A Review of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by J.R.R Tolkien

by Dr Frank Malone

This recently released book of three poems includes notes and commentary by Verlyn Flieger and Christopher Tolkien. Edited by Dr Flieger (Department of English / University of Maryland), this small volume will not only appeal to Tolkien enthusiasts, but also to students of Celtic myths and legends. From Tolkien’s middle period, these poems are the culmination of what appears to be a year (1929-1930) of immersing himself in Breton languages and folklore.

In Britain’s land beyond the seas

the wind blows ever through the trees;

in Britain’s land beyond the waves

are strong shores and strong caves.

J.R.R Tolkien, “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” lines 1-4

“The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” the longest poem from which the book is titled, was finished by Tolkien in 1930 and was published in 1945 in The Welsh Review.  It is a re-working of other earlier authors’ published material into octosyllabic couplet (lai) form. Unused and revised sections are reviewed by the editor giving a glimpse into Tolkien’s creative process.  Here a childless husband seeks fertility help from a “witch” (later called “Corrigan”) who is found sitting beside “the fountain of the fay, before a cave.”  Tragedy then ensues.

‘Mary on earth, why dost thou weep?’

‘My little child I could not keep:

A corrigan stole him in his sleep,

And I must weep.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Corrigan,” lines 1-4

The two other poems, “The Corrigan,” and “The Corrigan II,” are also retellings by Tolkien.  They involve motifs and themes found in other Celtic traditions. For example, “The Corrigan,” entails a human baby that is replaced by a fairy changeling, and “The Corrigan II,” concerns an attempted seduction of a human man by a fairy woman.  Other elements are specifically Bretonic.  For instance, “The Corrigan” is a Breton word that means “fairy,” with a unique history of connotations differing from other Celtic lands.

Fans of The Lord of the Rings will enjoy discovering how the Corrigan “foreshadows the greatest and best-known of Tolkien’s magical, mysterious, ladies of the forest…Galadriel.” (xvi).

There has been some scholarship of late examining how, and to what degree, Tolkien might be considered a Pagan author (E.g., Dr Ronald Hutton’s paper, “The Pagan Tolkien” in the Tolkien 2005 Proceedings, published in 2008 by The Tolkien Society.”  The folkloric clashes between Christianity and Paganism are firmly maintained in these retellings. However, it is possible nevertheless to bring a psychoanalytic lens to Tolkien’s displayed attitude in these poems and view it as defensive.  This would betray a fascination with the pagan material that he could not relinquish in his mind.  The discipline of applied psychoanalysis (which interprets culture) may thus perhaps further this vein of scholarly inquiry.

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