I am for the first time teaching J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,” the “Debate between Finrod and Andreth”–though I wonder if “Dialogue” is a better term for “Athrabeth.” Finrod was the son of Finarfin, great Elven King of the Noldor, brother to Galadriel and Aegnor, and a friend of the race of Men. Andreth was a Man, a wisdom speaker of the House of Bëor, a woman who fell in love with Finrod’s brother–a love that was requited, but forbidden as Elves are forbidden to wed during times of war. Nearly half a century after the “Athrabeth,” Andreth died alone and childless.
As Andreth was one of the Lore Masters of Bëor, Finrod relished in spending long evenings at her fireside, One of their conversations was recorded and ultimately published in Morgoth’s Ring, the 10th volume of the History of Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien.
The Athrabeth is a gorgeous and troubling piece of work. Its beauty lies in its ability to capture a lore-rooted theological debate that still evokes the relational depth of two friends. The text combines the great and bitter longing of Andreth for her lost lover Aegnor and a delicate blend of fear and daring hope as Elves and Men consider their fates.
It is troubling because the Athrabeth challenges one of the critical concepts of Middle-earth, that the gift of Men is mortality (Tolkien letter #131, to Milton Waldman; see the Quenta Silmarillion). According to Andreth, though, wisdom says that death for Men is a wrong–an unnatural breaking of body (hröa) and soul (fëa):
“dying we die, and we go out to no return. Death is an uttermost end, a loss irremediable. And it is abominable; for it is also a wrong that is done to us” (Morgoth’s Ring, 311).
Besides the questions of mortality and the gifts of Eru, the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” brings us more deeply into the Sindarin idea of estel, hope, one of the names of Aragorn the hope-for king. “Hope” is perhaps too thin of a concept we discover in the Athrabeth. As the word “longsuffering” was invented to capture a concept in St. Paul, perhaps “hopetrust” or “longhope” is the right way to translate estel.
Though it was a rich discovery, my reading of the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” was for a purpose, to guide a discussion of Signum University students. I was reading with pencil in hand, so to speak, so I also had some other volumes open as I hunted down some of the many links that J.R.R. Tolkien makes in his interwoven works and that Christopher Tolkien draws our attention to in the footnotes and commentaries. As I was writing a note in my copy of Tolkien’s letters–sent there from an endnote Christopher wrote to one of his father’s own self-commentaries–I realized how ridiculously implicated these stories are!
After all, when I think of it, I am writing a blog post about marginal notes I wrote next to a letter J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to a Lord of the Rings fan, which I found in Christopher Tolkien’s endnote to an author’s note his father wrote to an inserted episode from the 12-volume History of Middle-earth, which is the Legendarium, that is both the foundation of and the prequel to the published story, The Lord of the Rings.
And so the circle goes. As they have come to us through eight decades of publication by father, son, and scholars, Tolkien’s works are deeply implicated with one another–layered to an almost infinite degree in language, poetry, story, history, legend, and myth. My circular experience of reading is not unique to me, I think.
But although Tolkien’s works are like circle, and layered in complex ways, the works are also “rhizomatic”–a word some of my favourite teachers have been using lately, but that we see the idea of in the Inklings‘ own work. Like a wild tree or creeping vine, Tolkien’s writings are like send out roots and shoots as they move out into the world. And Tolkien was not just the writer of his work, but a kind of discoverer–a gardener who plants and watches what grows. C.S. Lewis describes this kind of rhizomatic project in his commentary on fellow-Inkling Charles Williams’ poetry, where writing
is more a dove-like brooding, a watching and waiting as if he watched a living thing, now and then putting out a cautious finger to disentangle two tendrils or to train one a little further toward the support which it had almost reached, but for the most part simply waiting (Arthurian Torso, 279).
There, in the past, Tolkien is watching the roots of ideas shoot out across the garden wall, while he trains the vine, disentangling some tendrils and bringing others together. Tolkien himself used a similar metaphor in “Leaf by Niggle,” an allegorical tale about life as a subcreator. Niggle is a painter, but as his life goes on he cannot feel any real interest in any of his paintings except this one tree:
It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture (Tales from the Perilous Realm, 286).
And so the tree grows, such an elegant metaphor for Tolkien’s own work. Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles, the loom–I suppose our metaphors for the work could spread out from here in their own branches. But it strikes me at such a time as this how deeply layered Tolkien’s works are, and how we are invited into the intricate patterns of his interwoven worlds.
“Leaf by Niggle” by Emily Austin. Adding to the layers of our reading experience, you can find Emily’s Inklings-inspired art here.