—Don't mess with the Mastermaid.
This third story dealing with the events taking place at Tol-in-Gaurhoth bridges Cantos IX and X of The Lay of Leithian, gap-filling between them. Structurally, it is quite different from the two previous stories, for reasons which are equally weighty whether considered as it is presently, the third in a triad, or as it is intended to be, the fifth in a planned series of eight.
There is a deliberate sense of movement here, on several levels, which is inseparable from the choice of Lúthien as focal character: momentum erratic but unstoppable as a landslide once begun, first downwards and inwards, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the two preceding episodes intensified as the viewpoint narrows down to Lúthien's increasing panic-driven isolation, descending into the Pit, believing herself to have failed, believing that there are no survivors — and then the turn, the pivotal moment of reunion, followed by the movement upward and outward to freedom, to healing of a fashion, and a limited catharsis for both the characters, and hopefully, the reader. The past cannot be changed, but the present can be rescued from the worst.
Rescue, in fact, is a great theme in Leithian — and by minimizing the Tol Sirion elements as unpalatable or unnecessary or narrative distractions, the tale and the audience alike are robbed of one of the greatest turnabouts in literature: the intrepid and proactive fairy-tale Princess. The meaning of the title, after all, is liberation — and this liberation takes place on many different levels as well. On the surface, the rescue is all of Beren: from the bonds of depression and illness and the past in Neldoreth, from Sauron's captivity, ultimately from death itself in the halls of Mandos.
But on a more complex and profound level, it is Lúthien who is freed from the cycle of reincarnation and embodiment on earth, by choosing death and life as a mortal, to the confusion, dismay, lasting regret, and yes, envy of her fellow Elves. It is a frightening choice, a forward movement to a mode of being that they have no understanding nor assurance of, to go "beyond the circles of the world," and while the metaphysical implications and underpinnings of this choice are beyond the scope of this present essay, the ramifications are vast and ontologically unsettling. (It isn't at all clear that one or the other of the races has it "better," ultimately.)
However, and regardless, it is inescapably clear that Lúthien is someone willing to take chances, not for the sake of mere adventure and thrill-seeking, but for the sake of a greater good. Reluctantly at first, and then with increasing certainty and determination, as she comes to the realization of her powers. For — though I have heard her actions dismissed as unheroic and unworthy of comment due to her inherited legacy — this is not the case, that she simply goes out on errantry in complete confidence and knowledge of her abilities. In fact, in the texts, she is doubtful not simply of the morality of disobeying her parents, but even after she has resolved to go, throughout her travels, until she has successfully faced down one Dark Lord and his minions. She does not know what she can do, until she has tried it, and succeeded. —Which is not simply an astute psychological observation, but a lesson which all of us should take well to heart.
She is, in fact, the apotheosis, as it were, of all fairy-tale heroines. Having realized that the Quest named as the price of her hand is impossible, she doesn't give up even when imprisoned by her outraged father in the best traditions of legendry. Deciding that she is not going to wait around for someone to rescue her, she has far more acumen than Rapunzel, who never seemed to realize that hair long enough for someone else to climb up would be equally, long enough for her to climb down. Lacking hair naturally that long, Lúthien figures out how to make it happen herself, and unlike the miller's daughter in Rumplestiltsken, she has to make no discreditable and disabling bargains to obtain the treasure she requires: the knowledge and ability to command nature are hers by hard work as well as birthright. The spell of Sleep that overruns the kingdom is, in Leithian, wielded by the very wide-awake Beauty herself. And in her black mantle of illusions, she wanders the Wood in safety, and even defeats the Wolf.
But it would be a mistake to think that Lúthien is simply the inverse of princesses in the old tales. It is only in the past century that the corpus of the folktale has shrunk so that for Heroines, we have only such passive and pliant characters as Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. In the broader realm of Story as told around the world, there is a notable and well-loved class of tales which may broadly be defined as that of The Mastermaid.
And this is where The Hero With A Thousand Faces completely runs off the rails.
In Joseph Campbell's flawed analysis, the Heroine of the traditional Tale is necessarily passive, because in the Quest she and the Precious Object are the same thing. That is, the Hero goes and gets the Precious Object and exchanges it for the Heroine, who also symbolizes his Muse (shades of Graves' White Goddess here, where the Muse just stands around being a passive inspiring figure) and so it would make no sense for her to have a more active role. —According to Campbell.
It is very important to keep in mind that the Matter of the Geste was conceived in the early 1920's, long before Campbell's work came one the scene, and despite significant changes both in plot and ethos, the "Mastermaid" elements never varied in any significant degree. The roots and foundations of the Lay of Leithian are grounded firmly in the vast and deep and multilayered topography of Indo-European folk and fairy stories — not the pruned-down, prettied-up array that is the bequest of the 18th and 19th centuries courtesy of Disney in the 20th, and not merely the wider but still narrow field of the Grimm collection, but the whole chaotic collection that extends from the Greek Islands where a wise goddess walked in disguise to test a dispossessed prince and a forsaken princess wandered the wild to reclaim her lost husband, to the North Sea's shores where another princess risked her life and her husband's love to save her seven brothers from dark sorcery, and a merchant's daughter journeyed past the ends of the earth to rescue her lost love from the same power that once turned him into a white bear.
Along that way between "Cupid & Psyche" and "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" we've got Jenny saving Tam Lin, Jack-My-Hedgehog's princess breaking his curse, Koshkei the Deathless' daughter thwarting all his impossible tests to help the hero against her father's will, the Persian princess who takes her kind but fearful prince's place in battle and joust, and of course the Mastermaid herself who rescues the doomed Prince Lindworm from the fate that has turned him into a man-eating monster, at considerable risk to herself. And these are just the ones I came up with off the top of my head, and each has countless local variants. Real legendry is full of active and competent Heroines, many of whom spend their time rescuing the rather passive Princes from sorcerous captivity.
To these I would also add the "Jackaroe" class, all those ballads and dramas of disguised Heroines who go off to sea or to war in defiance of parental disapproval of their choice and not only succeed in pulling it off, but invariably rescue their wounded sweethearts and bring their around their reluctant fathers (who in some stories have arranged for the low-born Hero to be press-ganged into the navy!) and whose immense popularity for centuries in the English-speaking world may be seen not only in the quantity of plays such as "The Valliant She-Soldier" and songs like "The Female Smuggler" but also in "legitimate" drama like Twelfth Night and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Shakespeare, after all, was as concerned with the box office as any 21st-century studio or stage.
"She picked him up all in her arms and carried him to town
And found for him a surgeon who quickly healed his wounds—
Oh, who quickly healed his wounds—"
Lúthien is the catalyst in their story, and not simply as inspiration for the action; and although she certainly would have been helpless to do so without Huan's aid, this is simply part of the truth set forth through all of Tolkien's works: that no one can accomplish the Quest alone. No single hero can achieve the purpose, be it the achieving of a Silmaril, the destruction of the Ring, the rescue of a friend. Help, in Middle-earth, natural or divine, is always required. Going it alone leads invariably to tragedy, and assistance comes in strange and varied ways. —Such is life.
—As far as what I have interjected further into the extant legend as it is related in Silmarillion and the Lay of Leithian fragments, it is less fabrication than illustration — not so much cut from whole cloth, as shading in behind the words, adding foreground and background, determining where this figure and that structure should be placed. Much is merely consideration of the given history. The elements that I have added, or rather, interpreted, (as opposed from the device of retelling from characters' viewpoints) are in my opinion warranted (naturally) but I will detail them generally and specifically.
Everything from the close of Canto IX — "She found his arms and swooned away just as the rising of the day" — to the opening two verses of Canto X, closing with "The isle in Sirion they left behind; but there on hilltop might one find a green grave, and a stone set" — is mine, as is the image of that finding by the second (and last) King of Nargothrond. However, it's merely in the specifics, not in that such events must have happened. It is given that Huan led the former thralls back to Nargothrond (a note elsewhere in HOME — I believe in Lost Road — makes it explicit that he went in the role of guard-dog) and that this return cast Nargothrond into the turmoil that led to revolution against the usurped authority of the sons of Feanor. It seems to me very unlikely that Orodreth would not have investigated, and in person, such astonishing tidings as the utter destruction of his former post.
What specific form the "hallowing of the Isle" would take I do not know, but it is given both in Silm. and in the outline summaries in LB that some deliberate act of ritual purification was undertaken, which was not merely symbolic, this being Arda, but made the land wholesome once more, so that not only would plants grow there, but nothing evil ever came there to disturb Finrod's grave afterwards. (This leads to interesting conjecture whether, during the worsening years following up until the War of Wrath, fugitives might not have used the island as sanctuary during the hours of darkness.) I think it plausible that such a hallowing might have used the four elements, in conjunction with a sung invocation, to restore the balance overset by Sauron's necromancy and industrialization, and Lúthien the likeliest person to make it. But it could have happened quite otherwise.
As far as the rest — well, consider it a use of traditional feminine roles to balance the non-traditional (in our earth at least) role of castle-stormer. Battlefield cleanup, and emergency medical treatment, were typically the tasks of women. The wide-eyed shrinking violet of Ivanhoe is at least as far from the medieval reality as any sword-swinging Red Sonja of fantasy.
Between IX and X Beren recovers enough to travel, and a grave is made. Someone had to bring them up, and there are not a lot of options. One can either assume that Lúthien went back to get help from the other thralls, or else took it upon herself to accomplish with what resources she had to hand. Simply stating these alternatives rather forces a narrowing of choice, in my opinion. The Princess who hacks a solution (literally as well as figuratively) to her imprisonment and never stops to count costs or regret is not going to stop with the self-reliance or start worrying about appearances.
Levity to underscore a point aside, the purpose intended in depicting the scene of the gathering of the dead (and surely no one doubts, without need of explicit statement, that none of the ten were left behind) is not mere angst, but the reinforcement of one important fact about Lúthien's character. And that is that she goes down into the Pit.
Few action heroines anywhere in fiction do anything half so appalling, or half so brave. Even ordinary mortals have difficulty, even long after the fact, knowingly entering places of atrocity in our world, and far more those with apparent preternatural abilities. In Arda, however, the genii locii, the spirits of places are strong and real, and sites of battle and wrongdoing may be as imbued with the psychic residue of events as the strongholds of goodness are with powers of healing. (I myself, generally lacking in any such sensitivities to the purported paranormal, have experienced it with one particular location, which I afterwards discovered was the site of a brutal siege and massacre of civilians, though no physical trace of the battle remains any where near the road that crosses it.)
"Much evil must befall a country before it wholly forgets the Elves, if they once dwelt there," Gandalf says of Hollin, where Celebrimbor's people ruled before Sauron destroyed them — and then there is Minas Morgul, which also was once not a place of darkness, but after being held by the Nazgûl for many years is now so terrible that even to enter its vicinity is to be overwhelmed by its emanations.
Luthien, however, is no mere mortal, but in modern jargon a powerful telepath with the ability to project her thought and will across barriers of distance and supernatural resistance, and to perceive the thought of others. But recollect that the corollary, the price if you will, of acute perceptions, extra-sensory or ordinary — is those very perceptions. The powers to see, or hear, or feel, across the gulfs of space and time are their own Achilles' Heel: the possessors do not have the freedom from unpleasant perceptions that less sensitive souls do. In LOTR the Walker most overwhelmed by the Balrog is the Elf Legolas. And Luthien has greater psychic ability than anyone else, before or since, born in Middle-earth.
Those who dismiss her as a mere singer and dancer need to remember two fundamental things. The first is metaphysical: music is the medium from which the universe in Tolkien's writings is constructed: song, and dance, are equally of the gods. The idea of life itself, and of all existence, as a performance art is one which deserves more explanation, and the application to Ëa even more so, but this is not the place for it. Suffice it to say that neither song nor dance are static forms, but by their very nature both transient and requiring constant energy and devotion. One cannot make them and walk away, nor separate performer from performance. "The dancer and the dance" are one.
The second is that just in the course of the story she does an awful lot more besides, both in terms of moral decisions as well as external actions. Beyond choosing to break with her parents, resolving to escape when rational dialogue breaks down and engineering that escape successfully, and undertaking a journey of difficulty and hardship far beyond what most of us would willingly (if there are indeed hundreds of readers who do not blink at the idea of a journey of indefinite length across harsh terrain in worsening weather conditions, unsupported and underequipped, with threat of hostile activity, then I will stand corrected — but I'd find it daunting myself), she demonstrates a moral courage hardly to be matched, when the life of her worst enemy lies in her hands. It isn't out of weakness that she spares Curufin — orders Beren to spare Curufin, in fact — but from the highest moral vantage:
"Forbear thy anger now, my lord!
nor do the work of Orcs abhorred;
for foes there be of Elfinesse
unnumbered, and they grow not less,
while here we war by ancient curse
distraught, and all the world to worse
decays and crumbles. Make thy peace!"
Lúthien — like any sane person — goes through the Quest in a state of borderline panic; but the tougher things get, the more resolute she gets. Instead of being daunted by reality, she engages and copes, again, and again, and again. And there is an awful lot to cope with, and as much of it internal as any external threat or danger. That the subsequent events of Leithian should all take place, as it were, in the shadow of Tol Sirion, fallen though it be, ought surprise no one. How could it be otherwise? It is a rescue, but not a complete, nor a final one.
In the earliest version, which has far more of the Celto-Arthurian and whimsical about it, where Huan the Lord of Dogs is rival to Tevildo Prince of Cats, and Beren's captivity both solitary and far less onerous, still he is delayed so that Tinúviel is frightened for him, because he is helping the oldest and most decrepit of the thralls out of the ruins. Since elsewhere and repeatedly, despite changes in plot and man other externals, the essential personality of Tolkien's characters remains demonstrably the same (even when names do not) through out the versions of the histories, I have no reason to assume that Beren's essentially-selfless and compassionate nature would be in any way different in the darker development of the story — any more than it required the validation of the note that "she healed the wasting of his captivity" in The Shaping of Middle-earth for it to be obvious that firstly, he must have been in hellish shape when rescued, both physically and mentally, and secondly that Lúthien must have been the one to take care of him.
Beren deals with loss by going into self-destruct mode. This is explicitly stated early on, in the description of his response to the deaths of his father and their entire household — as is the fact that he was too devastated to weep afterwards. The keen observation of such varying forms of grief and behavior is not entirely surprising, given that Tolkien was a veteran of some of the most gruelling and gruesome combat of the 20th century. However, speaking from a purely critical standpoint, it cannot be accidental that Beren's emotional response to Finrod's death is described in exactly similar terms to that of Barahir, any more than it is accidental that the Geste begins with a story of betrayed love and ghostly determination. And the significance of the inability to mourn can hardly be inconsequential, given the importance of Nienna and tears generally in the Arda mythos. (Consider for example Turin's complete inability to function, until his tears are released by the sacred power of water, following Beleg's death.)
One notable Primary World corollary is the fact that following WWI, (just as with other wars, before and after), a great number of those who came back from the trenches were unable to fully adjust to "normal" everyday life. It is a debatable question as to whether anyone who has gone through such experiences ever truly adjusts, the number of those who even half-a-century and more afterwards still recall the trauma vividly, and are open about their difficulties dealing with it, would seem to indicate not; but there were many whose families and spouses or fiancées were not simply unprepared (who could be?), but unwilling to deal with the aftereffects, so different from the media-given model of the "returning hero." (There is a tremendous inadvertent irony in the WWI recruiting poster which shows — was intended to show — a man who did not enlist being questioned by his two young children, one of whom is playing with toy soldiers, the other reading a book about it, long after it's over: "What did you do in the Great War, daddy?" But in retrospect, the melancholy look on the father's face is even more appropriate to a veteran's.)
And Lúthien is not put off by this — not simply in the fact that she does not reject Beren, however broken and traumatized he becomes, but also in the fact that, knowing now what could happen to her, she continues to maintain her right to accompany him. Her demand and assertion to Beren in the second fragment of the Lay no less strongly evokes the Tower than does the older great "duet" in the first fragment as she rants at him beside the Battle Plain:
"...For bonds there are
stronger than stone or iron bar,
more strong than proudly spoken oath.
Have I not plighted thee my troth?
Hath love no pride nor honour then?
Or dost thou deem then Lúthien
so frail of purpose, light of love?
By stars of Elbereth above!
If thou wilt here my hand forsake
and leave me lonely paths to take,
then Luthien will not go home—"
Not only does she evoke all the great determined heroine-rescuers of folklore and legend — even the Myth of Ishtar storming the Gates of the Dead is transfigured in her adventures — but she also foreshadows another great, even legendary devotion in her deeds, another hero who will not be left behind for the sake of his own safety and well-being, who follows despite being put off at every chance, into dangers far past his imagining . . . and who isn't dissuaded once those dangers and horrors become far more than vague shadows out of old and distant stories, but also "bears it out even to the edge of Doom—"
I refer, of course, to the indomitable Samwise Gamgee. Far fetched? —Perhaps. Perhaps.
"Fairy-stories are made by men, not by fairies.
The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full
of the Escape from Deathlessness."
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.
Exerpt from the broadside ballad "Jackaroe" public domain.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.