A Mist of Silver Quivering

A Mist of Silver Quivering

This week’s choice is “The Song of Beren and Lúthien” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Her mantle glinted in the moon,
As on a hill-top high and far
She danced, and at her feet was strewn
A mist of silver quivering.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892—1973)

Poem 263. The Song of Beren and Lúthien

The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinúviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.

There Beren came from mountains cold,
And lost he wandered under leaves,
And where the Elven-river rolled.
He walked alone and sorrowing.
He peered between the hemlock-leaves
And saw in wonder flowers of gold
Upon her mantle and her sleeves,
And her hair like shadow following.

Enchantment healed his weary feet
That over hills were doomed to roam;
And forth he hastened, strong and fleet,
And grasped at moonbeams glistening.
Through woven woods in Elvenhome
She lightly fled on dancing feet,
And left him lonely still to roam
In the silent forest listening.

He heard there oft the flying sound
Of feet as light as linden-leaves,
Or music welling underground,
In hidden hollows quavering.
Now withered lay the hemlock-sheaves,
And one by one with sighing sound
Whispering fell the beechen leaves
In the wintry woodland wavering.

He sought her ever, wandering far
Where leaves of years were thickly strewn,
By light of moon and ray of star
In frosty heavens shivering.
Her mantle glinted in the moon,
As on a hill-top high and far
She danced, and at her feet was strewn
A mist of silver quivering.

When winter passed, she came again,
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.

Again she fled, but swift he came.
Tinúviel! Tinúviel!
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinúviel
That in his arms lay glistening.

As Beren looked into her eyes
Within the shadows of her hair,
The trembling starlight of the skies
He saw there mirrored shimmering.
Tinúviel the elven-fair,
Immortal maiden elven-wise,
About him cast her shadowy hair
And arms like silver glimmering.

Long was the way that fate them bore,
O’er stony mountains cold and grey,
Through halls of iron and darkling door,
And woods of nightshade morrowless.
The Sundering Seas between them lay,
And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
In the forest singing sorrowless.

This song appears quite early in The Fellowship of the Ring and is chanted by the rather disreputable-looking Strider to raise the spirits of his companions at a low moment. It is part of Tolkien’s world-building, telling of an older time when men and elves fought against an even greater evil than the Lord of the Rings.

Beren is a hero who finds his way to the enchanted woods of Doriath after a disastrous battle; the woods belong to Thingol, one of the legendary kings of the elves, whose daughter is Lúthien, also named Tinúviel (meaning nightingale) for the sweetness of her song.

The Song of Beren and Lúthien tells of their initial meeting but says little of their exploits thereafter, which are told at length in the Silmarillion and summarised by Strider himself. The song not only tells the story of the two lovers but is reflected in Strider’s own story for he is also a hero who loves an elvish maid: Arwen, the descendant of Lúthien.

The tale of the two lovers whose union is forbidden is a familiar one, of course, and this is Middle Earth’s Romeo and Juliet, though Beren and Lúthien are more actively involved in the history of Tolkien’s world than the star-crossed lovers of Verona are in Shakespeare’s play.

The first stanza sets the initial scene: Tinúviel dancing in a leafy star-lit clearing in the summer—“the hemlock-umbels tall and fair”—and she is almost luminescent among the shadows (“And light of stars was in her hair/And in her raiment glimmering”. An umbel is a cluster of short stems springing from a central point with flowers on the end, rather like the ribs of an umbrella, so the fact that they are tall and fair suggests summer is in full flight.

The second stanza introduces Beren, alone and grieving the loss of his comrades in battle, wandering at a loss by the river and through the forest until he happens upon Lúthien and gazes dumbly for a moment at this incredible sight.

His weariness and sorrow dispelled, he rushes forward to claim this fair maiden but she is no fainting beauty—she easily eludes him and leaves him only the echoes of her dancing feet as she fades into the forest, and he follows this sound—“Of feet as light as linden-leaves” (linden being a synonym for the lime tree)—and the phantasmal echoes of music in the hope of rediscovering this lady.

He is led around the forest by these will-of-the-wisps as summer fails, the beach leaves fall, the proud hemlock wilts and withers, and winter arrives “Whispering fell the beechen leaves/In the wintry woodland wavering”.

Despite this hallucinatory journey and the harshness of the season, Beren continues to search for his vision indefatigably: “He sought her ever, wandering far”. Meanwhile Lúthien continues to dance—it seems to me that this isn’t just a pastime or amusement for her, it is almost as if she dances at specific times of the year, or that her dance is connected to the passing of the seasons: “When winter passed, she came again/And her song released the sudden spring”.

As the snow melts, the birds sing and the flowers begin to blossom, Beren once again meets the woman he has followed so long, wishing only to live with her untroubled by and unheeding of the world’s urgencies—“He longed by her to dance and sing/Upon the grass untroubling.”

Although she is ready to run again, this time he calls her: “Tinúviel” which is nightingale in the elvish tongue and coincidentally her name (though he means only the bird noted for the sweetness of its song). “And there she halted listening”—she stops, turns, and sees her admirer for the first time “And doom fell on Tinúviel/That in his arms lay glistening.”

Beren is already besotted and sees the starlight reflected in his lady-love’s eyes while Lúthien throws her arms around him, finally accepting the role Fate has decreed for her.

The last stanza says little but speaks of the quest which the two lovers undertake, at the end of which Beren is killed and Lúthien pleads with Mandos, the guardian of the dead, singing a great song of sorrow and suffering and earning the choice to live forever in Heaven without Beren or to return to Middle-Earth with him and become mortal herself. Faced with this choice, she doesn’t falter and the two return to life as mortal man and woman. Up to the time of the Lord of the Rings and the union of Aragorn (Strider) and Arwen, she is the only Elven woman to have made this choice.

The song is based on the real-life story of Tolkien and his wife Edith. Tolkien was an Army officer stationed at Roos in Yorkshire during the First World War and Edith lived with him. They went for a walk in the woods one day and Edith danced for him just as Lúthien does at the start of the poem. He is quoted in Wikipedia:

“In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing—and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.”

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien.

Edith died in 1971, and Tolkien had the name “Luthien” (without the accent) engraved on the headstone. When he died two years later, he was buried in the same grave with “Beren” added to his name. Like Beren and Lúthien, their creator and his love have passed beyond the confines of the world and we have only the legends they left behind.

I like this poem because it is about that undefinable moment where a couple first discover their love for one another, because it hints at the history of Middle Earth and provides a background to the love story that backs the Lord of the Rings, and because of the real-life love story that underpins the fiction.

The story of Beren and Lúthien, edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher, was published as a stand-alone book in 2017.


  • Read about Lúthien and Beren at Wikipedia.
  • Listen to Tolkien read the poem on YouTube.