Lovers of Middle-earth may feel that with the Hobbit films being long concluded now, and rumors of a future Silmarillion film being dismantled, that there may not be much left to milk out of our favorite Lord of the Rings stories. But the past few months have included big news for Tolkien fans. Variety and other sources have announced that James Strong, part time director of the Downton Abbey series, has signed on with New Line Cinema to direct Middle Earth, a biopic film of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life. The film was launched to buyers just this month at the 67th Berlin Film Festival. This announcement comes in the wake of the news from publishing company HarperCollins, that Christopher Tolkien will be releasing a new and revised edition of his father’s favorite work, Beren and Lúthien. While most readers are familiar with Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and some more loyal fans are familiar with The Silmarillion, the Tale of Beren and Lúthien is a small, but instrumental story within the lore of Middle-earth. It is a story that has been in the making longer than perhaps any other aspect of Tolkien’s life work, and one that, if you are a true Tolkienite, you cannot overlook.
A chapter within the The Silmarillion tells the story that some readers may connect to the popular counterparts of Aragorn and Arwen. Beren was a strong, wise, and royal Man who met Lúthien in the woods, much like how Aragorn met Arwen, and who had to go through many hardships to gain approval from Lúthien’s family, particularly her father, King Thingol. Together, Beren and Lúthien fight Morgoth, the Dark Lord who preceded Sauron, and take back one of the stolen Silmaril jewels. Lúthien makes the choice to forsake her immortality to be with Beren, much as Arwen will someday make the same choice to be with Aragorn, and they both die. Fans who love the characters Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings owe that relationship to Beren and Lúthien, and, in a way, to Tolkien and his own wife Edith.
What is important about this tale is that it was under constant revision almost through all of Tolkien’s life. C.S. Lewis, one of Tolkien’s Oxford friends and a member of their literary discussion group, “The Inklings,” read some of the earliest drafts of “The Lay of Lúthien,” which was the epic poem version of the tale. To Tolkien, this story was very personal. He called Edith, his wife, Lúthien, as she served a great deal of inspiration for Tolkien’s conception of the character. In his published letters, he reminds his son, Christopher, of her importance:
Lúthien, which says for me more than a multitude of words: for she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien. […] I never called Edith Lúthien—but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing—and dance.[i]
In the story, Beren and Lúthien meet in the same way, where he finds her dancing in the glade. The names of these two characters are inscribed on Tolkien and Edith’s tombstones. Christopher Tolkien no doubt remembers this, and understands the personal importance of this tale to his father in the light of its republication. After all, The Silmarillion, where the story was first published, was a collection Tolkien tried to publish his entire life, and which Christopher was only able to have published for him after his death.
This book will be the hallmark of Tolkien’s work to fans who have studied his manuscripts, as well as to those who only know his name for The Lord of the Rings, for it is a story that, in many ways, is about him. I suspect that this inspiration itself will even be covered in the biopic, Middle Earth, as it would be difficult to discuss Tolkien and his legacy without acknowledging this key work and the way in which it was inspired.
Beren and Lúthien is to be released on May 9, 2017.
“Painstakingly restored from Tolkien’s manuscripts and presented for the first time as a continuous and standalone story, the epic tale of Beren and Lúthien will reunite fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with Elves and Men, Dwarves and Orcs and the rich landscape and creatures unique to Tolkien’s Middle-earth.”[ii]
Middle Earth launched previews at the 67th Berlin Film Festival, February 2017.
“The film follows Tolkien’s early life and his love affair with Edith Bratt, whom he later married. ‘The couple lived happily in Oxford, surrounded by friends, but when war breaks out in 1914, Tolkien embarks on four years of battle, hardship, and new friendships that serve to shape his imagination and start him on the path to Middle Earth,’ according to a Protagonist statement.”[iii]
[i] Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.
[ii] HarperCollins Publishers, 2016. http://www.harpercollins.ca/9780008214197/beren-and-luthien
[iii] Barraclough, Leo. “J.R.R. Tolkien Biopic ‘Middle Earth’ Lands Director James Strong.” Variety, 2016. http://variety.com/2016/film/global/bob-shaye-michael-lynne-tolkien-biopic-middle-earth-1201911482/
photo by B Gilmour.