The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 184-191
Aragorn’s telling of the Tale of Tinúviel is a thing of beauty and draws us in so near that we want to lose ourselves in it as, for a brief moment, are its teller and its four hearers.
“As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood fire. His eyes shone and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky.”
The travellers are sheltering in a dell below Weathertop and, as well as the shining of Aragorn’s eyes and the sky, aflame with starlight, the moon rises above the hilltop. Three shinings on a night of ever present danger. For close at hand, five of the Nazgûl, led by their lord, are stealthily approaching the camp. Soon they will attack and a Morgul blade will pierce Frodo’s shoulder yet, as we readers of the tale listen to Aragorn, even if we have read it many times, we are as glad to be lost in it for a moment.
In Verlyn Flieger’s wonderful study, The Splintered Light, she begins by reflecting upon two apparently contradictory elements within Tolkien’s mind and in his work. One is the eucatastrophe of the fairy tale. The entirely unexpected and yet longed for happy ending that transforms all the suffering that has gone before. The other is the dyscatastrophe, the final defeat suffered by even the greatest hero. In his wonderful lecture, The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien expresses this with heartbreaking poignancy.
“The great earth, ringed with… the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof, whereon, as a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”
“A little circle of light.” Was Tolkien alluding to this when he drew our attention to the shinings in that most fragile of “halls” in the dell below Weathertop? Perhaps, and so we might ask if the ending of the chapter that is so menacingly entitled, A Knife in the Dark, is the dyscatastrophe, the inevitable defeat suffered by all heroes. Frodo himself cries out in despair when he first learns that the Ring itself draws the Nazgûl towards him, “Is there no escape then?… If I move I shall be seen and hunted! If I shall stay, I shall draw them to me!”
But the tale itself is an inbreaking of light, so bright, into the darkness, that shining eyes, stars and moon are at most a pale reflection of it. For it is the tale of Beren and Lùthien, the greatest of all Tolkien’s love stories, one so precious to him that he wanted those names to be inscribed beneath his and his wife’s names upon their gravestone. Aragorn, whose eyes shine with strange eagerness in the telling of it, perceives his own story as a kind of retelling of the tale.
“Beren was a mortal man, but Lúthien was the daughter of Thingol, a King of Elves upon Middle-earth when the world was young; and she was the fairest maiden that has ever been among all the children of this world. As the stars above the mists of the Northern lands was her loveliness and in her face was a shining light.”
A theme that recurs throughout the tale is one of the power of word and music. Lúthien is enchanted by hearing the sound of her own name upon the lips of Beren while, first Sauron and then Morgoth himself, of whom Sauron was but a servant, are overcome by Lúthien’s song. Does the chanting of the Lay that tells their tale invoke them at a moment in which “the offspring of the dark” make their attack or, perhaps more importantly even than this, invoke the same powers that aided them in their hopeless struggle with the dark? As Aragorn says to Sam after the attack, “More deadly to him [the Witch-king] was the name of Elbereth.”
The finest minds are those that are able to live with the greatest paradox. Surely at this pivotal moment in The Lord of the Rings the invasion of the desperately fragile “circle of light” and the telling of the tale that invokes a hope that is not broken even by the greatest evil is the coming together of Tolkien’s antitheses of eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe, of heavenly light and the darkness of hell.