'I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama...'
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981), no. 131
The Lay of Leithian is Tolkien’s largest and most complex incomplete work. It exists in two versions, one stemming from the earlier part of the twentieth century, the second from the middle. The first version was abandoned approximately four-fifths of the way through the tale, the latter about one-fifth of the way in. Both were written in close proximity to his two masterworks, the first version written during the period directly preceding the writing of The Hobbit, the second during the period immediately following the completion of The Lord of the Rings. Thus the work stems from that period of Tolkien’s output when he was at his greatest command as a story-teller. Much of the poem is of striking beauty, especially the recommenced version – the version written in the 1950’s, and although the work is written in octosyllabic couplets, Tolkien was frequently able, to an astonishing degree, to avoid a kind of sing-song quality so typical of poems wrtten in that form.
The poem is formally published in essentially two editions in The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. III: The Lays of Beleriand, one as the work stood in approximately 1931 or so and another as it likely stood in the early to mid 1950s. There was good reason to do so: The History of Middle-Earth is essentially a vast compendium of manuscript studies which track the evolution of Tolkien’s incessantly transforming mythology, his Legendarium as he called it, and the names, places and events of that mythology were constantly changing and shifting, sometimes mercurially. The intent of those editions was to further the discussion at hand: the lost and incomplete works of Tolkien and how they relate to one another. But as the study reveals there are not just two versions of the poem, but many versions, with layers of emendations and alterations made to the various surviving manuscript and typescript sources. No edition is available, however, which takes all of the latest of Tolkien’s own alterations and puts them in one place, as a complete work. The intent of this site is to provide such an edition for either those curious or those fanatic.
The intent of the site is also to provide a text that might be suitable for public presentation. If one were to read the work as a children’s tale, use it as the basis for a performance or production, to give it a public reading or present it in radio dramatizations, all of these ideas fall under the purview of the intent of this site. Because of Tolkien’s prolific and imaginative use of caesura throughout the poem the Lay reads extremely well when read aloud - that is, if it is read right: in other words following the flow of the text rather than belaboring the form. When doing so the Lay will sound more like it should - like Homer (or perhaps even Shakespeare) rather than octosyllabic couplets. It is classic epic poetry of the highest standard, where the poet has only used the form for the sake of convention but has attempted to truly stretch the medium by various means. Tolkien does this very well and follows, rather knowingly, in the footsteps of the great masters that preceded him.
Since it is so difficult to follow the tormented textual history of the tale without reading absolutely everything in The History of Middle-Earth part of the intent of this site is also to provide a sounding board for discussion concerning the myth. There is some excellent writing in the variant texts among the manuscript and typescript sources, and it would be a shame, I think, to discard it simply for the sake of keeping a strict regimen. I've sought, therefore, to integrate what I think is the best into the given text below. The text may be read in lieu of the chapter in The Silmarillion that gives the complete tale. In order to adapt the work to this latter version of Tolkien’s mythology some alterations and additions were made to the poem (all noted below). The primary intent, however, is to keep the work presented here 'Tolkienized': to make it sound like Tolkien; to retain as much of his better writing as possible; to have it match his latest vision of the mythology (within reason)1, incorporating his latest thinking on the various aspects of Middle-Earth, both philosophical, theological and philological; to give the tale life and have it breathe as a 'complete' work.
The title of the poem, The Lay of Leithian, Tolkien translated from his Sindarin, Elvish tongue as 'Release from Bondage' without any substantive explanation. The meaning of the title, however, is likely found at one of the key moments in the poem, the point at which one of the Silmarils, the magical gems of Fëanor, is cut from the crown of Morgoth by Beren:
Behold! the hope of Elvenland
the fire of Fëanor, Light of Morn
before the sun and moon were born,
thus out of bondage came at last,
from iron to mortal hand it passed.2
This moment is also central to the over-arching story-line of The Silmarillion, in which the gem is used to bring hope to the scattered peoples of Middle-Earth and is ultimately set in the heavens by the mariner Eärendil as a sign of their coming salvation. The name of the poem is therefore likely an attempt to underscore the importance of the Lay relative to other tales from the first age. Though honor, bravery and vengeance drive the Elven hosts forward to war with Morgoth, it is only love that can overcome all obstacles to wrest a Silmaril from his crown.
The Lay is also important in the much larger themes of Tolkien's Legendarium - those that tie together the three ages of Tolkien's mythical world. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn, heir of the throne of Gondor, was said to be the walking likeness of Elendil, the head of the Faithful during the downfall of Númenor and essentially the central character of the tales from the Second Age. Arwen, the Elvish Princess Aragorn weds, is said to be the image of Lúthien returned to earth. Thus, with their wedding at the end of The Return of the King, we have Estel, 'Hope' (Aragorn’s Elvish name), in the image of Faith wed to the centrality of Love: hope, faith and love – the central tenants of Tolkien’s Catholic faith.
- That is to say setting aside major reconstruction – for example, those texts written during his latest period where the myths of the creation of the sun and the moon were to be gutted and expunged from the Legendarium. See Morgoth’s Ring, Myths Transformed, texts I-IV. return to text
- The Lays of Beleriand, p. 362 return to text
[discuss what you mean by your use of the words "canon" and "alliteration"]