Editing the Beren and Luthien Story for Scrolls

One First Age story of Middle-Earth stands above all others in its epic scope. It is the quintessential tale of the struggle of humans and Elves against evil. It is the tale of Beren, Luthien and the quest to wrest the Silmaril from Morgoth's crown. This essay describes the decisions required to present the story in scroll form.

This tale is grand and so Professor J.R.R. Tolkien took extra care in its development. Editing the Beren & Luthien story for a scroll is a very challenging task. There is an enormous amount of material to work through. The material is available in the The History of Middle-Earth. It is a series of twelve books compiled by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien's son, Professor Christopher Tolkien. They are compendiums of the working papers of Tolkien accumulated over 50 years. They contain multiple versions of stories and commentary by Christopher showing how the stories grew. The books I used for selecting and editing the Beren and Luthien story are listed below in the bibliography.

For a description of the physical scroll I made for these tales, see Scrolls of Middle-Earth. For comments on how I edited the Tuor and Gondolin tales see Editing the Gondolin Story for Scrolls.

A. Selecting a Version

The first decision is selecting one of the versions of the Beren & Luthien tale. I found three versions in three books. There is the Tale of Tinuviel in The Book of Lost Tales Vol. 2, Of Beren and Luthien in The Silmarillion, and The Lay of Leithian in The Lays of Beleriand Vol 3. I want a version of the story that has dialog and reads like a narrative. The story version should be witnessed by the reader as it unfolds. The story should also be of epic scope. There is an unattainable quest and many setbacks before the conclusion.

For these reasons I did not select the first two versions listed above. The version from volume 2 of the Book of Lost Tales is an early draft that is missing many of the critical elements of the tale:

  • the chief lieutenant of Melko is a cat named Tevildo, not Thu (Sauron);
  • Beren is an Elf (Gnome) not mortal; and
  • the conflict with the sons of Feanor is absent.
With additional time Professor Tolkien expanded the story to epic proportions and set it in poetic form in the Lay of Leithian. I passed by the Silmarillion version because it is mostly a summary of the Lay of Leithian rather than a narrative by itself.

B. Ending the Lay of Leithian

The second decision is determining an ending to the poem. The Lay of Leithian has the full scale epic proportions I am looking for in a scroll. But the major problem with the Lay is that it is unfinished! Professor Tolkien made a couple of different versions as well as revisions over the years. However, the poetic tale ends abruptly at the entrance of Thangorodrim when Beren & Luthien, with a Silmaril, confront Carcharoth as they flee Morgoth.

My tentative solution is to make a transition from the poetry form of the Lay and then to include a prose version of the ending. It will be a description rather than an actual narrative. The Silmarillion version fits the requirements nicely and so I plan on using that to conclude the scroll. For the transition I think some hand-written comments by either Bilbo, one of Sam Gamgee's children, or even Aelfwine would be appropriate. The appropriate 'translator' will comment

...that the original ending to the poem was lost or damaged and that other sources indicate the Tale of Beren & Luthien ends in the following manner...
The scroll will then conclude with the prose description from the Silmarillion. I haven't decided which translator to use. If Bilbo, then he can comment on compiling the ending from conversations with the Elves of Rivendell, including Elrond and Gandalf. If the translators are the children of Sam & Rosie, then sources could include Merry & Pippin from material they obtained during visits to Gondor in years subsequent to the overthrow of Mordor. The Aelfwine alternative will require more thought because I have glossed over the sections about him in the History of Middle-earth series edited by Mr. Christopher Tolkien. I think he is a translator of the ancient tales into English.

C. Editing the Lay for Length

The third decision concerns the length of the Lay. It is very long consisting of 14 cantos and 4,223 lines! There are four full or partial versions or amendments to the Lay labeled A, B, C, and D. I generally used later-written cantos or shorter sections from versions C & D, substituting them into the B version to make a 'latest version' of the Lay. The B version is a full length revision of the original A text. Though, as I said it is unfinished.

The physical scroll for Beren & Luthien may be too long. The Gondolin scrolls have between 60 to 80 pages each. These Tuor stories are manageable for the physical size of the scroll - dowel rod diameter, end caps, and 8.5 inch vertical height. But the Lay of Leithian is much longer and I am concerned it will become unwieldy. I have three alternatives to try either alone or in combination.

One is to break the Lay into two scrolls. But I do not see a logical breaking point such that each scroll will provide a self-contained story. Beren is on the quest for the Silmaril most of the Lay. I might break the story at the point where Beren and Felagund are captives in Sauron's Sirion lair - and Beren is rescued by Luthien. However, Beren got captured on his way to Thangorodrim to get a Silmaril and will continue the quest later with Luthien. So I do not see breaking the Lay into two physical scrolls.

Two is to cut the Lay by removing cantos that are digressions from the main plot of the story. There is a canto on the first meeting of Thingol and Melian, the parents of Luthien. There are also many lines in Canto XII that are a retrospective about Morgoth's battle with Fingolfin and Morgoth's doubts about raising Carcharoth, his guard dog. I think these and some others could be safely removed in order to make the story a manageable length. The excised material could also be reused in the scroll borders.

Three is to format the scroll in three columns instead of only two. I may have to use a smaller size of the Lucida font instead of 12 point in order to fit three columns on each page.

D. Selecting Storylines for the Scroll Border

The fourth decision is to select the border stories. The borders are a line of text printed in an Elvish font I created a few years ago. It is a character-by-character substitution for the English alphabet. The border provides a visual, decorative element to the scrolls because of the unusual font. It makes the scroll appear more ancient and has the visual appearance of the "One Ring to rule them all..." poem that borders many of The Lord of The Rings editions.

But I also want a bit more out of the borders. The scroll can be between 60 - 100 pages in length, so I needed something more than just the "One Ring" poem. I chose to provide some extra story material to enhance the main body of text in the scroll. The main criteria for a border story is the opposite of the feature desired in the main text of the scroll. Instead of a narrative with dialog, a summary style story fits better in the border. Its purpose is to provide additional background material pertaining to the main story. In addition, the border will be more challenging to read, physically, because it is entirely horizontal and printed in an unusual script. Therefore, lots of narrative detail will be hard to track back and forth across horizontal linear-feet versus re-reading the main text, which is measured in vertical column inches.

The meeting of Thingol and Melian is one possibility. I will examine the poetry stanzas and see if they will work when printed horizontally. If not, there may be a prose version in one of the books which may flow better as a border story. A preliminary idea for the second border is the events that led Finrod Felagund to leave or lose Tol Sirion and move to his stronghold of Nargothrond. These two locations and Finrod all are important elements in the Beren and Luthien tale.

E. Selecting Illustrations

The last decision is selecting appropriate pictures. There are many illustrations of the Beren and Luthien tale to choose from. At present, I have just a couple of points to make for this scroll. First, Mr. Alan Lee's painting of Luthien will work very well. The part of this tale where Luthien will not dance anymore because she is saddened by Beren's absence is just the place for Mr. Lee's portrait. This is not to say Mr. Lee's picture is of a sad Luthien per se. My interpretation is that even in her sadness she is still the most lovely Elf in Middle-Earth.

Second, I will be scrounging for illustrations of the Anfauglith, or wasteland that surrounds the approach to Thangorodrim. Beren & Luthien must travel through it to reach the gates. I have several pictures taken in the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, USA. I will use them to show the rugged, barren landscape through which they must travel.

Editing the Beren and Luthien tale is a daunting task. The length of the story, in the form of a poem entitled The Lay of Leithian is very long, comes in four partial versions, and was unfinished when Professor Tolkien died in 1973. However, the results will be worth the effort. The artwork by Mr. Ted Nasmith, Mr John Howe, Mr. Alan Lee, and others will bring the epic tale alive when it is in scroll form. The experience will be stunning to read the tale in an ancient physical form and in an archaic script punctuated by professional illustrations.

For a description of the physical scroll I made for these tales, see Scrolls of Middle-Earth. For comments on how I edited the Tuor and Gondolin tales see Editing the Gondolin Story for Scrolls.


  1. Day, David, Tolkien The Illustrated Encyclopedia, MacMillian, New York, 1991.
  2. Fonstad, Karen Wynn, The Atlas of Middle-Earth, revised edition, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1991.
  3. HarperCollins, Tolkien's World Paintings of Middle-Earth, HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1992.
  4. Nasmith, Ted, Tolkien Calendar 2000, HarperEntertainment, New York, 1999.
  5. Tolkien, JRR, The Hobbit, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1966, third printing, Green boxed hardcover edition.
  6. - , The Return of the King, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1965, Second Edition.
  7. - , The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1977.
  8. - , Unfinished Tales, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1980.
  9. - , The Book of Lost Tales Part 1, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Ballantine Books, New York, 1983.
  10. - , The Book of Lost Tales Part 2, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Ballantine Books, New York, 1984.
  11. - , The Lays of Beleriand, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Ballantine Books, New York, 1985.
  12. - , The Shaping of Middle-Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Ballantine Books, New York, 1986.
  13. - , The Lost Road, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Ballantine Books, New York, 1987.

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