The Lay of Beren and Lúthien, especially as it is recorded in the Silmarillion, is without doubt one of Tolkien’s masterpieces, if not the Masterpiece. It is the tragedy of Orpheus gone right. Even when Tolkien transcribes the tale in his tripping rhymes (admittedly more suited to the comic vein than the high romance), it is enough to move the passions.

But why, of all places to introduce this ancient ordeal of love and sacrifice, does Tolkien choose the moment when our four Hobbits are shivering in a hillside dell on Weathertop, awaiting the inevitable approach of the Ringwraiths?

One obvious answer is that the tale is supposed to boost their morale. In fact, the Hobbits begin to discuss another Elvish tale to keep their spirits up (the story of Gil-galad), but Strider interrupts because he thinks it too dark for the occasion. As indeed he should: Gil-galad was an Elf who bravely and nobly perished at the hand of the Enemy. What Frodo and the other Hobbits need, as the dreadful minutes tick by on Weathertop, is a story of someone brave and noble whom the Enemy did not destroy.

Up to this point, Strider’s discussion of historical persons has been rather didactic, as Gandalf’s was as well back in the second chapter. It seems, however, that didactic storytelling may not be the most bolstering thing in the hour of real need. So, for the first time in the romance so far, we find history transformed into poetry. Strider chants the Lay of Beren and Lúthien, in a pleasant rhyming meter, and only later does he offer a longer explanation of the history, presumably because the Hobbits do not know the full story behind Lúthien’s sacrifice.

Beyond all this, however, Strider has ascertainable personal reasons for telling the tale. It is significant that the first narrative verse to come from Strider’s mouth not only implicates his own lineage, but serves as a foil to his own romance. For Strider too is the offspring, however many generations removed, of the love between Beren and Lúthien, and he himself is playing the role of Beren as, for the second time in the history of Middle Earth, an Elf will sacrifice her immortality for a man. Tolkien does not portray Strider’s love for Arwen by speaking of it, but by deliberately speaking around it.

Like the rest of the chapter, Strider’s account of Beren and Lúthien sheds further illumination on his character, though (ironically) the reader does not realize this until the second time through, and the Hobbits realize nothing about it until the end of the story.