The perils of enchantment: Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

The encounter between mortal man and immortal enchantress is always fateful in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, Boromir fears the Elf-queen Galadriel and ignores her wisdom, then dies for his sins.

Tolkien: The Lay of Aotrou and ItrounThe Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, first written in 1930 and previously only published in 1945 in The Welsh Review, is entirely detached from Middle-earth.

But in this 506-line poem, running to the most unhobbity topics of sex, infertility and adultery, Tolkien furnishes just the kind of story that would have fuelled Boromir’s fear.

A man and woman find themselves still childless as the years grow long. In desperation, he obtains a love-potion from a corrigan, a kind of witch or water-fairy, and in this way a daughter and son, and bliss, are attained. But the price he must eventually pay proves dreadful, and his wife, barely comprehending, is drawn into the same doom.

Nothing could be further from the tale of Beren and Lúthien, the mortal-immortal love story at the heart of The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology.

In that 1917 story, love overleaps racial barriers and overthrows prison walls. In the later Aotrou and Itroun, however, we taste the stern piety of the Christian medieval mind, which censured all contact with the fay-folk – remnants as they were of pre-Christian mythology.

That piety chimed with Tolkien’s strict Catholic views on marriage and, I suspect, his distrust of the new science that promised to overcome the failings of nature with eugenics and in vitro technology. Biologist J. B. S. Haldane and literary giant H. G. Wells were blithely predicting a scientifically modified future for humankind; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was just two years away.

A direct adaptation of old traditions, Aotrou and Itroun falls into the same non-Middle-earth category as Tolkien’s Finnish-based Story of Kullervo, his Germanic Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and his British The Fall of Arthur.

The stories that inspired Tolkien in this instance came from Brittany, a little piece of mainland Europe where native Britons fled from the encroaching Anglo-Saxons.

The names Aotrou and Itroun simply mean “lord” and “lady” in Breton. But the poem helps us see how the Elves in Tolkien’s more famous works draw from Celtic wellsprings as well as the Old English ones we tend to think inspired him more.

The corrigan, whom Tolkien borrowed from Breton folklore, grants Aotrou’s wish, then seals his doom. But she leads us all the way to Galadriel herself, as editor Verlyn Flieger points out. Both the corrigan and the Elf-queen of Lothlórien are ageless enchantresses with long golden hair, a fountain, and a magical phial.

The moonlight falling clear and cold
her long hair lit; through comb of gold
she drew each lock, and down it fell
like the fountain falling in the dell.

But in the imagery of this poem there are foreshadowings, too, of the other memorable female Frodo encounters on his journey to Mordor – Shelob:

A witch there was, who webs could weave
to snare the heart and wits to reave,
who span dark spells with spider-craft…

Aotrou and Itroun was written in the era of Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden and modernism. Tolkien’s poem feels nearer to John Masefield (“I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky”), who was then poet laureate.

In fact, Pound and Auden each reworked Old English and Norse literature, too. Tolkien, setting out to ‘rekindle an old light’ rather than to ‘make it new’ (Pound’s misleading mantra), has a surer hand. His strategy here is not innovation but distillation.

The haunting Aotrou and Itroun joins a stream of posthumous publications, which now outnumber by more than three to one the books Tolkien saw published in his lifetime. (Christopher Tolkien, who edited almost all the other volumes, has been awarded a Bodley Medal for his work.)

Sceptics dismiss all this as barrel-scraping, but Tolkien left a wine cellar as well stocked as the Elvenking’s in The Hobbit. This latest barrel contains neither dwarf nor hobbit, but is worth broaching for its pale and chilly vintage.

The titular poem occupies just one sixth of this short book. There are also two earlier poems about the corrigan, the original 1930 ‘Aotrou and Itroun’, some beautiful facsimile pages in Tolkien’s hand, and a succinct set of notes.

But the brevity is apt. The cover, a 1914 painting by Tolkien of the Cornish coast, well suits the opening scene of ‘stony shores and stony caves’, from which it is a short step to the forested otherworld threshold.

The language, as we expect from him, is as time-worn as a runic engraving yet clear as a bell. The almost emblematic imagery – ash lance, black horse, green boughs – leaves the imagination free and untrammelled. Here in ancient Brittany, the natural year is a round of blessedness and bitterness. The holy and the unholy imbue everything. It is a world captured in stained glass.

  • The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger. HarperCollins, 125 pages; £8.99 paperback, £16.99 hardback. This review first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 16 November 2016. I present it here, slightly edited, to mark the paperback publication of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun.
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Interlude with eels and whalebones

A whale's skeleton on the Atlantic ocean floor, picked clean four months after its death (BBC).

A whale’s skeleton on the Atlantic ocean floor, picked clean four months after its death (BBC).

A change is as good as a rest, they say. So here’s a poem.

I wrote it about 20 years ago, inspired by some personal crisis now half-forgotten, and by an old Chambers Cyclopaedia I’d picked up cheap in a charity shop. The science was probably out of date even when I wrote it. But I am inspired to haul it up from the depths after watching the BBC’s Blue Planet 2, which today (accompanied by the voice of David Attenborough) plunged into the ocean deeps. Among other, more beautiful scenes the programme featured a whale carcass drifting down to be feasted upon by idiot fish. Jaw-dropping, literally.

In the Abyss

Beneath light, where pressure smothers motion
and leaden miles of inspissating liquid
tower upon the backs of lice, the ocean
drops its dead among the pennatulids,

clamp-jawed eels, crinoidea, polyp masses,
huge octopods and prawns upon audacious
stilts, antennae reaching through molasses
like worms in the gut, blank, voracious.

After its pilgrimage around the world
(if it escapes the whaling fleet) the whale
rots to mulch here, its nerves in leagues uncoiled
for idiot fish to feast upon its deshabille.

This sliver between receding sky
and the deep, this urgent silvery brim
floats on its dying generations’ lye
below the nine-day plummet of the Seraphim,

morass and slough of half the globe.
All things slip down, disintegrate and scatter,
but in monastic silence monsters probe
preposterous on unseen legs the slew of matter.

© John Garth, 2017. No reproduction without permission.

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Tolkien the opera composer

Peter Gilliver

Peter Gilliver

A guest post by Peter Gilliver

No, not that Tolkien – though he was in fact a fairly close relative. I was intrigued to discover that Frederick Tolkien (1848–1939), first cousin once removed of JRRT, was a composer, with at least three operas to his name … and that one of those operas was premiered in Leeds during the time that JRRT was living and working there. I’d like to think that the name Tolkien was sufficiently unusual that someone seeing it on a poster in 1922 would have drawn the performance to the attention of his namesake in Leeds University’s English department. I have no evidence that this actually happened; but I thought I would write up the small collection of pieces of information that I’ve been able to accumulate about Frederick Tolkien, for the mild interest of fellow Tolkienians – and in case anyone can add to them.

Frederick Tolkien was born in Rugby in 1848, the son of Septimus Tolkien, who was the brother of JRRT’s paternal grandfather John Benjamin Tolkien. He married Margaret Fleming; the marriage produced at least two children; and he died at Eastbourne in 1939. By profession he was an industrial chemist, with at least one patent (for a kind of artificial rubber) to his name; but he also tried his hand at composing music. His output includes choral and orchestral music as well as opera. The compositions I know of are as follows:

  1. A substantial setting of the Te Deum in 1886 for solo voices, choir, and orchestra, written in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the following year.
  2. Another setting of the Te Deum written for the Diamond Jubilee a decade later.
  3. A three-act opera, Adela (1895).
  4. A one-act opera For Love (1898).
  5. A three-act opera Lola Descartes (1912).
  6. An orchestral tone poem Antony and Cleopatra (1915).

Of these compositions, the only ones which I know (or think I can be fairly sure) to have been performed are the operas Adela and Lola Descartes. The first of these was apparently premiered in Wigan in 1897; the second was staged at the Theatre Royal in Leeds, by the O’Mara Opera Company, on 20 November 1922. It also seems reasonably likely that the orchestral tone poem was the one billed as ‘Cleopatra (Tolkien)’ in a notice about an upcoming concert by the Dulwich Philharmonic Society which appeared in the Musical Times of 1 November 1923.

The Musical Opinion reviews Tolkien’s second Te Deum in September 1897

The Musical Opinion reviews Tolkien’s second Te Deum in September 1897

The publication of his 1886 Te Deum was noticed in several contemporary musical periodicals—in which newly published music was often reviewed irrespective of whether a performance had taken place (or was expected to do so)—and also in the general press. The Graphic of 24 July 1886 described it as ‘a thoroughly musicianly composition, much above the average of pièces de circonstance in general’. The Musical World of 22 May 1886 was rather less favourable, commenting acidly on the piece’s ‘uncertainty of tonality’ and its ‘plentiful crop of consecutive fifths’ (such things being regarded as the mark of an amateur); the reviewer suggested that, while familiar with Handel’s choral writing, the composer had not produced a very satisfactory imitation of his style, in which the ‘chromatic treatment … would have made the illustrious composer’s hair stand on end underneath his wig’.

The Musical Times of 1 August 1886 was not quite so harsh, but the efforts to find something to praise in the work are if anything more damning: ‘The composer has wasted his time and labour. His ideas of tonality are of the vaguest, and his part-writing shows a lamentable ignorance of the capacity of the human voice … although it is impossible to speak of Mr. Tolkien’s Te Deum as a musicianly achievement, it bears unmistakable traces of natural talent. Here and there impressive and beautiful phrases may be discovered, like oases in a desert, and encourage us to hope that with careful study the composer may produce something worthy of a hearing.’

The reception accorded Adela on its publication seems to have been a little more favourable. The Daily News (11 February 1896) described it as ‘a very good specimen’ of English opera, and praised ‘some very pretty songs and duets’ and ‘well written and effective’ choruses; the Stage (22 April 1897) observed that ‘the greater part of the music is, without doubt, excellent, but the libretto [written by Tolkien himself] is feeble and commonplace’. The Musical Standard (23 November 1895) commented more guardedly: ‘The music appears to have fair merit, yet it would be better to hear it performed before speaking definitely.’

In fact the opportunity to hear it performed came soon enough: the premiere took place on 14 April 1897, given by Neilson’s Opera Company. I don’t know how it was received in the local press, but the review in the London Era of 24 April 1897 called it ‘entertaining and meritorious’, singling out Marie Elster for her ‘charming’ performance in the title role, and Somers Grime as ‘excellent’ in the role of her lover Ricardo. (A brief recent assessment of the opera is given by Paul Rodmell in his Opera in the British Isles 1875–1918 (Routledge 2013): ‘Tolkien’s score is ambitious, and its structure influenced by Wagner and late Verdi.… The work lacks direction. Although securely tonal, there are some interesting harmonic devices but also some inept modulations.’ Rodmell comments that ‘virtually nothing is known’ of Tolkien himself.)

The one notice of Frederick Tolkien’s second setting of the Te Deum that I’ve been able to find – in Musical Opinion of September 1897 – suggests that his compositional technique has improved since the first: ‘the present [setting] seems to us to bear evidence of somewhat exceptional power.… It would, we think, be difficult to find finer modern examples of jubilant sacred utterance than the choruses, “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ,” “Day by day,” and the final chorus.’ The work is ‘well worthy of figuring in the program of a musical festival, and eminently fitted to employ the resources at hand on such an occasion’.

Tantalizingly, however, I have not yet been able to find any contemporary reviews of the Leeds performance of the opera Lola Descartes in 1922. Perhaps someone with access to the Leeds papers can find something? (Rodmell’s 2013 study cited above merely mentions the Leeds premiere, without comment on the music or the performance.)

One might suppose the title character of Lola Descartes to be the wife of a famous French philosopher – leading one to imagine, as John Garth did when I first mentioned the opera, that it really ought to be part of a surreal trilogy with companion works called Desdemona Kant and Kitty Wittgenstein. Alas, Lola is instead an innkeeper’s daughter who falls in love with a king. From such characters are opera plots more usually constructed … more’s the pity.

Finally: as I was putting the finishing touches to this article, I discovered a tweet from British music enthusiast Mark Henegar, dating from 2015, to the effect that he had just finished ‘re-typesetting Frederick Tolkien’s tone poem “Antony and Cleopatra”’. Whether that brings a 21st-century performance of music by JRRT’s obscure cousin closer to reality, who knows?

Peter Gilliver is a senior lexicographer and Associate Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. I recently interviewed him about magnum opus The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve previously reviewed The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, which he co-wrote with Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner

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Win over £1,000/$1,000 worth of Tolkien books and help Oxford University preserve First World War history

I’ve donated five signed copies of Tolkien and the Great War to help raise money for this appeal. There are some substantially more valuable prizes too. It is only thanks to the personal letters and photographs preserved by various Great War veterans, by families and by museums that I was able to bring to life the experiences of Tolkien and his friends in the training camps and trenches of the war. If you can donate, please do. Whether you can or can’t, perhaps you will share this announcement:—

Oxford University is currently crowd-funding a project to run a mass-digitization initiative of publicly-held material from the First World War and as is well known the experiences JRR Tolkien underwent in 1916 in the Battle of the Somme had a profound effect on him and his writing. To assist with our major crowd-funding appeal we have been generously supported by Tolkien scholars and publishers, allowing us to present a prize draw opportunity to win three major publications amounting to over £1,000. Our sincerest thanks go to John Garth, Wiley/Blackwells, and Routledge for their help.

To enter the prize draw go to:

If you sponsor us by pledging £1 or more (or equivalent) you will be entered into a draw to win one of five copies signed by John Garth of his Tolkien and the Great War (pbk, HarperCollins, 2011 – RRP: £9.99; $12.00; €11.99).

If you sponsor us by pledging £5 or more (or equivalent) you will also be entered into a draw to win one of three copies of A Companion to JRR Tolkien (hbk, Wiley/Blackwells, 2014) signed by the editor (RRP: £125; $140; €150).

Finally, if you sponsor us by pledging £10 or more (or equivalent) you will also be entered into a draw to a full set set of JRR Tolkien: Critical Assessments of Major Writers (4 volumes, hbk, Routledge, 2017) signed by the editor (RRP: £900; $1,180; €930)

In addition to these chances of winning, you will also be helping to save and preserve important objects from the First World War which are in danger of being lost on a daily basis.

Please donate at:

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Gardening the corner of a foreign field

As the Commonwealth War Graves Commission marks its centenary, I recall a 2014 visit to Flanders and northern France when I spoke to the gardeners who keep the cemeteries pristine.

Inside the Menin Gate

With its postcards of poppies and memorials, its hotels and restaurants, its chocolateries and its 1914–18 bookshops, Ypres is proof that war is good for business. The Menin Gate stands uneasily on the edge of it all, its stone and its lawns immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Here, the Last Post can provide a moment of reflection – so long as you ignore the iPads raised to film it.

If the missing whom it commemorates could rise again, would they (in the words of Siegfried Sassoon) ‘deride this sepulchre of crime’? Or would they feel the Menin Gate’s austere dignity is better than the triumphal monuments of previous wars – better than no memorial at all?

The manicured war cemeteries beg the same questions. The war writer Edmund Blunden felt such peaceful landscapes in France and Flanders ‘would have appeared sheer fantasy’ to the trench soldier. So who is all this meticulous planting and maintenance for?

Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Zonnebeke, on the former Ypres Salient

The Commission’s gardeners take different views. Asked whether the dead care, Mark Heaysman, 54, says: ‘I think they do. In a way you’re giving them a service.’

Retired colleague Billy Jones, 65, is practical. ‘It’s for the families, the living. They can come here and look at the grave; it’s a beautiful setting. Can you imagine if you come, the headstone’s dirty, the grass is up to your kneecap and there’s no plants there, only weeds?’

The cemeteries would surely have consoled those who lost loved ones in the Great War. Seeking out the Somme grave of Robert Quilter Gilson (friend to JRR Tolkien in his ‘TCBS’ fellowship) his sweetheart Estelle King wrote to the Gilson family in 1919 about the small battlefield cemetery of wooden crosses she found:

‘They are going to put up marble stones, for which I am sorry but I expect it is best.

‘There will then be 18 inches for flowers and the grave will be covered with grass. I am asking to have a rose tree put, because I think it may last, and there is a young Englishman here who has said he will see to it. I think it will not make it conspicuous. It is just what I like. So quiet in a little less desolate part of this poor torn country.’

She also noted: ‘One or two graves were dressed up and somehow I resented it. Or no – felt it a pity.’ She was expressing an egalitarian view which was quickly becoming a matter of policy, and one today’s gardeners back to the hilt.

Previously, wealthier families would have had their own dead brought home for burial, leaving the rest dotted among overseas civilian plots going to seed. But the Commission has treated all graves with equal honour, regardless of rank. The focus falls on the man, lying where he died alongside those who died beside him.

The same principle of equal treatment applies on national, religious and cultural differences. Though much of the planting is in the style of an English country garden, this is not ‘some corner of a foreign field that is forever England’, in Rupert Brooke’s famous words: it is British and Commonwealth, and maple may be planted where significant numbers of Canadians are buried, or hebe for the ANZACs.

At Bedford House Cemetery near Ypres, I am shown a line of headstones with Arabic or Hindi inscriptions, commemorating men from India. At Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in France, small white stones have been placed on one headstone by Jewish custom. Until the time comes to spray against lichen and algae, these will stay unless they are discolouring the headstone.

In all the cemeteries, a general sequence of plant types repeats every fourth headstone. It includes eyecatching ‘spot plants’ such as roses. Low ‘splash plants’ such as phlox and campanula protect from mud spatters but do not obscure the inscriptions. Seasonal plantings ensure colour most of the year. Despite their symbolism, poppies – which propagate wildly – are not included.

Gardeners discourage DIY plantings. ‘If somebody puts in a plant, we’ll try and leave that plant as long as possible,’ says Billy Jones. ‘But some people will come and try and plant an oak tree in front of an headstone – we do have to remove that!’

The equality of care may be the key to why the cemeteries draw reverence from military families and pacifists alike. ‘Still the British clip and mow and prune as assiduously as if the cemeteries were the palace gardens themselves,’ architect Paul Shepheard has written. ‘If you have ever wondered how it is possible to commemorate the dead without glorifying the war, they have discovered it.’

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, set up early in the war by a Red Cross unit commander and given a royal charter in 1917, now maintains 23,000 cemeteries or memorials across 153 countries. They include Brookwood in Surrey, where men who died of wounds in London hospitals would be sent on the midnight train so the public would not see. The latest is at Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) in France, built for 250 British and Australian dead whose remains were only discovered in 2009. In all, 1.7million servicemen and women from both world wars are interred in its cemeteries or commemorated on its monuments.

When I point out that their job does not seem especially cheery, the gardeners laugh. ‘Well, are we miserable?’ says Billy Jones. Does he ever try to visualise what it was like for the soldiers? ‘Yes, when it’s raining very hard.’ But it is a joke with a serious undertone. ‘What they talked about was mud – standing on duckboards because if you stepped off them you’d drown in the mud.’

At Berks Extension Cemetery near Messines, site of a colossal battle in 1917, gardener Hugh Stewart recalls arriving from Dunbar at 22, half a lifetime ago: ‘There were 11,000 dead in the first cemetery where I worked, and some of them were a lot younger than me – 15 or 16 years old. It was moving, and I was quite shocked. You get used to it.’

The men six feet beneath might have understood. High standards and esprit de corps are the key for gardeners, as for many soldiers. Doug Sainsbury, 54, started his career gardening Wirral recreation grounds, and would sometimes be seconded to clean up civilian cemeteries. ‘That’s the last thing I’d want to do,’ he says.

‘But this is a high horticultural standard, very efficiently and professionally maintained. I’m part of 900 gardeners on the War Graves Commission worldwide. Nobody else in the world has a gardening crew like that these days. Is there anything depressing about this site? At the end of the day you look over the gate and you think, “Wow! It was worth coming.”’

Tyne Cot near Ypres takes the breath away. Within a horseshoe perimeter wall inscribed with the names of men with no known grave, the white gravestones extend seemingly forever. There are 12,000, including more than 8,300 marking bodies never identified. This, the Commission’s biggest single cemetery, is an iconic site.

In fact, that is its official designation, determining the amount of attention it must get. A team works all year round to keep the grass mown, borders edged, flowers flourishing. Pascal Wostyn, the Belgian in charge, has to factor in interruptions from regular ceremonies, from the bigger centenary events, and from filming, as well as from new interments. The gardeners – the real public relations face of the Commission – also field regular questions about the six VCs buried here.

For the Great War centenary, the number of ‘iconic sites’ is growing – even while the number of gardeners is falling. Doug Sainsbury is uneasy about this official ranking of cemeteries. ‘It’s a bit strange for me because all my career has been spent on giving everybody the same treatment.’

Of the sites we visit, Gourock Trench Cemetery near Arras is most likely to suffer. The small walled plot in the middle of an industrial area has 44 graves. Somehow the mobile team of gardeners responsible for this and other sites will have to keep up standards while time and funds are diverted towards the big iconic ones.

American and German policies on burial avoided such problems: both would remove their dead from battlefield sites to gather them in big, concentrated cemeteries. But this stretches or severs the link with the battlesite – such a powerful trigger for deep reflection by visitors to the Commonwealth graves.


For bikers, it’s motorcycle marques. For the gardeners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it’s lawnmowers. The brand names John Deere, Husqvarna, Honda and Walker trip off their tongues. Likewise the various chemical treatments against insect and lichen. They compare the rose species with even deeper passion: Super Trouper, Rotilia, Trumpeter, Fellowship.

At Bedford House Cemetery, recently retired Billy Jones shows off the system which uses largely natural processes to create compost for all the Belgian sites and incidentally feeds a small on-site lake teeming with fish and other life. ‘For the frogs this is like the Hilton Hotel,’ he says.

The gardeners face perennial challenges. The Belgian rain and the clay soil are the same combination that put a curse on Passchendaele. The biggest cemeteries, Tyne Cot and Lijssenthoek, are located precisely where the soil is wettest – a telling sign of the fatal role played by the mud in the First World War. The gardeners’ work can be impossible when the borders flood.

At least here bones do not tend to emerge from the ground, which they sometimes do in sandier coastal areas. ‘Mostly soldiers are buried deep – in blankets tied with wire, though the Canadians and Americans had coffin burials,’ says Billy Jones.

Alarmingly, live munitions are still found on the old battlefields – and therefore also in the cemeteries, especially during periodic re-levellings of the ground. At Bedford House the composter had a close encounter, as Billy recalls. ‘He’s got a machine that actually shreds the soil – hammers it. What came flying out? A hand grenade.’ At least if the British Mills bomb had exploded, its fragments would not have penetrated the machine’s thick metal.

A shell might have been a different matter. ‘If you see the head still on a shell, run in the opposite direction,’ says Billy, an ex-Army man. He tells how two construction workers were killed and two more injured in Ypres when a First World War shell exploded in March. Rumour has it they had been hammering at it to salvage the brass. Mercifully for the other workers – and for the neighbours – it was not mustard gas.

Billy tells of one tourist who found a battlefield shell, put it in his suitcase and went to carry it onto the Eurostar, where it was caught in the X-ray. It was still primed. ‘A lot of civilian people think, “It’s a shell, it’s old, it won’t explode,’ he says. ‘But even a hundred years later, they will go off.’

No gardeners have been injured by explosives. Infrequently, there have been falls from the backs of van and fingers caught in mole traps, but the Commission seems responsive.

One recurrent challenge for gardeners used to be that the Commission would transfer them to another site, perhaps in another country, with just six weeks’ notice. It was like being in the military, except the Commission provided no housing and little help with reorientation.

Derek Richardson, who arrived from Dublin with his wife, spent three years in Belgium, eleven in France, then nine in Germany, and has now been back in Belgium for three years. He says: ‘Sometimes you’re quite happy where you are. If it’s a change of country, it’s a big change – language, culture, education for your children, et cetera.’ Billy Jones puts in: ‘I think we had a higher divorce rate than the Army.’ Now only those who apply are relocated.

Under the current drive for efficiency, the big issue for the gardeners is stress. Innovations such as mulching – where the mowers leave the cut grass lying rather than taking it away – may not save the time promised by managers. Meanwhile staff numbers are being allowed to fall, with no one replacing gardeners who leave, and no extra hands in emergencies anymore. When I see a mower in action, I am astonished: he could qualify for Le Mans.

Visitors rarely see mowing in progress, and the cemeteries seem to be kept pristine by magic. The illusion is down to the sheer scale of the job. One mobile team of 12 (previously 14) may have to maintain more than 60 sites, and speed is essential. ‘It’s carefully calculated,’ says Doug Sainsbury. ‘We go there for a purpose, we complete it and then we move on to the next site.’

The original workforce included many demobbed soldiers who saw a purpose in honouring their fallen comrades, and most were British. Sons would follow them into the profession.

But now Britons are a dwindling minority. When they leave they are replaced by locals recruited straight from school, factory or dole. ‘Gardening in Belgium tends to be low-rated,’ says Mark.

Bedford Park Cemetery

A bigger issue is raised by Chris Kaufman, former Unite national secretary for agricultural workers. ‘The gardeners are not just horticulturalists – they are social workers, because people come to the cemeteries and they are suddenly hit by the enormity of it all. They come to find their old relations and they suddenly find they were 17 years old when they were killed.’

It’s a down-to-earth variation on a theme voiced by Rudyard Kipling – the man who advised the Commission on its headstone inscriptions – in a story called ‘The Gardener’, in which the man seen tending the graves at the end is clearly meant to be understood as Christ. The gardeners have always stood for far more than the practical sum of their work.

As Chris Kaufman points out, even while the numbers of British gardeners fall, visits from Britain to the cemeteries are increasing, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? and the war centenary.

Will the work and workforce be reduced and the cemeteries run down after 2018? That is an anxiety. But the gardeners are confident the Commission’s work will go on, even though the most recent figures put the annual cost above £55million – more than three quarters of it from the British Treasury.

As Mark Heaysman says, ‘Which government is going to turn round and say, “We’re not going to look after the war dead anymore”?’


All photographs © John Garth. Lines from a letter from Estelle King are reproduced with permission of Julia Margretts. This is an edited version of an article written for Unite the Union, and is also reproduced by permission.

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Tolkien at Exeter College: Birth of a legend

In which I blow my own trumpet…

When you picture J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s probably as a member of Oxford’s Inklings, writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the 1930s and ’40s, or in old age when fame caught up with him in the 1960s. Yet he first wrote about Middle-earth in 1914–15 while studying at Exeter College, Oxford University. My 2003 book Tolkien and the Great War started a shift in interest towards the author’s early development. In Tolkien at Exeter College, published by the college in 2014, I return to focus tightly on his undergraduate years.

So how did Tolkien first strike his lifelong creative seam? It’s an unlikely and fascinating tale, involving Beowulf, Hiawatha, the outbreak of war, and – most crucial of all – the college library’s Finnish Grammar. We meet a fresh Tolkien – a classicist who nearly failed Mods; a socialite and slacker who climbed college walls, ‘hijacked’ a bus, and was arrested during a town-versus-gown confrontation. We see his fortunes transformed by an extraordinary sensitivity to language and by a yearning to imagine the dim unrecorded past.

With the help of a series of diverting sidebars, we also see him in context of an Oxford that is both familiar and unfamiliar. There are the student meetings which he recorded in inimitable style as secretary (including one prototypical epic of battle between order and chaos); and the parties and performances he attended. There is a shocking tragedy just a couple of flights of stairs from his room; and the official machinations which allowed him to switch from Classics to English. We meet the friends he gathered in a kind of proto-Inklings, and we follow them into the Great War.

At the same time we trace the invention of ‘Elvish’ and of the first Middle-earth hero, Eärendil the star mariner. And we hear of Tolkien’s return to the college as a Somme veteran to read aloud his first mythological epic of battle.

With Peter Jackson, Exeter College, July 2015

I first spoke about Tolkien’s Exeter life at a Tolkien conference hosted by the college in 2006. In writing Tolkien at Exeter College, I enjoyed the amazing support of former Rector Frances Cairncross, who invited me to showcase my work at Founder’s Day and in the 2014 City Lecture. It was a delight to to broach Tolkien’s own college memorabilia at the Bodleian Library, and to revisit the college archives with the assistance of archivist Penny Baker and librarian Joanne Bowring. When Sir Peter Jackson came to Oxford to give a lecture in 2015, it was my privilege to show those archives to him and his partner Fran.

By the kindness of the college, the Tolkien Trust, and some hardcore Tolkien collectors, I’ve been able to include in Tolkien at Exeter College a wealth of rare archival images – some previously unseen, including a 1911 matriculation line-up, a photo of Tolkien haring up the rugby pitch, and his own sketches of Exeter College Hall and Broad Street. Matt Baldwin in the Development Office has laid it all out beautifully.

Tolkien at Exeter College, by John GarthTolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth (64pp, black-and-white) was a finalist in the prestigious 2015 Mythopoeic Awards for Scholarship (won by Tolkien and the Great War in 2004). Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, has described it as ‘a must-read for all Tolkien aficianados’. According to Mythlore, it is ‘a very good thing indeed … belongs on the bookshelf of every Tolkien scholar’. Holly Ordway, in an article on her books of the year, called it ‘an excellent complement’ to Tolkien and the Great War which ‘deepens our understanding of the origins of Tolkien’s lifelong work on The Silmarillion’.

Do you have your copy? Buy it from my website.

This is an updated version of a 2015 article I wrote for Exeter College’s Exon magazine, left.

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When Tolkien reinvented Atlantis and Lewis went to Mars

Discovering the dates of The Fall of Númenor and Out of the Silent Planet

A few months ago I revealed what I think is an exciting new find about the origins of J R R Tolkien’s Atlantis story, The Fall of Númenor, the ultimate predecessor of the accounts of Númenor given in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. I announced my discovery in an article for the Sunday Telegraph which also touched on the role played by Tolkien’s friend C S Lewis. The article can be read at the Telegraph website (sign-up is free for one ‘premium’ article per week), and I won’t now repeat everything it says. But I will recap here the main points I made there about when exactly the Númenor idea struck Tolkien. And I can add some refinements.

That’s because I have now made a further advance, which I hope will prove especially valuable to Lewis scholars. What follows may seem a thicket of facts, and less welcoming than my other blog posts, but its sole purpose is to give and weigh evidence.

The Fall of Númenor has generally been seen as a product of the writers’ ‘wager’ that produced The Lost Road and Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, in which humans travel for the first time to Mars. All these writings, including Lewis’s, have been dated to 1936–7. Christopher Tolkien favours 1936 (The Lost Road and Other Writings, 9); Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond suggest ‘?1936–1937’ (J R R Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, 180). Humphrey Carpenter over-estimates the gap between The Fall of Númenor and The Lost Road, saying that the first was written ‘perhaps in the late nineteen-twenties or early thirties’ (J R R Tolkien: A Biography, 170). But he is on the mark insofar as The Fall of Númenor carries no indication that Tolkien initially wrote it in connection with any time-travel story.

Letters of JRR TolkienA clear statement by Tolkien, which seems to have been universally overlooked, identifies the immediate spur for Númenor as a blurb he wrote for The Hobbit in which he ‘spoke of the time between the Elder Days and the Dominion of Men’. ‘Out of that came the “missing link”: the “Downfall of Númenor”, releasing some hidden “complex”,’ he told a reader (Letters, no. 180, 14 January 1956, to ‘Mr Thompson’).

The recollection came twenty years after the fact. Yet it is solid, to judge by another in the same letter where Tolkien describes writing the chapter ‘Treebeard’ for The Lord of the Rings ‘without any recollection of previous thought: just as it is now.’ Christopher Tolkien confirms, ‘This testimony is fully borne out by the original text. “Treebeard” did indeed very largely “write itself”’ (The Treason of Isengard, 411).

Though I had read that 1956 letter to ‘Mr Thompson’ a number of times, the significance for the date of The Fall of Númenor had previously eluded me – as it seems to have eluded everyone else. However, it turns out that all the information necessary for its elucidation has already been published long ago.

This reveals that a publicity paragraph about The Hobbit was requested by the publishers, George Allen & Unwin, on 4 December 1936. Tolkien, who probably received the request the next day, sent a paragraph on 8 December, complete with the phrase ‘the ancient time between the ages of Faerie and the dominion of men’ (Chronology, 188; Wayne G Hammond, Bibliography, 8). That is obviously the phrase he slightly misremembered in his letter of 1956, by which time he had long ceased to use terms like ‘Faërie’ in connection with his legendarium. In September 1937, the paragraph was used as the dustjacket blurb for the first edition of The Hobbit.

Tolkien’s recollection that writing the Hobbit blurb was the spur for Númenor, therefore, shows that the Númenor idea arose between 5 and 8 December 1936, or in the days immediately following. The Oxford University Christmas vacation had just begun, and may well have afforded time to push it forward. There was a rapidly jotted story outline. A full version of The Fall of Númenor, also written at speed, followed probably immediately.

At some point in the following days, weeks, or months Tolkien used the Númenor story as the basis for the unfinished time-travel novel The Lost Road.

Lewis – Collected Letters 2 – USIn my article for the Telegraph, I argued that the ‘wager’ with Lewis may have been struck at the same time as Tolkien had the initial Númenor inspiration – that is, in the days immediately following Allen & Unwin’s request for a Hobbit publicity paragraph. I’m still inclined to think that may have been the case. But further methodical work with Lewis’s letters has now uncovered another important and hitherto unnoticed detail about the wager and its results. (The Collected Letters of C S Lewis, as I say in my 2006 Observer review of the third and final volume, is a marvellous resource and a tremendous read.)

Editing The Fall of Númenor and The Lost Road, Christopher Tolkien infers from physical and textual similarities that both of them ‘arose at the same time and from the same impulse’ (The Lost Road and Other Writings, 9). It is now clear, though, as Tolkien’s 1956 letter shows, that two separate impulses were at play. The Númenor idea itself first arose from the Hobbit ‘blurb’ of early December 1936. But Tolkien’s novel of time-travel to Númenor, The Lost Road, arose from Lewis’s proposition that they should each write ‘an excursionary “Thriller” … discovering Myth’ (Letters, no. 24, to Stanley Unwin, 18 February 1938). This was the basis of their so-called wager. And the wager may or may not have coincided with the impulse for the initial Númenor legend at the time Tolkien wrote the Hobbit blurb.

Williams – The Place Of The LionThe roots of Lewis’s idea certainly go further back. He had seen the potential for conveying serious spiritual ideas in adventure thrillers and science-fiction after reading David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (Lewis to Charles A Brady, 29 October 1944; to Ruth Pitter, 4 January 1947; and to William L. Kinter, 28 March 1953). Lewis had not yet read that book on 7 December 1935 when he mentioned it in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves. Another revelation of the potential value of genre fiction, particularly in conveying spiritual or theological ideas, was the work of Charles Williams (later welcomed into Lewis and Tolkien’s circle of Oxford friends, the Inklings). Lewis told Arthur Greeves on 26 February 1936 that he had ‘just read’ Williams’ The Place of the Lion. By the time of a 24 June letter to Leo Baker, Lewis had also read Williams’ Many Dimensions.

What seems to have gone unremarked in previous discussions of the chronology of the wager is that Lewis identified two later – and therefore more immediate – catalysts for his space-travel novel Out of the Silent Planet. The first was reading Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (no earlier than May 1937). The second was a conversation with a pupil (probably in June 1937).

Stapledon – Last and First Men – Pelican smallCrucially, the Pelican edition of Last and First Men which Lewis read was not published until May 1937. (See James Pardey, The Art of Penguin Science Fiction. In a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green on 28 December 1938, Lewis refers to this as the ‘Penguin Libr.’ edition, because Pelican was an imprint of Penguin, the hugely successful publishing house launched in 1935.)

Equally crucially, we may put a close date to Lewis’s comment that ‘What set me about writing the book was the discovery that a pupil of mine took all that dream of interplanetary colonisation quite seriously, and … that a “scientific” hope of defeating death is a real rival to Christianity’ (to Sister Penelope, 9 August 1939). The discovery is surely described contemporaneously to Dom Bede Griffiths on 27 June 1937: ‘I was talking the other day to an intelligent infidel who said that he pinned all his hopes for any significance in the universe on the chance that the human race by adapting itself to changed conditions and first planet jumping, then star jumping, finally nebula jumping, could really last forever and subject matter wholly to mind.’ (It would be great to know who this ‘intelligent infidel’ was!)

The upshot of all this is that Out of the Silent Planet cannot have been begun until May, or more likely late June, when Oxford’s summer ‘long vacation’ had begun. And the wager, assigning time-travel to Tolkien and space-travel to Lewis, may have been struck at any point between the reading of The Place of the Lion and the commencement of Out of the Silent Planet in summer 1937. The accumulation of catalysts seems to favour the latter part of the sixteen-month span. It still seems possible that the writers’ bargain was made in December 1936 when Númenor was first invented. Tolkien recalled that The Fall of Númenor ‘attracted Lewis greatly, as heard read’ (Letters, no. 294, to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, 8 February 1967). But a further half year passed before Lewis began writing, and that gives scope for The Fall of Númenor to have percolated alongside Lewis’s thoughts on the serious potential of genre fiction. Indeed, unless the two writers literally ‘tossed up’ over the division of space- and time-travel, their wager may even have been prompted by Lewis’s own space-travel story idea in summer 1937.

LotR Baynes frontThe rest is well known. In November 1937 the Lost Road chapters so far written were presented by Tolkien to Allen & Unwin in the wild hope that it might serve as a follow-up to the very successful but utterly different Hobbit. It was the publisher’s rejection of The Lost Road (not to mention The Silmarillion and The Lay of Leithian, a long narrative poem about the lovers Beren and Lúthien) that prompted Tolkien to embark with the greatest reluctance on ‘a new story about Hobbits’ by 19 December 1937 (Letters, no. 20, to C A Furth). This, of course, became The Lord of the Rings.

Doomed by Tolkien’s decision to deliver more about hobbits, The Lost Road never got any further than four chapters. But it had been a vital phase in the development of the Númenor story that underpins the history and destiny of Aragorn, of Gondor, and of Gondor’s age-long war with Sauron.

Conceived and begun, as we now see, in summer 1937, Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet was finished with astonishing speed by 2 September (Lewis to Owen Barfield). Published in 1938, it became the first instalment of a ‘cosmic trilogy’ also comprising Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945), and established Lewis as a fiction writer of substance.


(Note: A day after publication, this article was slightly edited for clarity, and enlarged to include Tolkien’s quote on Lewis’s pleasure in The Fall of Númenor.)

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Tanks at Gondolin

Here’s an excerpt from my book Tolkien and the Great War to mark the centenary of Tolkien’s discharge on 9 December 1916 from military hospital, where he had begun writing his first ‘lost tale’ of Middle-earth, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’. He had contracted chronic trench fever in October after nearly four months on the Somme battlefield, where the British secret weapon, the tank, had been unleashed. For an overview of the embryonic mythology as it stood just prior to this point – very different in many details and names from the later Silmarillion – see here.


The Fall of Gondolin as depicted by Roger Garland

Tolkien had listed several monstrous creatures in the ‘Poetic and Mythologic Words of Eldarissa’ and its ethnological chart: tauler, tyulqin and sarqin, names which in Qenya indicate tree-like stature or an appetite for flesh. All these new races of monsters proved transitory, bar two: the Balrogs and the Orcs. Orcs were bred in ‘the subterranean heats and slime’ by Melko. ‘Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal….’ The name had been taken from the Old English orc, ‘demon’, but only because it was phonetically suitable. The role of demon properly belongs to Balrogs, whose Goldogrin name means ‘cruel demon’ or ‘demon of anguish’. These are Melko’s flame-wielding shock troops and battlefield captains, the cohorts of Evil.

Orcs and Balrogs, however, are not enough to achieve the destruction of Gondolin. ‘From the greatness of his wealth of metals and his powers of fire’ Melko constructs a host of ‘beasts like snakes and dragons of irresistible might that should overcreep the Encircling Hills and lap that plain and its fair city in flame and death’. The work of ‘smiths and sorcerers’, these forms (in three varieties) violate the boundary between mythical monster and machine, between magic and technology. The bronze dragons in the assault move ponderously and open breaches in the city walls. Fiery versions are thwarted by the smooth, steep incline of Gondolin’s hill. But a third variety, the iron dragons, carry Orcs within and move on ‘iron so cunningly linked that they might flow … around and above all obstacles before them’; they break down the city gates ‘by reason of the exceeding heaviness of their bodies’ and, under bombardment, ‘their hollow bellies clanged … yet it availed not for they might not be broken, and the fires rolled off them’.

british_mark_i_male_tank_somme_25_september_1916The more they differ from the dragons of mythology, however, the more these monsters resemble the tanks of the Somme. One wartime diarist noted with amusement how the newspapers compared these new armoured vehicles with ‘icthyosaurus, jabberwocks, mastodons, Leviathans, boojums, snarks, and other antediluvian and mythical monsters.’ Max Ernst, who was in the German field artillery in 1916, enshrined such comparisons on canvas in his iconic surrealist painting Celebes (1921), an armour-plated, elephantine menace with blank, bestial eyes. The Times trumpeted a German report of this British invention: ‘The monster approached slowly, hobbling, moving from side to side, rocking and pitching, but it came nearer. Nothing obstructed it: a supernatural force seemed to drive it onwards. Someone in the trenches cried, “The devil comes,” and that word ran down the line like lightning. Suddenly tongues of fire licked out of the armoured shine of the iron caterpillar … the English waves of infantry surged up behind the devil’s chariot.’ The war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote later that the advance of tanks on the Somme was ‘like fairy-tales of war by HG Wells’.

Indeed, there is a whiff of science fiction about the army attacking Gondolin, a host which has ‘only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End’. In 1916, Tolkien was anticipating the dictum of Arthur C Clarke, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ From a modern perspective this enemy host appears technological, if futuristic; the ‘hearts and spirits of blazing fire’ of its brazen dragons remind us the internal combustion engine. But to the Noldoli the host seems the product of sorcery. ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, in Tolkien’s grand unfolding design, is a story told by an Elf; and the combustion engine, seen through enchanted eyes, could appear as nothing other than a metal heart filled with flame.

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Unseen Tolkien: sex, infertility, adultery and the birth of Galadriel

aotrou-and-itroun-coverThe encounter between mortal man and immortal enchantress is always fateful in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, Boromir fears the Elf-queen Galadriel and ignores her wisdom, then dies for his sins.

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, first written in 1930 and previously only published in 1945 in The Welsh Review, is entirely detached from Middle-earth.

But in this 506-line poem, running to the most unhobbity topics of sex, infertility and adultery, Tolkien furnishes just the kind of story that would have fuelled Boromir’s fear.

A man and woman find themselves still childless as the years grow long. In desperation, he obtains a love-potion from a corrigan, a kind of witch or water-fairy…

Continue reading at the Telegraph… (free registration required)


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Beren and Lúthien, a centenary publication

Note, 2 June 2017: Since writing this, Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien has been published, so the speculations below regarding its content are out of date. My New Statesman review of the book as published can be read here. 


In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw as the ‘kernel’ of his mythology. A century on, in 2017 the love story of Beren and Lúthien will finally appear as a book in its own right.

beren-and-luthien-coverPotentially a landmark among Tolkien’s many posthumous publications, it will appear in May from HarperCollins in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US with a cover and illustrations by Alan Lee. I am astonished and delighted, not least because its editor, Christopher Tolkien, is now approaching his 92nd birthday.

J R R Tolkien’s experiences and development as a writer in 1914–18 are traced in detail in my book Tolkien and the Great War. I’ll only mention here that he had married Edith in March 1916, fought from July for four months in the terrible Battle of the Somme – losing two of his dearest friends – and been invalided home in October. The walk in the wood near Roos, East Yorkshire, came after a winter of sorrow, lingering nightmare, and creative catharsis.

The central scene of the story he then wrote, in which the battle-worn warrior Beren sees the elf-princess Lúthien Tinúviel dance in a wood, has been known to readers ever since 1954 and the publication of the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. In the Appendices, Tolkien promised that ‘the full tale’ would be told in The Silmarillion – the legends and history that give Middle-earth its unique sense of depth and credibility.

Readers had to wait until 1977 to hear more about Beren and Lúthien – at about 12,000 words, a substantial chapter of the whole Silmarillion. By then Tolkien had been in the grave for four years alongside Edith. There can be no more eloquent testimony to the personal importance of the story than the fact that on their headstone, along with their own names, those of Beren and Lúthien are carved.

Only the work of their son Christopher saved The Silmarillion from oblivion. As an editorial contruct from multiple overlapping texts written between the 1930s and 1960s, it is a marvel of consistency. Even more marvellous – considering its gestation – is that it stands as an extraordinary work of literature. The full complexity and labour behind it will only be apparent to readers of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth, which appeared in twelve volumes during the 1980s and 1990s.

Given all this, what might actually appear in a standalone Beren and Lúthien?

The primacy of this story, together with the Alan Lee jacket, makes this reminiscent of The Children of Húrin, published in 2007. That book enabled us to read the tragic story of Túrin and his sister Nienor as fully as possible, straight through without interruptions, as a work of literature. The Children of Húrin accords in detail with The Silmarillion, but contains much else. It also matches The Silmarillion in construction, as the best text that could be pieced together from multiple overlapping and ever-varying portions. But it reflects Tolkien’s urge to write Túrin’s story in a form much fuller and richer than The Silmarillion would accommodate.

To judge by information available now, however, a rather different method of presentation has been chosen for Beren and Lúthien. Here is the HarperCollins press release (as quoted on the blog of Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond):

[Christopher Tolkien] has attemped to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterwards lost.

[Edit: The full official description has now been drawn to my attention, though it does not fully resolve the questions I discuss here.]

So Beren and Lúthien will, like The Children of Húrin, include a narrative with beginning, middle and end. However, this will not be a ‘best text possible’, edited from multiple texts. Rather, what is called ‘its original form’ will be used as the basis for an account of the evolution of the story, illustrated by extracts from later versions.

On the face of things, ‘its original form’ must refer to the 1917 version – or rather the second version in ink written over it soon afterwards. Publication of Beren and Lúthien marks the centenary of the original writing, so that would be an apt choice. It would also permit the evolution of the story to be presented in order from its very beginnings.

Still, there might be reasons to use one of the later versions for the main text. Whatever their vigour and freshness, the ink ‘Tale of Tinúviel’ has already been published in full in The History of Middle-earth as part of The Book of Lost Tales – a collection of stories very different from the later Silmarillion in mode, manner, rationale and nomenclature. Lúthien is not yet called by that name, and the mortal–immortal pairing of lovers is not yet fully realised. As for the demonic opponent who holds Beren captive, in this earliest text – a tribute to medieval beast fable – he is not Sauron lord of werewolves, but instead Tevildo, prince of cats.

Though the Beren and Lúthien publicity also mentions the verse versions (1925–31 and c. 1951), I imagine these will only be presented in small samples, because they appear in full in The Lays of Beleriand (volume 3 of The History of Middle-earth).

Both the 1926 ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ version and the somewhat fuller 1931 ‘Qenta Noldorinwa’ versions of the Beren and Lúthien sequence might be reproduced in full, but I don’t think either would stand as the main Beren and Lúthien text: they are transitional, synoptic and quite brief (and both appeared in The Shaping of Middle-earth, volume 4 of The History of Middle-earth).

In volume 5 of the History, titled The Lost Road and Other Writings, we reach the latest form Tolkien gave the Beren and Lúthien story – a retelling for the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ of 1937. This was the version used by Christopher as the basis for the chapter ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ in the published Silmarillion. Rather than reproduce all that text again, The Lost Road refers us to The Silmarillion and simply provides a list of significant differences from the editorial form it takes there. So we don’t actually have Tolkien’s unedited version – and it would be most welcome if it were to appear in Beren and Lúthien. However, there is clearly no way to interpret ‘its original form’ to mean the final form Tolkien gave the prose story.

There is another possibility, though it seems a slight one. In his efforts to produce a version of the story for ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ in 1937, Tolkien started a prose version (Christopher labels this rough draft ‘A’) of the long verse Lay of Leithian. He soon gave up, realising he was including so much detail that it would be wholly out of proportion as part of the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’. There followed a series of texts by which Tolkien eventually achieved the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ form. But Tolkien did still envisage writing the story more fully as a standalone tale, separate from The Silmarillion – as he did with The Children of Húrin. The first full-length version of the Beren and Lúthien story in the 1937 phase (labelled by Christopher ‘B’), though a rough draft, is indeed told in more detail than in the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’. It is, in Christopher’s words, ‘the basis for’ the final forms.

At a stretch, ‘its original form’ might refer to this, the first recounting of the story of Beren and Lúthien as a full prose narrative. If that is planned for Beren and Lúthien, there will still be scope to illustrate later developments with extracts from other versions. Publication of this fullest 1930s prose version of Beren and Lúthien’s story would give us a wholly unseen narrative – and one which accords fairly closely with how Tolkien left it when he began The Lord of the Rings.

There, the key scene in their tale is sung by Aragorn to the hobbits on the hill of Weathertop – a song of joy amid darkness, and one filled with historical consequence for the singer and the world at large. All too fleetingly, it helps ward off the oppressive fear of the Ringwraiths who hunt Frodo’s ring (they attack later that night). Later we learn that Beren and Lúthien are ancestors both of the mortal Aragorn and of Arwen, the elf-woman to whom he is secretly betrothed.

In an even larger scheme, the story links the entire Silmarillion – the legends and histories of the remote past in Middle-earth – with the events of The Lord of the Rings. It tells how one of the holy jewels, the Silmarils, is liberated from the hands of the satanic enemy Morgoth. That jewel passes to the mariner Eärendil and effects his transformation into the Evening Star, Venus – a story conceived even earlier than ‘The Tale of Tinúviel’, in 1914, when it appears in a poem that stands as the very first expression of the creative impulse that built Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings, the light of Eärendil’s jewel fills the star-glass that helps Frodo and Sam pierce the shadows of Mordor.

Whatever appears in May, Beren and Lúthien stand ever in the background to The Lord of the Rings, and as the keystone to the entire edifice of Tolkien’s legendarium.

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