JRR Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
Completed 11/18/2015, Reviewed 11/20/2015
First of all, a lay is a poem. This book consists of several poems from the first age of Middle Earth. The two major poems are “The Lay of the Children of Hurin” and “The Lay of Leithian”. Both exist in “The Silmarillion” and the earlier works of the Middle Earth History series in prose form. They are both unfinished works, but represent Tolkien’s love of poetry, words, and of course these two stories. Being poems and not being a poetry person, these works were tough going for me, but after a while, I was able to follow the plots and appreciate the language used. Of course it helped that I’ve become quite familiar with the stories from the prose versions. After a rocky start where I thought I’d never finish this book, I found that I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting.
“The Lays of the Children of Hurin” is the tougher of the two peoms. It is written in alliterative verse. I have a much tougher time understanding what’s going on in this type of poem because I’m distracted by the alliteration. To achieve the form, Tolkien usually plays with sentence structure so much that it is often tough to tell where the subject and verb are. This poem took me the longest to get into the rhythm of before being able to follow the plot details. Fortunately, I once again had a series of online lectures for this book by The Tolkien Professor at Mythgard Academy to help me understand the details.
As mentioned in previous reviews, “The Children of Hurin” is particularly dark. In a way, it was fortunate that the poem was left unfinished, because I didn’t have to go through the whole tragedy. The poem only covers the capture and torture of Hurin, the giving up of his son Turin by his mother to live with the Elves, the accidental killing of one particularly nasty, bullying elf who had it coming, and the accidental killing of a brotherly elf. So, yeah, that was already a lot of tragedy. Despite that, I enjoyed the poem and really began to appreciate Tolkien’s love and mastery of words.
“The Lay of Leithian” is the Beren and Luthien story. Beren is a man who falls in love with Luthien, an elf. Her father doesn’t approve and sends Beren to steal a Silmaril from the evil Morgoth. This poem is in the much simpler rhyming couplet form. I had an easier time understanding this poem and followed the details much better. While still tragic, it’s also a love story and love eventually conquers all. Most of the Beren and Luthien story is told here, so when you get to the end, it almost has a sense of completion.
Both poems have shorter restart attempt Tolkien made. It seems like he almost never went back and simply revised a poem. He was compelled to rewrite it. Though quite short, they provide additional insight to some details he overlooked in the originals. There are also a few short aborted poems that are only several pages. More than anything, they provide the reader with more exposure to Tolkien’s ability as a poet.
I don’t recommend this book to everyone. As with all this whole series, it’s for the serious Tolkien fan. It’s also for those who love the epic poetic form like the Edda or the Kalevalah. I give it four out of five stars because it is masterful even if it is inaccessible to most readers.