Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction, A Note on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”

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).

It is unlike anything I have read in Tolkien’s papers.

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.

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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18 Responses to Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction, A Note on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A fine note on an amazing work of Tolkien’s!

    I’ve just been rereading it as I work on my paper for the ‘corona-postponed’ Second Unquendor Tolkien Seminar, and it is fascinating.

    I have not yet seen Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (OUP, 2019) and don’t know what, if anything, it has of, or about, Chaucer’s ‘Book of the Duchess’ (which I haven’t reread in ages) but the “Athrabeth” reminded me of it in distinct ways – despite obvious differences (such as Chaucer/his speaker relating a dream) – to the extent that I wonder if there is a sort of ‘genre of dialogue’ both are examples of. It also reminded me of Robert Browning’s ‘Saul’ – again, to the extent of wondering if there is some sort of genre to which both ‘Saul’ and the “Athrabeth” belong, or of which both partake or draw upon.

    It also strongly strikes me that Tolkien in his commentary on the “Athrabeth” is considering this work in much the way that he, as Professor Tolkien, discusses Beowulf in the lecture notes which Christopher draws upon for the commentary in his edition of his father’s translation of that poem – another aspect of Tolkien being “a kind of discoverer” as he discusses the “Athrabeth” as an ancient work he is translating.

    A particularly fascinating instance of that being “deeply implicated” of Tolkien’s works with one another which you note so well, is seeing the “Athrabeth” in the context of the wonderful account of the meeting of Finrod with Beör and his people in chapter 17 of The Silmarillion, not so many years before in the life of an Elf. As there are things Andreth is very reluctant to talk about in the historical experience of Men, so there are things that the Ñoldor are reluctant to tell about the history of their return to Middle-earth, despite so much wonderful candor on both sides in other ways.


    • Yes, a good thought. Parts of Chaucer are walking tales–kinds of dialogues. I wonder if Pilgrim’s Progress is then a child both of Plato and Chaucer.
      Yes, good–the Beowulf layers. Well-spotted. And there are notes on notes in the translated bits too.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tangentially, it was interesting to encounter this report in the midst of rereading lots of Tolkien:

    “The continental plate of the North Atlantic craton rifted into fragments 150 million years ago, and currently stretches from northern Scotland, through the southern part of Greenland and continues southwest into Labrador.

    “The newly identified fragment covers the diamond bearing Chidliak kimberlite province in southern Baffin Island. It adds roughly 10 percent to the known expanse of the North Atlantic craton.”

    “Rifted into fragements”, eh? – I wonder if Melkor had something to do with this. And if his destructiveness helped turn up gems for the Ñoldor to work with, ages later?

    (By the way, if you want to wallow in names and terms astonishing to the non-geologist, try the Wikipedia article, “North Atlantic Craton”.)


    • Ha, great story–and a link that few would make! But as some of the Ñoldor walk across the northern wilderness when Fëanor left them behind made me think of that Europe-Greenland-Canada ring.


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