Lord of the Rings, VI. Quenta Silmarillion", p. 296
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lost Road and Other Writings, Part Three: "The Etymologies", p. 368, entry "LEK-"