“The perils of enchantment: Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun”: Reblog of John Garth’s Thoughts on the Book

tolkien aotrou and itrounI am reblogging this post by John Garth for three reasons.

Reason the first, I have meant to review Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun for some time, and I just never seem to get to it. I read it months ago, and still no review.

Reason the second, it is only so often that John Garth shares his ideas on his blog, but when he does it is worth paying attention. Garth’s blog is filled with great material that he gives away for free. Much of his work is in book form or hiding behind paywalls at leading media outlets, and you should hunt it down (especially his Tolkien and the Great War). But in the blog you also get strong thoughts about Tolkien-related materials with punch and precision. This is what we do as academic bloggers: give away our material so everyone can learn with us. Public intellectuals can’t always do this, so take advantage of it when it comes.

And, reason the third, it is Saturday, and someone somewhere needs something super to read.

For the full piece, see The perils of enchantment: Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

John Garth

The encounter between mortal man and immortal enchantress is always fateful in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, Boromir fears the Elf-queen Galadriel and ignores her wisdom, then dies for his sins.

Tolkien: The Lay of Aotrou and ItrounThe 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…

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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20 Responses to “The perils of enchantment: Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun”: Reblog of John Garth’s Thoughts on the Book

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you! We once had a dramatic reading of the ‘Lay’ at the Oxford Lewis Soc in the 1980s (photocopied from its original magazine publication), and I thought together with an English version of its probable source – but I’m not sure where we found that! While looking online, I encountered this note by Christina Scull in her review of Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity by Carl Phelpstead (University of Wales Press, 2011), “In a brief history of criticism of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, Phelpstead notes (p. 99) Jessica Yates’ belief, published in 1991, that Tolkien must have had firsthand knowledge of the ballad ‘Aotrou Nann hag ar Gorrigan’, published in Breton and French by Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué in Barzaz-Breiz, a collection of Breton ballads first published in 1839; and he credits Dimitra Fimi in Tolkien Studies IV (2007) with the revelation that Tolkien once owned a copy of the 1846 edition, now in the English Faculty Library at Oxford. Although Fimi may have been the first to publish this fact, it has been known to some Tolkien scholars since 1992, when the English Faculty Library displayed a selection of books from Tolkien’s collection as part of the art exhibition during the Tolkien Centenary Conference. Both volumes of Barzaz-Breiz were shown, one of them open to Tolkien’s inscription dating his purchase of the books in 1922, and the other to the opening of ‘Aotrou Nann hag ar Gorrigan’ with a curator’s label drawing attention to this as an ancestor of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun. I remember Jessica Yates telling me about this with great satisfaction, as it confirmed what she had written not long before.”

    Wikipedia’s “Barzaz Breiz” article pointed me to the “the standard English translation by Tom Taylor”, of which I find 10 scans in the Internet Archive! Here’s one, with ‘The Lord Nann and the Fairy’ from pages 8-14. I wonder if that’s what we read aloud, back in the day?:


    Turning to YouTube, I only find two instrumental versions – or variations – on bagpipe (!) by Jakez Pincet, and from Charles Koechlin’s “20 Chansons bretonnes, Op. 115, Vol. 1, Nos. 1-6: No. 2. Le Seigneur Nann et la fee” for cello and piano. Also, “Tolkien Dark: Kullervo, Aotrou and Itroun with Dr. Verlyn Flieger – Lecture 2” from Signum University!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I missed this first note. Cool on the Oxford CSL bit, and cool on the background. I once heard a talk on the Lay … Dimitra Fimi? Verlyn Flieger? I don’t know. Oh, I see you found the Verlyn Flieger lecture. Very cool. COol Series.
      Honestly, I rarely listen to bagpipes online! We get enough rogue bagpiping here in the streets.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Something well worth reading about Breton folklore and its contributions to medieval English literature, is the account in the volume on Middle English Literature for the Oxford History of English Literature (1986), written by one of Tolkien’s younger colleagues, J.A.W. Bennett, and completed after his death by another, the late Douglas Gray (first Tolkien Professor of English Literature).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, cool. I actually secured a copy of that and got it donated to a local school … but haven’t read it myself! I will get there. I love this older stuff and am making my way back to the past.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I think he’s as readable as some older, more famous Inklings… that first chapter is jolly!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hannah says:

          David’s “Something well worth reading about Breton folklore and its contributions to medieval English literature, is the account …”
          seems to complement this sentence in John Garth’s blog:
          “Nothing could be further from the tale of Beren and Lúthien …… In the later Aotrou and Itroun, … 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.”
          Does it show another side of the rich and complex medieval thinking. with stern piety as part of that?

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I think it does, indeed! For instance, how the possibly ‘fey’ elements feature in the initial condemnation of St. Joan of Arc – if my memory of Lucien Fabre’s compelling biography is correct (and he is accurate). I think Lewis in his Longaevi chapter of The Discarded Image and Williams in his discussion of Merlin in his unfinished book The Figure of Arthur, in Arthurian Torso, are both interesting, here (again, if I recall correctly). The lecture-note selections published as commentary with his Beowulf translation have related interesting discussions of what the pre-Christian characters as distinct from the Christian poet-reteller of the story say and think. (He even puts the case that in one place someone, possibly the Christian poet Cynewulf, may have tinkered with the retelling producing what we now have, in a case where a pagan character’s dialogue sounds too Christian.)

            Liked by 1 person

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Oops – I used ‘his’ without having named Tolkien, as translator and commenter on Beowulf!


              • hannahdemiranda3 says:

                Yes! “The Discarded Image” is a great source for understanding medieval thinking! I really should tackle Beowulf sometime.


  3. Hannah says:

    “The Bretons corrigan … leading to Galadriel, Elf-queen of Lothlórien … with foreshadowings of Shelob” made me wonder about the differences between these enchantresses and their magic.
    Finding the following info on Galadriel and discovering her ambiguity made it even more complex: “The Silmarillion relates how she took part as leader in the great rebellion of the Ñoldor against the will of the Valar, with as main reason that she “yearned to see the wide unguarded lands of Middle-earth and to rule there a realm at her own will””.
    The key seems to be in their intentions and the fruits of their actions:
    Galadriel passes the test of Frodo offering her the Ring, and that Silmarillion info only makes her relinquishing that power the more remarkable, as she used to have súch a desire and ambition for ruling that she rebelled against the Valar.
    And then she gives Frodo that magical phial of light, which he uses in defense against Shelob; with many other gifts to the travelers, to help them on their way.
    Shelob, though, weaves her webs in utter darkness, to snare and catch them, paralyzing Frodo with her poison.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Very interesting – it gets me wanting to reread, and read more, about Galadriel, especially with reference to her being one of the people entrusted with the Three Rings.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hannah says:

        There seems to be another difference, namely between the doom caused by the Corrigan: “But the price Aotrou eventually must pay for the bliss of daughter and son, proves dreadful ……”
        and Boromir’s downfall, as he did not listen to Galadriel’s warnings about the Ring … “Speak no evil of the Lady Galadriel!’ said Aragorn sternly. ‘You know not what you say. There is in her and in this land no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself.’”

        Liked by 1 person

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