Un­seen Tolkien: sex, in­fer­til­ity, adul­tery and Gal­adriel’s birth

Gal­adriel in ‘ can be traced back to the au­thor’s 1930 tale about a Bre­ton fairy

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By JOHN GARTH

The en­counter be­tween mor­tal man and im­mor­tal en­chantress is al­ways fate­ful in Tolkien’s Mid­dleearth. In The Lord of the Rings, for in­stance, Boromir fears the Elfqueen 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, 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 mor­tal-im­mor­tal love story at the heart of The Sil­mar­il­lion, Tolkien’s Mid­dle-earth mythology — the tale of Beren and Lúthien, slated to be pub­lished as a stand-alone vol­ume next May, a cen­tury after he wrote it.

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 JBS Hal­dane and HG Wells were blithely pre­dict­ing a sci­en­tif­i­cally mod­i­fied fu­ture for hu­mankind; Al­dous Hux­ley’s Brave New World was just two years away.

In Aotrou and Itroun we taste the stern piety of the Chris­tian me­dieval mind, which cen­sured all con­tact with the fay-folk

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 (re­pub­lished last year), 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 — and who grants Aotrou’s wish, then seals his doom — 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. TheHob­bit:TheBat­tle­oftheFiveAr­mies. 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 spi­der­craft…

The cor­ri­gan whom Tolkien bor­rowed from Bre­ton folk­lore leads us all the way to Gal­adriel her­self

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 bar­relscrap­ing, 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 other-world 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.


Cate Blanchett as Gal­adriel and Ian McKellen as Gan­dalf the Grey in a scene from


J.R.R. Tolkien.

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