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The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

J. R. R. Tolkien

  ‘Aotrou & Itroun’ first folio of the manuscript.


  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd

  1 London Bridge Street

  London SE1 9GF

  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2016

  All texts and materials by J.R.R. Tolkien © The Tolkien Trust 1945, 2016

  Note on the Text © Christopher Tolkien 2016

  Introduction, Notes and Commentary © Verlyn Flieger 2016

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  Source ISBN: 9780008202132

  Ebook Edition © November 2016 ISBN: 9780008202149

  Version: 2016-10-20


  ‘The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp.’

  J.R.R. Tolkien ‘On Fairy-stories’










  The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

  Notes and Commentary



  ‘The Corrigan’ I

  Notes and Commentary

  ‘The Corrigan’ II

  Notes and Commentary


  The Fragment

  The Manuscript Drafts

  Aotrou & Itroun fair copy manuscript

  Notes and Commentary

  The Typescript



  Comparative Verses

  Opening verses: Breton, French, English; Tolkien

  Closing verses: Breton, French, English; Tolkien







  ‘Aotrou & Itroun’ first folio of the manuscript frontispiece

  1.‘The Corrigan’ I, first folio of the manuscript.

  2.‘The Corrigan’ II, first folio of the manuscript.

  3.The fragment.

  4.‘Aotrou & Itroun’, first folio of the manuscript.

  5.‘Aotrou & Itroun’, first page of the typescript.


  The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun was once previously printed, in The Welsh Review, Vol. IV, no. 4, December 1945. There are three texts of the poem extant (but no original workings). The first is a good but incomplete manuscript that was apparently overtaken by the second text (very little changed from the first), a fine fair copy on which my father wrote at the end a date: Sept. 23 1930. This is notable, for dates on the fair copy manuscript of The Lay of Leithian run consecutively for a week from September 25, 1930 (against line 3220), while the previous date on the manuscript is November 1929 (against line 3031, apparently referring forwards). Clearly then Aotrou and Itroun interrupted the composition of Canto X of The Lay of Leithian.

  The third text is a typescript of the manuscript, incorporating a relatively small number of corrections that had been made to it; this typescript is closely similar to that of The Lay of Leithian, and certainly belongs to this time. Both use the same mode of typing direct speech in italic. Subsequently the typescript was heavily revised, with more than a quarter of the original lines undergoing minor change or complete rewriting: but none of these revisions alter the narrative. My father visited Aberystwyth as an examiner in June 1945 and left with his friend Professor Gwyn Jones several unpublished works, Aotrou and Itroun, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, and Sellic Spell. This led to the publication of Aotrou and Itroun in The Welsh Review, of which Gwyn Jones was the editor, at the end of that year, at the editor’s request.

  There are a few discrepancies between the text printed in The Welsh Review and the typescript which I feel sure was its basis. Nearly all of these are insignificant points of punctuation and spacing. The title in the typescript is Aotrou and Itroun (‘Lord and Lady’). A ‘Breton Lay.’

  It is to be noted that it is incorrect to say that Aotrou and Itroun ‘is in alliterative verse, and also incorporates a rhyme-scheme’ (Humphrey Carpenter, Biography, p. 168). The poem is in octosyllabic couplets, in style closely related to The Lay of Leithian, and alliteration is decorative, not in any way structural, though here and there it becomes very marked:

  In the homeless hills was her hollow dale,

  black was its bowl, its brink was pale;

  there silent on a seat of stone …1

  But the Lay of Aotrou and Itroun has a longer history, being in fact a development from the second part of a composite poem called The Corrigan (a Breton word meaning ‘fairy’), which is also given here. There is no evidence for the date of The Corrigan, though it seems unlikely that any long interval separated it from Aotrou and Itroun.

  A pencilled note to the first part of this poem says that it was ‘suggested by “Ar Bugel Laec’hiet”, a lay of Cornuaille’ (in Brittany). The metre of the second part, though distinct from that adopted for Aotrou and Itroun, is not so distinct that lines from it could not be taken up into the second work (and in fact there are more such in the earlier versions of Aotrou and Itroun, rejected in the final revision); but the tale is told in a different manner, and contains no suggestion of the essential element in Aotrou and Itroun that the lord was childless, that he went to a witch to obtain her aid, and that she was the fairy of the fountain.



  Coming from the darker side of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, as well as the two shorter poems that precede and lead up to it, are important additions to the non-Middle-earth portions of his canon and should be set alongside his other retellings of existing myth and legend, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur and The Story of Kullervo. While Tolkien’s title makes no reference to the ‘beautiful fay’ that is the epigraph for this volume – focusing instead on the Lord (‘Aotrou’) and Lady (‘Itroun’) who are her victims – the character plays a part in several of Tolkien’s poems in his middle years. In addition to the Lay, she appears in ‘Ides Ælfsc´yne’ (Elf-bright Lady), one of his contributions to the Songs For The Philologists, a collection privately printed in 1936. Here an elf-maiden beguiles a mortal man into fairyland; when he returns fifty years later, all his friends are dead. Although Tolkien’s poem is in Old English, the character is a commonly recurring one in Celtic folklore, the seductive otherworld female who lures a mortal man.

  In the Lay she represents a particular subset of this type, a continental Celtic female fairy called a corrigan, malevolent, sometimes seductive, whose dangerous attraction emb
odies both the lure and terror, the ‘fear of the beautiful fay’ of my epigraph. The corrigan figures prominently in all the poems in the present volume, moving from behind the scenes in the first poem, ‘The Corrigan’ I, based on a Breton ballad, to take centre stage in ‘The Corrigan’ II, derived from a Breton lay. She becomes an increasingly ominous presence in the two longer versions that Tolkien developed out of ‘The Corrigan’ II. The sequence charts her increasingly powerful presence as, poem by poem, she takes an ever more active role in the lives of human beings. And finally she foreshadows the greatest and best-known of Tolkien’s magical, mysterious ladies of the forest, one also linked to a fountain and a phial: the beautiful and terrible Lady of the Golden Wood, Tolkien’s Elven Queen, Galadriel, of The Lord of the Rings.

  All the poems in this volume are the products of a comparatively short but intense period in Tolkien’s life when he was deeply engaged with Celtic languages and mythologies. All the poems derive to a greater or lesser degree from a single source: Theodore Claude Henri Hersart de la Villemarqué’s dual-language (Breton and French) folklore collection, Barzaz-Breiz: Chants Populaire de la Bretagne, first published in 1839 and reprinted in 1840, 1845, 1846, and 1857. Villemarqué’s work was a part of the nineteenth-century folklore movement in Europe and the British Isles, a last-minute effort to capture and preserve the indigenous folk and fairy tales and ballads that were even then rapidly disappearing. What the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen did for Germany, the Child collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads and Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry did for Britain, and Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala did for Finland, Villemarqué intended Barzaz-Breiz to do for Brittany (and, it might be added, Tolkien wanted his ‘Silmarillion’ legendarium to do, imaginatively, for England). This was to recover (or, in Tolkien’s case, supply) a folk tradition that would contribute to and validate a cultural identity. Particularly in the cases of the Grimms and Lönnrot the underlying effort was not just to preserve the stories but to discover their lore, and especially their language, the often archaic regional vocabulary or dialect containing the remains of a lost or submerged mythology and worldview, the roots of a native culture.

  So it was with Villemarqué. Although Brittany had been a part of France since 1532, it was the Breton identity celtique of the anciens bardes, as well as the Breton language, that he sought to preserve, and so he was careful to note the regional sources and indigenous dialects for his material, chiefly Léon, Cornouaille, and Tréguier. Immensely popular when it was first published, the Chants Populaire was immediately translated into German, Italian, and Polish. An English translation by Tom Taylor was published in 1865 as Ballads and Songs of Brittany. Villemarqué was later accused, as were Lönnrot and the Grimms, of tampering with the originals, of ‘improving’ on the sources. Although the accusations are to some extent true, the underlying myth and folklore elements are authentic, and such accusations have not markedly reduced the popularity of the works in question. Barzaz-Breiz has been continuously in print since it first appeared.

  Tolkien owned the 1846 two-volume edition, and his signature, John Reuel Tolkien, and the date of purchase, 1922, are written on the flyleaf of each volume. They are listed in a catalogue of his books now held in the English Faculty Library in Oxford, which shows over a hundred entries for Celtic books, histories, grammars, glosses, and dictionaries, as well as primary mythological texts. Many of these, like the Villemarqué, were purchased in the early 1920s. Tolkien was also in this period working on the stories of his own mythology, so it is not surprising that one activity should influence the other, the Celtic content of his studies affecting the form and subject matter of his creative work. Among other efforts, he was at work on The Lay of Leithian, a long poem in rhymed octosyllabic couplets that tells the great love story of Beren and Lúthien, a story whose textual history has been edited and published by Christopher Tolkien in The Lays of Beleriand.

  Christopher’s Note on the Text of Aotrou and Itroun (see here) cites the ‘fair copy’ on which, as he writes, ‘my father wrote at the end a date: Sept. 23, 1930. This is notable,’ Christopher continues, ‘for dates on the fair copy manuscript of The Lay of Leithian run consecutively for a week from September 25, 1930 (against line 3220), while the previous date on the manuscript is November 1929 (against line 3031, apparently referring forwards).2 Clearly then Aotrou and Itroun intersected the composition of Canto X of The Lay of Leithian.’

  No beginning date for Aotrou and Itroun has come to light, but the cluster of dates cited in Christopher’s Note – November 1929 against line 3031 of The Lay of Leithian, Sept. 23 marking the end of the fair copy of Aotrou and Itroun, and Sep. 25 against line 3220 for resumption of work on The Lay of Leithian – support his conclusion that in November of 1929 Tolkien interrupted his copying of Canto X of The Lay of Leithian for almost a year, and that the product of that interruption was Aotrou and Itroun, perhaps even the entire ‘Breton’ sequence beginning with ‘The Corrigan’ I.

  Because all the poems included here interconnect and overlap in their treatment of shared material, it has seemed best for clarity to separate them into shorter sections, each poem followed by notes and commentary. Part I contains the title-poem originally published in The Welsh Review. Part II introduces the two (presumably) preliminary poems leading up to it, which Christopher Tolkien has treated together as a composite, since they are conjoined by title. These are ‘The Corrigan’ I, a story of a changeling, and ‘The Corrigan’ II, subtitled ‘A Breton Lay – after “Aotrou Nann Hag ar Gorrigan” a lay of Leon’. ‘The Corrigan’ II follows closely the Breton source, but is missing the elements mentioned by Christopher, the couple’s childlessness, the Lord’s first visit to the witch, and that she is the fairy of the fountain. Part III includes a transcription of the fair manuscript which adds those elements, and facsimile pages from the emended typescript which was the base text for the finished poem published in The Welsh Review. Part IV compares Tolkien’s poems with verses from the original Breton text and its contemporary French and English translations.



  The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

  as published in The Welsh Review

  In Britain’s land beyond the seas

  the wind blows ever through the trees;

  in Britain’s land beyond the waves

  are stony shores and stony caves.

  There stands a ruined toft3 now green


  where lords and ladies once were seen,

  where towers were piled above the trees

  and watchmen scanned the sailing seas.

  Of old a lord in archéd hall

  with standing stones yet grey and tall


  there dwelt, till dark his doom befell,

  as still the Briton harpers tell.

  No child he had his house to cheer,

  to fill his courts with laughter clear;

  though wife he wooed and wed with ring,


  who love to board and bed did bring,

  his pride was empty, vain his hoard,

  without an heir to land and sword.

  Thus pondering oft at night awake

  his darkened mind would visions make


  of lonely age and death; his tomb

  unkept, while strangers in his room

  with other names and other shields

  were masters of his halls and fields.

  Thus counsel cold he took at last;


  his hope from light to darkness passed.

  A witch there was, who webs could weave

  to snare the heart and wits to reave,4

  who span dark spells with spider-craft,

  and as she span she softly laughed;


  a drink she brewed of strength and dread

  to bind the quick and stir the dead.

  In a cave she housed where winging bats
r />   their harbour sought, and owls and cats

  from hunting came with mournful cries,


  night-stalking near with needle eyes.

  In the homeless hills was her hollow dale,

  black was its bowl, its brink was pale;

  there silent on a seat of stone

  before her cave she sat alone.


  Dark was her door, and few there came,

  whether man, or beast that man doth tame.

  In Britain’s land beyond the waves

  are stony hills and stony caves;

  the wind blows ever over hills


  and hollow caves with wailing fills.

  The sun was fallen low and red,

  behind the hills the day was dead,

  and in the valley formless lay

  the misty shadows long and grey.


  Alone between the dark and light

  there rode into the mouth of night

  the Briton lord, and creeping fear

  about him closed. Dismounting near

  he slowly then with lagging feet


  went halting to the stony seat.

  His words came faltering on the wind,

  while silent sat the crone and grinned.

  Few words he needed; for her eyes

  were dark and piercing, filled with lies,


  yet needle-keen all lies to probe.

  He shuddered in his sable robe.

  His name she knew, his need, his thought,

  the hunger that thither him had brought;

  while yet he spoke she laughed aloud,


  and rose and nodded; head she bowed,

  and stooped into her darkening cave,

  like ghost returning to the grave.

  Thence swift she came. In his hand she laid

  a phial5 of glass so fairly made


  ’twas wonder in that houseless place

  to see its cold and gleaming grace;