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.
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.