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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Beren and Luthien Raided the Fortress of Angband, and No One Will Get This Lousy T-Shirt

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

When we finally reached “The Tale of Beren and Luthien,” my Intro to Myth students forgave me for dragging them through the drier, more mythographic early stretches of The Silmarillion. (“It’s as bad as the begats!” the most biblically literate one in the class said of “The Valaquenta,” and then she had to explain the begats to her classmates.) There was a lot to forgive, including a pop quiz on the names of the Valar.

But then: True love! Shapeshifting! Sauron defeated in sorcerous song battle! Fate, doom, oaths upheld at ultimate cost! “The Tale of Beren and Luthien” is cinematic, iconic, perfect for Hollywood at its best and worst. My disgruntled undergrads adored it.

They’re not the only ones who’ve ever wished it could be a movie.

Shake Google, and at least one fan film falls out, along with intermittent fan forum discussions of ideal directors, casting, and adaptation decisions. I gather the Tolkien estate is unlikely to authorize films of stories that made their first published appearances after Tolkien’s death. Fair enough. If I were looking back from the afterlife of my imagining and saw my rough drafts, cobbled together by my long-suffering literary executor, adapted by strangers into Hollywood films, I too might… no, actually, I wouldn’t object at all. Now that I think of it, I’d feel immensely honored by the effort, amused by its inevitable shortcomings, and relieved that my family might finally see some benefit from my years of toiling in proverbial obscurity. But hey, that’s just me. If Tolkien’s son thinks the professor would be displeased, he’s in a better position to know than any of the rest of us.

So, no movie.

What’s interesting to me about the forum discussions I’ve skimmed over today is which things the fans focus on when they list the story’s virtues as a potential film, and the things they don’t mention that nonetheless seem to me the story’s chief virtues for purposes of adaptation. Yes, it does have battles that cry out for big-screen CGI in 3D, the most beautiful woman in the world, and a mostly happy ending, plus bonus giant werewolves defeated by a giant hunting hound whose fate it is to speak three times in his life. (Perhaps Huan the Hound could be voice-acted by Kevin Smith–every time he got a speaking line, I couldn’t help thinking of Silent Bob.) Lots of things landed on the page that we would all love to see. Then again, that was true of The Hobbit, which seems to have left the purists upset at everything that sped the story up to a multiplex-worthy pace, and seems to have enraged the critics with a pace they thought was too slow.

The main reason I think “Beren and Luthien” could someday prove to be the the most film-friendly of all Tolkien’s creations is simply that it is already the right length.  Its scope is just as vast as that of anything else he wrote–the fan forums are full of debates about how much of The Silmarillion‘s backstory a “Beren and Luthien” film would have to include, and honestly, if I were writing or directing it, I’d start with the creation of the universe. Seriously. The Valar singing the cosmos into existence, untold ages before the first sentient created beings awoke in Middle Earth. If you want Luthien’s singing sorcery to feel at all plausible as a weapon against Sauron and Morgoth, that’s how far back the film’s prologue would have to go. And yet, everything Tolkien needed to tell us specifically about these two characters and their struggles fits in thirty pages. A director of “Beren and Luthien” would not be saddled with hours of beloved material the fans could not bear to see cut, nor would s/he be stuck with memorable dialogue to condense, because there’s hardly any dialogue at all. No one would say of this story, as we all said of LoTR for decades, that it is in itself unfilmable.

Meanwhile, the main classroom use I envision for The Silmarillion is for an imaginary screenwriting seminar I wish I could take as a student, because goodness knows I don’t have the chops to teach that form. On the model of John Gardner’s wacky assignments in The Art of Fiction, anytime I wanted to take a newly-acquired skill like writing a treatment and then challenge it to the point of absurdity, I’d throw The Silmarillion into the assignment. Adapting “The Tale Beren and Luthien” would certainly work, but try adapting the whole volume of myths, legends, and fragments into a mini-series. I dare you.


Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

9 Comments »

  1. Oh how I wish I could have taken your class. A quiz on the Valar! The British literature class I took in college was sorely lacking.

    Comment by Glenn - January 3, 2013 10:15 am

  2. Pop quiz on the Valar? You fiend :)

    I’ve always preferred Of Turin Turambar to Beren & Luthien (I would love to see Glaurung on the screen). Who would make a good Luthien to you? I can’t think of anyone beautiful enough to pull it off, but I don’t watch many modern movies.

    Comment by longhairedspider - January 3, 2013 1:41 pm

  3. It is a beautiful tale, and considering I read it again in 2012, I’m right there with you about it being a great movie.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 4, 2013 12:35 am

  4. Glenn, I’m thinking over the variations on Brit Lit greatest hits syllabi I’ve seen over the years, wondering which book I’d displace to make room for The Silmarillion. There are plenty I would displace for LoTR or The Hobbit, but The Silmarillion retains so many of its rough edges. I can think of lots of other courses, not survey courses, that could be built around the book, though. A course on books left unfinished or not yet prepared for publication on their authors’ deaths would be loads of fun. Dickens’s Edwin Drood, of course, and a facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts, and…now I’ll be up all night thinking about it.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - January 4, 2013 1:17 am

  5. Sarah, re finishing unfinished books:

    Chaosium’s role-playing game Beyond the Mountains of Madness is a sequel to H. P. Lovecraft’s novel At the Mountains of Madness; player characters are on a subsequent expedition.

    As a valuable clue, they may discover a long-lost text: the missing ending of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket — in which Pym tells of encountering strange beings in a hidden city.

    Lovecraft’s story refers to Poe’s “tekeli-li!”… so this crossover is fully appropriate.

    A Poe-like handwriting font, an irregular baseline, and mildly tea-soaked then dried paper (trimmed to 19th century stationery standards) would make this a convincing manuscript.

    For ease of reading, I chose instead to make a single “signature” of yellowing book-like paper, darker at the very edges, trailing white threads from stitches at the fold, and printed in an antique-looking book font. Presumably whoever ripped out the pages also destroyed the plates.

    Comment by Pyre - January 7, 2013 7:11 pm

  6. [Reposting, linkless, what has been held in queue:]

    In fact, there is a large community of Russian Tolkien fans, reading his works in translation; singing the songs in Sindarin, Quenya, and Russian, as well as composing fannish works; and gathering in costume to recreate adventures and battles of Middle-Earth — something like our SCA, but transposed in historical context. (Example: LINK )

    Two of the best fannish songwriters, “Laura Provençal” and “Yovin”, composed a rock opera (“Finrod-Song” or “Leithian Unchained”) based on a portion of the Beren-and-Luthien epic, focused on the role of Elf-king Finrod Felagund (Galadriel’s brother) in helping Beren’s dangerous quest for Luthien. Fangorn Video has a recording of a performance, mixing scenes of the stage production with the same actors in outdoor settings, and it’s quite moving at times. Finrod’s last song, “Istina” (Truth), is a true hero’s anthem.

    Sectioned libretto with photos/mpegs/mp3s: LINK
    (in Russian, can be copied-and-pasted to translation sites)

    Downloadable video: LINK

    Downloadable soundtrack: LINK

    Photos from a later production (great costuming): LINK

    Comment by Pyre - January 8, 2013 12:31 am

  7. *Sigh* Over two days later, links still held in queue. Okay:

    Fangorn Video: http (colon-slash-slash) www (dot) fangornvideo (dot) ru

    Adventures and battles of Middle-Earth, example:… /07hi/index.html

    Finrod-Song libretto with photos/mpegs/mp3s:… /01zk/finrod.html
    (in Russian, can be copied-and-pasted to translation sites)

    Downloadable video: http (colon-slash-slash) youtu (dot) be/SNAyKRHPaiE

    Photos from a later production (great costuming): http (colon-slash-slash) www (dot) tample (dot) ru/repertuar/finrod-zong/photo

    Comment by Pyre - January 10, 2013 3:17 pm

  8. Pyre, thanks for all the links! That list gets to be my reward when I finish the last fixes to my current manuscript. Looking forward to seeing them!

    Comment by Sarah Avery - January 11, 2013 11:59 pm

  9. […] Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Beren and Luthien Ra… […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 50 Black Gate Blog Posts in January - March 1, 2013 1:28 pm


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