This story was written for Jenni as a holiday gift in 2007. Aside from being a co-moderator of the Silmarillion Writers' Guild and one of our founding members, Jenni has been one of my dearest online friends across the years.
Jenni asked for,
[A] story that features both Luthien and Finrod ... Luthien would be seeking some advice from Finrod. Perhaps reference to some friction between Luthien and her father as well as a disagreement between Finrod and Thingol could make for an interesting subplot ... In the story, I'd like to see that Finrod inherited some of his own father's diplomatic sense, but also--unlike his father--has a fatal flaw--that which caused him to make a foolish judgement, perhaps--that led to his own death.
This was quite a challenge! Reading it, I could easily imagine that it could be a mini soap opera unto itself. But, of course, this wasn't really possible, given the project and the number of requests that I received. So I needed a way to get all of these things into a story of reasonable length.
I should mention also that Jenni's request was inspired by a journal entry that I made looking at the early Tale of Tinúviel from BoLT2. In this post, I put forth some of my pet theories about the tale of Beren and Lúthien, especially in keeping with my larger interpretation of Tolkien's works as historical sources. This gave me the idea to explore this story from that perspective: What if Lúthien was actually an ordinary woman who was made larger than life by ignorant loremasters wanting only a good tale to tell? This story begins to answer that question.
"An Ordinary Woman" is also a 2008 MEFA nominee in the First Age and Prior: House of Finwe subcategory.
An Ordinary Woman
The invitations came on ivory paper, embossed with gold as had once been afforded to the finest of Noldorin royalty. Even the messengers who brought them seemed to possess a little extra spit and polish and wore brocade tunics trimmed in braid and smart new boots, though all of the aforementioned looked a little haggard thanks to the long walk from Doriath and a handful of skirmishes with orcs, all accomplished in the cold autumn rains typical of this season and region.
It seemed that my first-cousin-once-removed, Lúthien, was having the sort of coming-of-age celebration favored by her father's people. Of course, we Noldor had honored such occasions also in Aman, but--typical of the Noldor--they were less celebrations than dry, endless demonstrations of the great quantities of tedious knowledge of which we were possessed, and no amount of wine or rich foods or melodious ballyhoo penned by mathematical geniuses and wrought upon golden harps could dull the agony of those hours of readings, translations, pontifications, and, of course, introductions of every member of the family, with all their myriad titles, accomplishments, and boasts, all while trying to sit still in the midday heat and itchy, woolen robes. And I have a lot of siblings and cousins. At the sight alone of the invitation--much too Noldorin for my liking, I had decided--my arms puckered with hives from wrists to elbows and an irrational loathing to attend turned my mind into a black, seething cesspit of denial, and it was only with a very collected and practiced smile at the messengers that I confined the urge to scream, "NO!" into their expectant, waiting faces.
Instead, I inclined my head at them and said, "I am in your debt, my good men," while thinking, I'd sooner have my naked rump whipped by Balrogs than attend! and adding, "You are wearied from your journey, and I bid you to rest a night in Nargothrond," thinking all the while that Gorthaur himself could not be so cruel as to devise a ceremony more tortuous than these coming-of-age abominations, "and I will pen my reply to your lord and present it to you while we break our fasts on the morrow with fresh bread and fruits," already certain that my reply would be along the lines of pointing out that escaping these duties of kinship in Aman had been well worth the pain of exile and dooms pronounced upon our heads and all of that. I smiled serenely, hopefully hiding the twitching tic in my right eye, and excused myself.
But later, lying in the bath with a goblet of wine cradled in my hand, I thought more on our traditions as they compared to those of the Sindar, and I recalled that Orodreth had gone to one such coming-of-age affair and been blessed a year later with Finduilas, and Fingon had gone to another and found himself shortly with his son Ereinion, and Celegorm frequently praised the "swill of the Sindar" and Curufin hated the Sindarin affairs entirely, preferring his library and the company of his own foul temper. No matter the dignity of my station, still I am a man, and my blood gave a little surge at the thought, and I found an unlikely eagerness blossoming in my brain. I drained the last of my wine and left my bathtub before the water had even begun to cool to select what I would wear.
Some days later, I stood with my retinue at the border of Doriath while two of my guards turned the map to and fro and argued about the best way to come to the heart of the forest and Menegroth. The "enchantments" of Doriath--to those of us in the know--were really nothing more than Melian's fondness for mazes akin to the sort given to small children with a wax drawing stick to keep them occupied and quiet at mealtimes. Only Melian's mazes were ramped up to stump even one of Fëanorian precocity, with twists and turns and curlicues and--peeking over the shoulder of one of the guards--mazes within mazes within mazes tucked yet into still more mazes. One thousand years in the forest without a map and one might never find his way. One hundred years with a map, and one might still be left to wander.
Tired of the guards' bickering and resisting the urge to shout, Give it here! I smiled gently and asked, "May I?" and extended my palm to the guards but, at that moment, a broad-shouldered Elf carrying a bow taller than I stomped out of the forest. He wore the gray cloak of Thingol's guard and immediately introduced himself in that gruff, nearly wordless way of Elves who serve as guards to those of my company. They exchanged words in Sindarin, but their dialects made it hard to keep up. "Beleg" was his name; I did get that much. Well, it seemed to fit. Folding the map into the pocket of my traveling cloak, we followed Beleg into the maze … erm, enchanted forest, and I found myself hoping that this party would be worth it. Rain-drenched, dirty, and bitten up by the last of the year's mosquitoes, I could think only of a hot meal, a scented bath, and a warm bed. And a bottle of wine, all to myself.
A half-day later, we arrived in Menegroth, having walked three leagues to cover a quarter-league distance, as the Eagle flies, by what Beleg in his monosyllabic manner indicated was, in fact, the shortest way. A town preparing for festival is immediately obvious and Menegroth--despite its subterranean nature--was no different. As we streamed down the road toward the town gate, I was jostled by porters bearing casks of wine upon their shoulders and jabbering cooks hauling crates of vegetables and a bizarre procession of malcontent decorators delicately maneuvering long swags of fruit and flowers. I was grateful, however, not to see enrobed, important-looking Elves pontificating to themselves and reviewing huge stacks of tiny cards with their speeches written upon them. And there were many casks of wine. I was reassured of the wisdom of my choice and walked with an extra spring to my step, despite my aching feet.
That night, I was naturally invited to dine with the King, and I expected also to see the guest of honor, the lovely Lúthien Tinúviel, she whom the bards name as so beautiful as to draw the face of Vása from behind the clouds when she steps from her door, so lovely that the spring flowers unfurl their delicate pink and blue hands from the frost-hardened earth when she passes, so resplendent, alluring, bewitching, radiant, statuesque--even pulchritudinous, that word I have never used before this day--that a constant melody of birdsong follows her capering footsteps through the forest. Yet the fair Lúthien was not present at our dinner, only the King and I and a moon-eyed troubadour whom the King called Daeron, for whom even the lightest airs quickly deepened and darkened into laments.
Even the King was taciturn save his occasional grouses in Daeron's direction that "an air should have levity, for love of Manwë!" Thus, I was left to carry the bulk of the conversation, and I nattered on about my realm of Nargothrond and proffered lavish praises about Menegroth, and eventually the conversation drifted to the inevitable subject of Lúthien. The King--who was picking at a carcass of fowl with his fingers as is the wont of the Sindar--promptly met palm with forehead and left a greasy, saucy handprint upon his face.
"Ai, Finrod, that you have never had daughters!" bemoaned Thingol. He began picking at his food again with renewed ferocity. "The little imp refuses to come forth from her room, even to eat! For a spell, I allowed my stubbornness to get the best of me, and I refused to permit servants to bring meals to her room, but she began to become scrawny, and I bowed." He looked grim at this. "But now she refuses to attend even her own party. Oh, grandson of my brother, woe is upon me!" He splatted his forehead again with his befowled hand and increased the complexity of the mess made there, trailing a smear down his cheek even.
I patted his arm with my (clean, non-greasy) hand, but there was little that I could say to him. He was right that I had no children of my own, and advising my own dimwitted brother about my opinions of his parenting techniques had quickly taught me the unwisdom of such counsels, no matter the wisdom of the words.
As I climbed the stairs to my guest chamber that night--dejected that the party I had set forth to enjoy would, in all probability, be ruined by the mysterious behavior of Lúthien--I passed her room, paused, and wondered. Wherefore would the loveliest and most gifted maiden of the Eldar have cause to hide in her chambers akin to a frightful hag hermitted in the dark corners of the forest?
And I have long been the curious sort, wandering into corners best unexplored--at least according to the conventional wisdom--from the first years of my life, having surprised Orodreth into being by bursting into my parents' bedroom with a question about the nature of a rock found in my father's topiary garden, having been the first to learn of Uncle Fëanor's sword "collection" (though I said naught of it to Uncle Fingolfin but only to my father, whom I trusted to confidence), having found even the place where I built Nargothrond after sliding down the rocks into--I was sure at the time--my imminent demise after climbing along a narrow rock ledge beyond what was reasonable and feasible for an Elf of my athletic abilities. Now, here I stood before the chamber door of Lúthien with the answer to the mystery only a lifted fist, a knock, and an inquiry away, wondering if any had taken the time to do just that, when I spied my hand creeping out from my side a mere moment before it wrapped sharply three times upon the wooden door.
And there she was.
Lúthien, of whom the bards sing and over whom heroes swoon: there she stood--flesh, blood, and bone--in the doorway before me, and I prepared my heart to start pounding and my palms to perspire and the tendons in my knees to loosen and my tongue to glue itself to the roof of my mouth and become incapable of proper speech but--oh, how could I think this? But I did! I did, I did! I felt my head tilt, wondering if mayhap she looked differently askance, for she was … she was …
Oh, how can I say this? For surely the bards and the heroes cannot be ubiquitously wrong?
But she was quite ordinary.
Do not misunderstand me: She was lovely. Her hair was black as told, but more like ravens' wings than the depthless dark betwixt galaxies, and her eyes were bright and gray, but more with the light of Rána's half-light upon the sea than the light of the Trees that burns in the heart of the Silmarils, and her skin was pale like milk, not the white silk of Varda's gown that is sinuous and luminous as Light itself. She was lovely in the way of many women of the Eldar, and I found a smile touching my lips at the sight of her, but a similar smile I grant to the seamstresses and miners' daughters in my own city, who were remarkable in their own rights, though never the subject of sonnet or lay.
"Cousin," she said, and I saw her likewise smile at the sight of me, and she knew me though we'd never seen the other's face before. "It is well to meet you at last. I was delighted at receiving word that you would come to join us, even for a short while."
"Yet not enough to attend the festival held in your honor, for which I have journeyed far?" I said, and my words were light and, hopefully, delivered teasingly, and she smiled sadly in reply and held open the door so that I may enter the sitting room at the front of her chambers.
"Please, sit, Cousin. Your journey has been long, as you said," she said, and I sank at her command upon a satin settee. "And wine … I hear you have quite the taste for wine. May I offer you a glass?"
"I would be delighted to accept," I replied. "And your knowledge of me--one whom you have never met--surprises me."
She went to a wine rack and poured a dark red vintage into a crystal glass that threw rainbow darts of light onto the wall behind her. "I hear things," she told me, "when I take a break from lifting flowers from the earth with the touch of my feet and inspiring birds to song with my passing." She laughed, and wine splashed into the glass and answered her mirth.
I knew not what to say, so I took advantage of her turned back and the distraction of the chuckling wine to collect my poise so that I look unflustered when she came to perch across from me and passed my glass of wine to me. "I know why you have come," she told me when we both had settled and I had tasted my wine and smiled my approval. "And though I regret to chance your disappointment, I must insist that my choice will not change."
I sipped my wine and did not immediately answer. I let my thoughts gather and arrange themselves, knowing that to speak in haste only hastened my failure; so my father had taught me in Aman long ago. She was anxious, awaiting my reply, but she hid it well. Her fingers were tight where they rested on her knee; her gaze was perhaps a bit too steady. "To the contrary, my dear Lúthien," I said at last, "I seek not to change you. It has never been the inclination of those in my house to change the world but rather to understand it, and I must confess that it was curiosity--not the urge to persuade--that lifted my hand to knock upon your door." This, spoken in complete honesty, sparked a look of surprise in her bright--but altogether ordinary--gray eyes. "I simply wish to understand your reluctance to attend this festival. Your father is in distress; that much was clear from my supper in his presence, and your people will be disappointed--"
"That they will not," she said, and I felt my eyebrows pop up in surprise at her interruption. She laughed nervously and began twisting a strand of her ordinary hair around an ordinary finger. "It is for fear of disappointing them that I choose to abstain. Many will never have seen me before this day, but the myths and the songs come upon the wind to us all. They believe me something that I am not, Cousin."
"Surely not!" I protested, but as keenly as she had heard the truth in my speech before, so now she heard the falsehood.
"You need not fib in the interest of preserving my pride," she said. "I saw it upon your face when I came to my door. I have seen it before: I am ordinary in so many ways, but this is not how the legends speak. The Lúthien in which they believe has the power to change Beleriand for the better; the Lúthien in which they believe inspires greatness with the mere passing of her foot. I am not that Lúthien, and you saw that, and it showed on your face clear as Helluin on a night when Rána rests. But you need not the comforts my legend provide, Cousin. You have your own greatness, and inspiration is hot in your heart. But my people … my people would be distraught to know that their hopes and their kingdom rests with one such as I who is not much different than even the lesser among them."
Long I sat, drinking from my wine and not replying. Lúthien's hands relaxed in her lap, and she gazed from her window, where Rána was frosting the breeze-tousled trees with his silver light. At last, I answered, "You are right, Lúthien, in that you are indeed not the maiden told in legends that are sung of you. But in this, I believe, lies your greatness. My people have been brought low by pride, by a belief in our greatness where none in fact exists, at least to the magnitude of which we have become convinced. Look at where this has brought us! Yet you …" And there my words faltered. My hand--upraised in emphasis and passion--tumbled to rest in my lap.
Her smile was wry. "I thank you, Cousin," she said, "for the kindness in your words, and I will think on what you have said. Now the night grows late, and you are wearied from your journey," and I knew that I was being dismissed. I nodded and rose, but for all my gifts in diplomacy--yet another of the proud Noldorin arts--I knew that my ordinary maiden cousin was not convinced.
The day of the festival arrived not long after, and I attended without high expectations, hoping only to task some of the blindingly strong spirits for which the Sindar were known and hoping perhaps to steal a dance with a maiden fair before being summoned to dine at the hand of the King, in the place of honor as the grandson of his brother. So I sat, largely in silence--having run out days ago of frivolities of which to speak with the Sindarin King--and observed Lúthien's seat at his right hand conspicuously empty. If the people noticed the absence of their princess, then they said nothing. It was assumed that one as great as she had more pressing obligations to attend to than a party held in her honor. When the interminable meal passed and I was freed to once again seek the King's sommelier--my cup ready to accept whatever was poured into it--I heard her name spoken sly as a spring breeze in the crowd. "It is simply her way," I heard one woman remark, "to put the needs of our kingdom above her own pleasures. Whatever has taken her from us must be important indeed."
I drank until I could barely find my chambers, and, when I did, my sleep was immediate and deep and uninterrupted by dreams. Around sunrise, I woke with my mouth parchment-dry, and I rose for a swig of water from the basin in the water closet and stumbled back to bed where, half-conscious, I dreamt of Nargothrond in ruin, briefly, before waking fully and forcing a humorless laugh at my own melodramatic dreams. All the same, with the festival complete, there was now little to hold me here. I began to pack my bags before Vása had even risen completely into the sky.
As I left my chambers to seek a porter, my foot nudged something stuck under the door: a plain sheet of paper, the sort used to make supply lists and add strings of figures; the sort created with all intentions of being discarded. I unfolded the paper. It was a note from my cousin.
My dearest Cousin Finrod,
I have thought long on what you have said with little resolution. In my heart, I know that you are right in that my splendor should count little in how I serve my people, but I fear that the truth will disappoint them terribly and cause doubts to arise. And so I have decided to honor the coming season of Spring and, hopefully, clear my own doubts about my worth as a princess by taking a journey into the forest. May the spring-swollen brooks and new-returned songbirds clear my thoughts!
I thank you most sincerely, Cousin, for the wisdom of your counsel and remain, most indebted, your cousin and friend,
I smiled and felt contentment at that and suspected that Lúthien would find what she sought in the brightening forests of Doriath.
Spring indeed stood on the threshold of Doriath, and the journey from the forest was much more pleasant than the trek into it. Even Beleg--our taciturn guide--spoke more liberally, aided by a leather flask that he drew from his pack and allowed to pass among my retinue, coming to me last and still half-full. "Drink deeply, my lord," he said, "for spirits in Doriath glow brighter than anywhere else." Laughter sparked and swelled among my retinue, and I drank deeply as invited and laughed in answer as pleasant warmth suffused my body. The brew had the delicately sweet taste of mead, deceptive, and before long, I had finished off the flask.
Yet my mind remained clear, and my steps did not falter. Though my retinue stumbled and laughed at themselves, I staggered not, and Beleg gave me a knowing nod as we approached the border and prepared to camp for the night.
My mind may have gone unclouded, but my bladder did not go unfilled, and shortly after supper I trotted to the edge of the forest to relieve myself. As I finished and retied my breeches, I noticed that the light of Rána revealed the presence of another, and for a panicked moment I feared an ambush, but the figure was not an Orc, though he was emaciated, scraggly, and wayworn. And clearly mortal.
He drew a pitted, brittle blade, clearly as frightened of me as I was of him, and laughed when he noticed my ears, and I heard him breathe, in his accented voice, "The Eldar … you are …"
He was a pathetic figure yet somehow familiar, and the many mortal faces I'd known began to alternatingly shuffle through my memories, and I recalled the dancing light of a campfire not many years before and the cascading melody of a harp, the touch of strings beneath my fingers, sleepy gray eyes turned to mine--
My fingers delved my pockets to see if there was even a scrap of bread that I might give him, but they happened instead on a piece of parchment: the map I'd taken on the day I'd arrived here that revealed the secret of Melian's mazes, and as Beleg called behind me to assure that I was all right, I hoped that King Thingol would forgive my transgression as I passed the secret to his kingdom into the hand of the needy mortal boy before me, thinking briefly that he might be a good friend for Lúthien, ordinary as they both appeared to be.