The Lay Of Aotrou & Itroun, by J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m not sure how I feel about this book. The poem at the heart of this book is compelling, to be sure, but it doesn’t really feel as if the poem is large enough to make a whole book’s worth of material, at least not if you are reading it to simply read the poem. Rather, this book is an exploration of Tolkien’s perfectionism and editing practices, in which he turned a couple of early poems based on Breton lays that were written in a nineteenth century French-Breton work into a starkly original and dark poem about the fey that later influenced his writings in the Lord of the Rings saga concerning Galadriel. So if this book is not itself part of the legendarium that Tolkein wrote about Middle Earth, it demonstrates one of the points of contact between the myths of the Celts and the mythic world that Tolkien created, demonstrating that Middle Earth didn’t come out of wholly invented material but rather at least in part on some very skillful reading and shaping of existing mythic traditions in the light of the author’s considerable imagination, something which is well worth appreciating, even if the place of this particular work remains somewhat ambiguous.
The work is a short one at just over 100 pages and is divided into four parts. The first part makes the final (?) version of the poem in question, published originally in 1945 in the Welsh Review, making it an obscure work that few Tolkien readers would likely be familiar with, first containing the poetry and then notes and commentary on it. After that, the second part of the book consists of The Corrigan poems that were the original working of the poem by Tolkien, each of which is introduced and also provided with notes and commentary. The third part of the book shows various fragments, manuscript drafts, and type script, all with commentary and notes, that show the way in which the Corrigan poems were turned into the final version of the poem that remains today, along with some thoughtful speculation on the nature of the changes that resulted to the story, especially the change from a chance encounter between Aotrou and the corrigan to a deliberate encounter based on childlessness that allows for a dark and sinister and even tragic result. The fourth and final part of the book consists of comparative verses from the Breton and French (as well as English translations) of parts of the Breton poems that seemed to resonate particularly well with Tolkien.
There are at least a few worthwhile aspects to this work. For one, the poem, in any of its forms, demonstrates that messing with the fey realm is not something that is going to end well for human beings. If we consider the fey realm to be the spirit realm, this concern about the deceptive trickery of various spirit beings is certainly something we would do well to remember. For another, the book itself demonstrates the ur-texts that served to inspire and shape Tolkien’s thinking and that provided him with ready thoughts and concepts and vocabulary to use concerning the fantasy world that he would later create for Middle Earth. In addition to all of this, the work itself shows Tolkien’s working habits and the fragmentary state of many of his writings, something which his loyal readers are likely familiar with in other aspects, including the stories of Middle Earth. Also, the work itself demonstrates the importance of Catholicism to Tolkien’s writings, not something that is always appreciated by those who read and comment on Tolkien’s work. For all of these reasons, this book has a place in Tolkien studies, even if it is likely to remain an obscure work of his.