Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound is hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring several guest posts.
Goodreads: The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun
Published: November 2016
Unavailable for more than 70 years, this early but important work is published for the first time with Tolkien’s ‘Corrigan’ poems and other supporting material, including a prefatory note by Christopher Tolkien.
Set ‘In Britain’s land beyond the seas’ during the Age of Chivalry, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun tells of a childless Breton Lord and Lady (the ‘Aotrou’ and ‘Itroun’ of the title) and the tragedy that befalls them when Aotrou seeks to remedy their situation with the aid of a magic potion obtained from a corrigan, or malevolent fairy. When the potion succeeds and Itroun bears twins, the corrigan returns seeking her fee, and Aotrou is forced to choose between betraying his marriage and losing his life.
Coming from the darker side of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, together with the two shorter ‘Corrigan’ poems that lead up to it and which are also included, was the outcome of a comparatively short but intense period in Tolkien’s life when he was deeply engaged with Celtic, and particularly Breton, myth and legend.
Originally written in 1930 and long out of print, this early but seminal work is an important addition to the non-Middle-earth portion of his canon and should be set alongside Tolkien’s other retellings of myth and legend, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur and The Story of Kullervo. Like these works, it belongs to a small but important corpus of his ventures into ‘real-world’ mythologies, each of which in its own way would be a formative influence on his own legendarium.
In Britain’s lands beyond the seas
the wind blows ever through the trees;
in Britain’s land beyond the waves
are stony shores and stony caves
This year’s official Tolkien Reading Day theme is “Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction,” so perhaps this isn’t the greatest time for me to admit that I am not always a fan of Tolkien’s poetry. It’s hit or miss for me, and much of it tends to the sing-songy. However, I think Tolkien excels when working with older verse forms, such as Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, so I really enjoyed The Lay of Aotrou, his take on a Breton lai. You can see from the excerpt above that it’s in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, and I was drawn in by the writing and the story from these, the very first lines.
Flieger has been going on about the “darker side of Tolkien’s imagination” since she also worked on The Story of Kullervo, but while the story is definitely sad, I don’t know that it’s particularly darker than much of Tolkien’s other work. The Silmarillion has some dark moments. Mostly, I was struck by how much it sounds like an authentic medieval lai. It definitely has Tolkien’s style about it, but the writing, plot, and general message all hit the right tone for me. It does seem to have a bit of a superficial message–don’t mess with dark magic–and ends with a very medieval invocation to the Virgin Mary. Yet the story is captivating, and I think there’s room in the poem for more interesting analysis and interpretations. (I actually would have loved to see Flieger take on some more analysis, but I suppose some will be forthcoming in Tolkien studies.)
The book also includes two other Corrigan poems that are supposed to be precursors to the Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, and while they are presented as complete, they definitely seem less sophisticated. Here’s an excerpt from the first one, which has some of the sing-songy air that I don’t like about some of Tolkien’s poetry:
“Mary on earth, why does thou weep?”
“My little child I could not keep:
A corrigan stole him in his sleep,
And I must weep.”
Basically, I felt these two poems were interesting in terms of illuminating Tolkien’s composition process and his reworking of material. They also present some more traditional views of corrigans. However, the Lay of Aoutrou and Itroun is the real start of this book.
There are some notes on the texts after each poem (but, once again, nothing to alert you in the text that there’s a note for the line to look for), that outline a few historical and linguistic concerns. I’m fairly familiar with medieval literature, so I didn’t need a lot of the notes, but my impression is that they would give a good amount to context for a reader who isn’t that familiar with the Middle Ages, without being overwhelming.
Beyond the core poem and the two Corrigan poems that are its precursors, Flieger attempts to bulk up this book with some manuscript drafts and some comparisons of versions between Tolkien’s work and his sources, but ultimately there’s not much material to work with. The book is about 100 pages and took me less than an hour to read in full. Flieger apparently doesn’t have much to say even in the introduction, which is only four and a half pages and spends about a full page of that quoting Christoper Tolkien’s Note on the Text–which the reader would presumably just have finished reading. The core poem is great, and I’m pleased to see it back in print, but some of the latest Tolkien releases have been obviously struggling for content, and it’s painfully true here. If you’re really into Tolkien, this is a nice addition to your collection, but I can also understand just borrowing this from a library or a friend to read the poem and passing on purchasing.