Anyone reading The Silmarillion might well judge that the story
of the original Minas Tirith could not possibly get any worse. Regretfully,
such a judgment would be in error. The brief mention that Sauron "perceived"
that Finrod was the leader and decided to keep him for questioning while
disposing of Beren is hideously clarified in the first Lay of Leithian
fragment, which delineates the entire wretched accident of mutual self-betrayal
and subsequent fatal redemption:
To Felagund then Beren
" 'Twere little loss if I were dead,
and I am minded all to tell,
and thus, perchance, from this dark hell
thy life to loose. I set thee free
from thine old oath, for more for me
hast thou endured than e'er was earned.'
"A! Beren, Beren hast
that promises of Morgoth's folk
are frail as breath. From this dark yoke
of pain shall neither ever go,
whether he learn our names or no,
with Thû's consent. Nay more, I think
yet deeper of torment should we drink
knew he that son of Barahir
and Felagund were captive here,
and even worse if he should know
the dreadful errand we did go."
A devil's laugh they ringing heard
within their pit. "True, true the word
I hear you speak," a voice then said.
" 'Twere little loss if he were dead,
the outlaw mortal...
This story is set entirely in the context of the first half of Canto
IX, found in The Lays of Beleriand, and as always intends only to
bring out aspects that appear to be often overlooked, yet which are as
implicit and present as any other invocation of Arda mythos and Primary
It is important, I think, to remember the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien points
out in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, which is "that by
1918 all but one of my close friends were dead," referring to the greater
importance of the First World War, then called only The War, over the Second,
as an influence in his life.
I don't think it's at all coincidental that the number of companions
in either Quest is about that of a small fighting unit, any more than it
is a coincidence, artistically speaking, that Beren's place among the exiles
of Nargothrond so closely parallels his situation among the Outlaws of
Dorthonion. —Any more than it is a coincidence that one of the earliest
uses of flamethrowers was at the Battle of the Somme, for about half a
year of which Tolkien served in the trenches — or that through no doing
of his own he was spared the fate of most of his unit, slaughtered in a
futile Autumn offensive, having been sent home due to the sickness that
historically has ravaged more soldiers in sieges than enemy fire. Nor that
he tried to go back to the Front several times, even though his health
broke down again each time. So little has been made available of the specifics
of his military service, however, that further conjecture is mere speculation,
and I will not presume to go farther.
In the Lay of Leithian fragment several things stand out most notably
to me — the fact that they inadvertently betray each other, the fact that
Finrod should not have been able to do what he did, the fact
that it appears completely in vain at the time, and that he hails Beren,
in dying, as equal and more.
The first is psychologically true, horrible though it is, in its depiction
of the destruction of mind that follows severe privation, sensory and otherwise;
the third evokes the belief, stated quite expressly by Tolkien in the afterword
to The Homecoming of Beortnoth, that the most heroic deeds are those
done with no thought for glory, even posthumous, no consideration of fame
and reputation but only the sake of the good to be saved. Beowulf falls
down in this regard, according to Tolkien. I would venture to say that
none of Beren's companions do the same.
The second, almost the most telling of all, speaks most powerfully to
me of the divine intervention which elsewhere in the Lay of Leithian is
explicitly and implicitly suggested to have occurred — that, lacking the
strength to free himself at the outset of captivity, there is no earthly
way that Finrod could have done so at the end of it, seems to me inarguable,
all discussions of stress and adrenaline and hysterical strength notwithstanding.
Call it the interjection of the numinous into the mundane, if you will:
whatever the words, it is the same thing — which, however, is entirely
impossible and useless without that prior act of immolation. Only
that which is asked for can be given, and only one who is willing may receive.
True divinity does not compel — that is the hallmark of the Dark
And finally, and inseparable from the previous, is the Elven-king's
hailing of Beren as comrade and friend. Both of these are
terms of equality and intimacy (I do not mean sexual) which have each their
own special, singular importance and resonance. Absent any other endearments
or heighteners, the words may sound stark, even cold to modern ears, (especially
since the recent use of "comrade" as translation for "tovarishch," which
equated under the Russian Revolutionary Government to the French Revolutionary
use of "Citoyen/ne".)
—Stark, indeed, but cold they are not. The real and powerful impact
of comrade to those who have served in arms often seems unreal or
artificial to those who have grown up in purely civilian background, forced
and literary, old-fashioned even. That is an error. It means something
which is by no means always present, given human nature, of selflessness
and generosity not needing to be talked about, often invisible to outsiders,
because assumed and simply present. But it is, and has historically
been, real, no less today than in WWII, no less at Anzio than at
Ardennes, no less for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain than Wilfred Owen a few
And friend, too, presumes equality. Which on the surface is insane,
given the difference not in rank — for what after all is rank, but something
conferred from the outside, a recognition of a situation, an interaction,
the name given for the willingness of others to pay attention? — but in
age, wisdom, knowledge, ability, and metaphysical power. Logically it should
be a relation one-sided, of power conferring gift on subject, even with
good will, the stronger protecting the infinitely-weaker, not of two who
stand back to back against an army. But this is not how the King sees it
at all. What is more important than all these things at the end, is just
this — good will, "ndil" and "mel", the love which is the Secret Fire.
And that has no scale of rank or time-in-grade…
For Beren never rejects Finrod, or the War his family came to ruin in,
or his or their involvement in the affairs of powers far vaster and more
destructive than they could have understood, even when it could be argued
that, as mission commander, the King held at least formal responsibility
for his fate, and certainly on an emotional level such a blaming would
not be implausible or unlikely.
This story, which follows Terrible Gifts, (though not, as the
anthology is planned, directly) is as always merely my interpretation and
illustration of canon; it is I hope a coherent interpretation, as well
as a plausible one, and still more do I hope that it leads the reader to
a deeper consideration of the richness of the original texts.
The first time I read that chapter of Silmarillion, the conviction
grew upon me that it was necessary to regard survivor-guilt as a powerful
motive in the obsessive continuation of the Quest long past any logical
need, along with any metaphysical compulsions surrounding the Silmarils.
—After reading the Lay of Leithian, it became a certainty which has never
swayed, though I confess myself somewhat astonished that no one else seems
to see it. It has only grown with discovery of the full backstory, the
exploration of the interconnectedness of the events surrounding the return
of the Noldor, the rise and fall of the House of Bëor, and the Third
What I have added is for the most part explained thoroughly in the afternotes
to Gifts; the rest is more an amplification of what I find implicit
throughout the originals. For instance, I don't for a moment think it plausible
(nor intended as such) that the last time they had that conversation about
Beren turning himself in was the first, any more than that it made perfect
sense to them at the time, given the corrosive effect of long imprisonment
on the mind. The depictions of time dilation and hallucination are taken
from many first-hand accounts of disasters, shipwrecks, arctic expeditions,
mountain ascents, prolonged artillery shellings and bombardments, and so
The posited nature of the spell of protection used by Finrod to defend
their identities from Sauron's mental probing may, if you will, be read
as a heightened metaphor for the emotional closeness and strong personal
bond experienced by those who have shared such circumstances and lived
to tell about them. (Just as in the originals, the "spell" of dumbness
accidentally cast upon Beren by the first sight of Lúthien may be
taken as a heightened metaphor of the tongue-tied state that is not an
uncommon experience to those in love.)
To this is also added the discussion of Elven creative magic in Tolkien's
lecture "On Fairy- stories," of which I give a relevant exerpt:
"Now "Faërian Drama" — those plays which according to
abundant records the elves have often presented to men — can produce Fantasy
with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism.
As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief.
If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that
you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very
similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded
with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind
is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your
grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too
strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvelous the events.
You are deluded — whether that is the intention of the elves (always or
at any time) is another question."
I think it at least remotely possible that under such extreme circumstances
and following the prior soul-altering experiences of his life, even a mortal
might be able to achieve, or assist, such workings of escape and defense,
even as those not of Elven blood yet perceive, under desperate straits,
visions, forms of power and "enchantment" in the Third Age.
One important point is that, contrary to what Joseph Campbell's The
Hero With A Thousand Faces declares, the Hero does not go
off on the Quest and come back changed to the people. (There
are many, many ways in which Campbell's assessment of the mythic is far
inferior to J.R.R. Tolkien's, not least of which is the status of the Heroine,
but that's another essay.) What is in fact the case, revealed in countless
fairy tales, is that the Hero is one who is already changed —
sometimes even before he is born, though he may not know it any more than
his neighbors until he undertakes the Quest. —Otherwise, he would never
leave his home, never set out on the road, never help the hurt serpent
from the roadside and gain the language of beasts, never be taken as thrall
by the wizard, never win the affections of the sorcerer-king's daughter,
never fulfill the prophecy and free the City, never win the reward of Doom—
The characterizations are, or are meant to be, consistent with the depictions
in canon, the depiction of Beren as one whose strength is equally as much
of compassion and faith as of stubbornness drawn straight from the longer
Lay fragment, where, among other illustrations, on the verge of (as he
believes) going back into certain captivity and death or torture, he worries
about the well-being of his horse. The sadistic humor I have ascribed to
Sauron derives straight from his interactions in the Lay fragments with
the prisoners and with Gorlim the Unhappy, as I have indicated in the story.
As for Finrod "Felagund the beloved, friend of Men" — I don't know that
any would argue against the nobility I have endeavored to show in him.
The mention of Beren, while a thrall, truly overhearing Lúthien
weeping for him in dreams, in addition to the Lay's description as dreaming
of hearing her sing, comes from the earliest rescenscion, The Tale of
I retained it because I found the idea of both of them truly
sensing each other's pain across the distance to be both moving and meaningful.
The device of possession, drawn from HOME, serves also for
illustration of differences in background and experience, ultimately irrelevant
— as well as foreshadowing. The idea that, in such a situation,
flashbacks to the Helcaraxë would be inevitable, I hope is not unreasonable
And yes, I concede that I have cheated a little in the title, employing
deception and masking intent — but in a good cause, I trust.
"…It is the heroism of obedience and love not of pride or wilfulness
that is the most heroic and the most moving…"
"…the point of the story lies not in thinking frogs possible mates,
but in the necessity of keeping promises (even those with intolerable consequences)
that together with observing prohibitions, runs through all Fairyland.
This is one of the notes of the horns of Elfland, and not a dim note…"
"…In what the Misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently
as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic…Why should a man be scorned
if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if,
when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers
and prison-walls? the world outside has not become less real because the
prisoner cannot see it…"
"…for there is no true end to any fairy tale…"
Exerpts from The Tolkien
Reader, © J. R. R. Tolkien, Ballantine/Del Rey, 1966.
Exerpts from The Lays of Beleriand, © J.
R. R. Tolkien, released by Ballantine/Del Rey, 1985.