Beren and Luthien

Reading Time: 2 mins

Written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien's death.

Once upon a time, a boy was born to a British couple living in South Africa. A few years later  the boy’s father died, and the mother moved back to England with her two sons. They lived with relatives out in the country, and the boy enjoyed roaming around the area, looking at all the flowers and studying the trees. He especially liked going to his aunt’s farm, which was called “Bag End.”

The boy began reading at an early age, and soon his mother was teaching him Latin, instilling in him a love of language that would last a lifetime. After an idyllic few years in the countryside, the mother died, and the boy and his brother had to face the future as orphans. Thankfully their mother left them in the care of a friend who was a priest, and he faithfully looked after them and brought them up in the church.

Young Ronald was a good student and continued in his pursuit of learning languages, even creating some languages of his own. Along with some of his friends, he created the T.C.B.S. - the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. They met to chat and drink tea in a nearby department store and (secretly) in the school library. This group was one of the predecessors to The Inklings of Oxford.

At the age of 16, Ronald met Edith, another orphan in need of affection. They soon fell in love, but were not allowed to date one another until he was 21. After a long five year wait, he proposed and they were married. Ronald later spoke of his admiration for Edith’s willingness to marry a man with no job, little money, and few prospects except the likelihood of being killed in the Great War.  

The Great War, World War One, was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Some even called it the war to usher in the kingdom of heaven. But it didn’t quite work out that way. It was more like ushering in the kingdom of Mordor.

By this time you probably realize that young Ronald is none other than John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien. Tolkien’s experience in World War One was pivotal in his life in so many ways. I have written about that in a previous article which details his friendship with C.S. Lewis and the many life experiences they shared.

While back in England recuperating from trench fever, Tolkien began writing an improbable love story between a man named Beren and an elf named Luthien. Together they took on the evil of Morgoth and triumphed against overwhelming odds. Their relationship would be the cornerstone, “the kernel of the mythology,” of Tolkien’s prodigious work in Middle Earth. [1] It is the basis for the later story of Aragorn and Arwen found in the Lord of the Rings. 

If you ever find yourself in Oxford at the Wolvercote cemetery where J.R.R. and Edith are buried, you will see the names engraved in stone, Beren and Luthien. 

It is a story of good and evil, of faith overcoming fear, of love conquering hate. Ultimately it is the Christian story - God in Christ loving his bride so much he would endure anything to get her back. Pain, suffering, loss, death, even hell. There and back again. Christ is Risen. 

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Tolkien’s death at the beginning of this month (September 2, 1973), we thank God for his life and his work. For by it we see more clearly the beauty and evil of this world, that there are good things still worth fighting for, and that we need each other as we await the return of the King.

[1] The Letters of JRR Tolkien, “Humphrey Carpenter,” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1981).