Expanding upon an idea I’ve mentioned before, this piece sets out why Lúthien Tinúviel, the character created by J. R. R. Tolkien, is the perfect candidate to be the next Disney Princess – amply fulfilling both the traditional and modern requirements.
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This post is best enjoyed while listening to The Song of Beren and Lúthien (performed by Clamavi de Profundis).
An extract of the Lay of Leithian, which is set to music in the link above, can be found in the chapter, A Knife in the Dark, in The Fellowship of the Ring; a fuller treatment can be found in The Silmarillion. More recently, a stand-alone book, Beren and Lúthien, was published which shows the development of the story in Tolkien’s mind, with extracts of various published and unpublished works. She is an ancestress of both Elrond and Aragorn. The story appears to have been one of those most significant to Tolkien: the scene where Beren first sees Lúthien, dancing in a glade of hemlocks, was inspired by seeing his wife, Edith, in a similar glade, and the names Beren and Lúthien appear on Tolkien and his wife’s graves.
For those unfamiliar with the character:
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. In those days the Great Enemy, of whom Sauron of Mordor was but a servant, dwelt in Angband in the North, and the Elves of the West coming back to Middle-earth made war upon him to regain the Silmarils which he had stolen; and the fathers of Men aided the Elves. But the Enemy was victorious and Barahir was slain, and Beren escaping through great peril came over the Mountains of Terror into the hidden Kingdom of Thingol in the forest of Neldoreth. There he beheld Lúthien singing and dancing in a glade beside the enchanted river Esgalduin; and he named her Tinúviel, that is Nightingale in the language of old. Many sorrows befell them afterwards, and they were parted long. Tinúviel rescued Beren from the dungeons of Sauron, and together they passed through great dangers, and cast down even the Great Enemy from his throne, and took from his iron crown one of the three Silmarils, brightest of all jewels, to be the bride-price of Lúthien to Thingol her father. Yet at the last Beren was slain by the Wolf that came from the gates of Angband, and he died in the arms of Tinúviel. But she chose mortality, and to die from the world, so that she might follow him; and it is sung that they met again beyond the Sundering Seas, and after a brief time walking alive once more in the green woods, together they passed, long ago, beyond the confines of this world. So it is that Lúthien Tinúviel alone of the Elf-kindred has died indeed and left the world, and they have lost her whom they most loved.Aragorn son of Arathorn – from The Fellowship of the Ring, by JRR Tolkien
The case for Lúthien to be a Disney Princess
A traditional Disney princess typically fulfils a number of stereotypes, including singing and dancing in the forest, being beautiful and falling in love at first sight with a handsome prince. More recently, Disney princesses have been updated to a more feminist age: while some of the traditional characteristics may still apply, a modern Disney princess will typically have much more agency, taking matters into her own hands rather than hanging around to be rescued, and will typically subvert one of more of the ‘classic’ tropes.
As we will see, Lúthien fulfils both the traditional and modern requirements with stunning ability.
Is a princess – met! Lúthien is the daughter of King Thingol Greycloak of Doriath, considered by the Sindarin elves to be High King of the Sindar and Lord of Beleriand. She is indubitably a princess.
Is beautiful – met! In the words of Aragon, “She was the fairest maiden that has even been among all the children of this world.” This is confirmed in the Silmarillion, where the narrator informs us she “was the most beautiful of all the Children of Iluvatar.” We are told that:
Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.The Silmarillion
Marries a prince – met and subverted! There is a good case to be made that Beren counts as a prince: he is of ‘the royal house of Beor’. His father, Barahir, is more often referred to as a ‘chieftain’ or a ‘lord’, and Beren himself referred to as a ‘lord of men’, but this seems unnecessarily pedantic. There is, however, an equally good argument that Lúthien subverts this trope: Celegorm, son of Feanor, a prince of the Noldor, imprisons her, hoping to force her to marry him, but Lúthien instead escapes.
Sings and dances in the woods – met! Frequent references are made to Lúthien’s singing and dancing. She is dancing in a hemlock glade when Beren first meets her; later, we are told:
When winter passed, she came again,The Fellowship of the Ring
And her song released the sudden spring,
Like rising lark, and falling rain,
And melting water bubbling.
He saw the elven-flowers spring
About her feet, and healed again
He longed by her to dance and sing
Upon the grass untroubling.
Has a faithful animal companion which she can speak to – met! During her quest, Lúthien befriends Huan, the Hound of Valinor who helps her to escape his treacherous master Celegorm, and who later helps her to defeat Sauron, during her rescue of Beren, as well as later helping Beren defeat Carcharoth, the great wolf of Angband. We are told that:
Huan the hound was true of heart, and the love of Lúthien had fallen upon him in the first hour of their meeting; and he grieved at her captivity. Therefore he came often to her chamber; and at night he lay before her door, for he felt that evil had come to Nargothrond. Lúthien spoke often to Huan in her loneliness, telling of Beren, who was the friend of all birds and beasts that did not serve Morgoth; ad Huan understood all that was said. For he comprehended the speech of all things with voice; but it was permitted to him thrice only ere his death to speak with words.The Silmarillion
A worthy companion for any princess!
Has a jealous father who refuses to let her marry unless the suitor fulfils an impossible task – met! This is Thingol to a tee. Thingol is angry at Beren for entering his realm and angrier still at his love for Lúthien and so sets him a task he thinks impossible, that is sure to lead to Beren’s death:
I see the ring, son of Barahir, and I perceive that you are proud, and deem yourself mighty. But a father’s deeds, even had his service been rendered to me, avail not to win the the daughter of Thingol and Melian. See now! I too desire a treasure that is withheld. For rock and steel and the fires of Morgoth keep the jewel that I would possess against all the powers of the Elf-kingdoms. Yet I hear you say that bonds such as these do not daunt you. Go your way therefore! Bring to me in your hand a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown; and then, if she will, Lúthien may set her hand in yours.Thingol Greycloak – the Silmarillion
Escapes from a tower using her hair – met and subverted! A classic princess trope here, but one subverted – for Lúthien does not hang around waiting to be rescued, but instead takes matters into her own hands, escaping using her own magic. In addition, not content with using her hair as a ladder, she also uses it as an invisibility cloak (take that, Rapunzel!). It is told in the Lay of Leithian that:
She escaped from the house in Hirilorn; for she put forth her arts of enchantment, and caused her hair to grow to great length, and of it she wove a dark robe that wrapped her beauty like a shadow, and it was laden with a spell of sleep. Of the strands that remained she twined a rope, and she let it down from her window; and as the end swayed above the guards that sat beneath the house they fell into a deep slumber. Then Lúthien climbed from her prison, and shrouded in her shadowy cloak she escaped from all eyes, and vanished out of Doriath.The Silmarillion
In Beren and Lúthien it contains an extract of an earlier version of the tale, which sets out in more detail of precisely how she did this, in a way which makes clear it is very much by her own power and spellcraft that she is able to bring about this escape.
Now Tinúviel took the wine and water when she was alone, and singing a very magical song the while, she mingled them together, and as they lay in the bowl of gold she sang a song of growth, and as they lay in the bowl of silver she sang another song, and the names of all the tallest and longest things upon Earth were set in that song; the beards of the Indravangs, the tail of Karkaras, the body of Glorund, the bole of Hirilorn, and the sword of Nan she named, nor did she forget the chain Angainu that Aule and Tulkas made or the neck of Gilim the giant, and last and longest of all she spake of the hair of Uinen the lady of the sea that is spread through all the waters. Then did she lave her head with the mingled water and wine, and as she did so she sang a third song, a song of uttermost sleep, and the hair of Tinúviel which was dark and finer than the most delicate threads of twilight began suddenly to grow very fast indeed, and after twelve hours had passed it nigh filled the little room, and then Tinúviel was very pleased and she lay down to rest; and when she awoke the room was full as with a black mist and she was deep hidden under it, and lo! her hair was trailing out of the windows and blowing about the tree boles in the morning.
Is rescued by the prince – subverted! Instead, Lúthien rescues Beren, when he is imprisoned by Sauron in his fortress of Tol-in-Gaurhoth.
Beren, Finrod and their companions have been captured by Sauron who then defeats Finrod Felagund, King of Nargothrond, in a song duel and then sends werewolves to devour Beren’s companions one by one. He is due to perish next when Lúthien, having escaped first the aforementioned tower and then the Noldorin princes Celegorm and Curufin, arrives with Huan to rescue him. Sauron sends out werewolves one by one to confront them, but Huan defeats them, until Sauron comes himself, only to be defeated himself by Huan, aided by Lúthien’s arts. At this point:
Ere [Sauron’s] foul spirit left its dark house, Lúthien came to him, ghost be sent quaking back to Morgoth; and she said: ‘There everlastingly thy naked self shall endure the torment of his scorn, pierced by his eyes, unless thou yield to me the mastery of thy tower.’
Then Sauron yielded himself, and Lúthien took the mastery of the isle and all that was there; and Huan released him. And immediately he took the form of a vampire, great as a dark cloud across the moon, and he fled, dripping blood from his throat upon the trees, and came to Tar-nu-Fuin, and dwelt there, filling it with horror.
Then Lúthien stood upon the bridge, and declare her power: and the spell was loosed that bound stone to stone, and the gates were thrown down, and the walls opened, and the pits laid bare; and many thralls and captives came forth in wonder and dismay, shielding their eyes against the pale moon light, for they had lain long in the darkness of Sauron.The Silmarillion
Generally is proactive and awesome, rather than sitting around being a drip – met! Throughout, Lúthien is at least as proactive a protagonist as Beren. When he is wounded by Curufin it is she who heals him; it is her arts that disguise them as a werewolf and vampire in order to penetrate secretly to Morgoth’s stronghold; her arts who lull to sleep Carcharoth, the great wolf guarding the gates, and her arts that bewitch Morgoth, enabling Beren to take the Silmaril:
Then suddenly she eluded his sight, and out of the shadows began a song of such surpassing loveliness, and of such blinding power, that he listened perforce; and a blindness came upon him, as his eyes roamed to and fro, seeking her.
All his court were cast down in slumber, and all the fires faded and were quenched; but the Silmarils in the crown on Morgoth’s head blazed forth suddenly with a radiance of white flame; and the burden of that crown and of the jewels bowed down his head, as though the world were set upon it, laden with a weight of care, of fear, and of desire, that even the will of Morgoth could not support. Then Lúthien catching up her winged robe sprang into the air, and her voice came dropping down like rain into pools, profound and dark. She cast her cloak before his eyes, and set upon him a dream, dark as the outer Void where once he walked alone.
Suddenly he fell, as a hill sliding in avalanche, and hurled like thunder from his throne lay prone upon the floors of hell. The iron crown rolled echoing from his head. All things were still.The Silmarillion
Beren, by contrast, is noble, brave and valiant, but also sometimes a bit dim, which is more of less the role that Disney wants its leading male protagonists to play these days. This is perhaps best exemplified by the time when he gets his hand bitten off by the wolf:
But Beren strode forth before her, and in his right hand he held aloft the Silmaril. Carcharoth halted, and for a moment was afraid. ‘Get you gone, and fly!’ cried Beren; ‘for here is a fire that shall consume you, and all evil things.’ And he thrust the Silmaril before the eyes of the wolf.
But Carcharoth looked upon that holy jewel and was not daunted, and the devouring spirit within him awoke to sudden fire; and gaping he took suddenly the hand within his jaws, and he bit it off at the wrist.The Silmarillion
Defies the Lord of the Dead to win back her love – met! I’m not sure this entirely qualifies as a Disney princess trope, but it is certainly a mythic trope (think Orpheus and Eurydice). In this case though, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn it is Lúthien who is the one to rescue Beren, rather than the other way round (and she doesn’t do anything silly like look back, either). Instead, she sings to Mandos, who in Tolkien’s legendarium is the Vala who watches over the Halls where the dead wait and convinces him to relent and to restore Beren to life:
The song of Lúthien before Mandos was the song most fair that ever in words was woven, and the song most sorrowful that ever the world shall ever hear. Unchanged, imperishable, it is sung still in Valinor beyond the hearing of the world, and the listening the Valar grieved. For Lúthien wove two themes of words, of the sorrow of the Eldar and the grief of Men, of the Two Kindreds that were made by Iluvatar to dwell in Arda, the Kingdom of Earth amid the the innumerable stars. And as she knelt before him her tears fell upon his feet like rain upon stones; and Mandos was moved to pity, who never before was so moved, nor has been since.The Silmarillion
Gives up everything for True Love – met! After she sings to him, Mandos gives her a choice: ‘to be released from Mandos, and go to Valimar, there to dwell until the world’s end among the Valar, forgetting all griefs that her life had known’ – but, crucially, without Beren, or, alternatively, to ‘return to Middle-earth, and take with her Beren, there to dwell again, but without certitude of life or joy. Then She would become mortal, land subject to a second death, even as he; and ere long she would leave the world for ever, and her beauty become only a memory in song.’ Lúthien of course chooses the second, preferring a life with Beren to life unending without him.
This doom she chose, forsaking the Blessed Realm, and putting aside all claim to kinship with those that dwell there; that thus whatever grief might lie in wait, the fates of Beren and Lúthien might be joined, and their paths lead together beyond the confines of the world. So it was that alone of the Eldalie she has died indeed, and left the world long ago.The Silmarillion
So she fits, but would a Disney film of Beren and Lúthien actually be any good?
Some people might be sceptical, but I think there’s a strong chance it would be very good. Disney has a strong record of producing very high calibre films and, if they took on a project of this nature, they’d be likely to do a good job.
Of course, it wouldn’t look as realistic as Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth – it would be a cartoon – but cartoons are there own art form. We don’t think less of the art and setting in Frozen or Tangled for being a cartoon. Furthermore, particularly more recently, Disney typically takes a lot of care to respect the source material. As someone with a New Orleans heritage, The Princess Frog has great representation or architecture (down to being able to recognise specific locations), food, music and more – often as background elements of scenes; I understand Moana is also considered to draw pretty faithfully to Polynesian culture. There’s no reason they couldn’t treat Tolkien’s legendarium with similar respect (at the very least, they could hardly do worse than The Rings of Power). The integral music plays in the story also offers tremendous potential – various characters canonically sing at multiple points, and these songs are not written, so could be created.
As to the plot, it’s perfect for a film: not an epic of centuries, but an exciting, tightly written adventure and romance, of two individuals defying the odds for heroism and love. It has elves, towers, werewolves, tense battles, daring escapes and true love. What’s not to like?
The case against?
Intellectual property and copyright law, mainly. But from 2043 onwards, that won’t be a problem, so we only have another two decades to wait!
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