When I was teaching J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” for the first time a couple of years ago, we had a strong conversation around the “Debate between Finrod and Andreth.” For those who have not yet discovered it, the Athrabeth has been for me one of the richest parts of that great gift of Elves to Men that is the History of Middle-earth.
Even then, in the midst of a busy term and reading with a pencil in hand, I couldn’t help wondering if “Dialogue” is a better term for the Athrabeth than “Debate.” Finrod is the son of Finarfin, great Elven King of the Noldor, brother to Galadriel and Aegnor, and a friend of the race of Men. Andreth is a woman of that race, a wisdom speaker of the House of Bëor who fell in love with Finrod’s brother. Her love was requited, but the love itself was forbidden as Elves are may not wed during times of war. Nearly half a century after the Athrabeth, Andreth dies alone and childless.
As Andreth was one of the Lore Masters of Bëor, Finrod relishes 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.
The Athrabeth is troubling because it challenges one of the critical concepts of Middle-earth, that the gift of Men is mortality (see Tolkien letter #131 to Milton Waldman; see the Quenta Silmarillion in The Silmarillion). According to Andreth, though, wisdom reveals 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).
This is a stunning statement, unlike anything I have read in Tolkien’s papers–though I have The Nature of Middle-earth, edited by Carl Hostetter, queued up to begin reading in a couple of weeks. This collection of Tolkien’s nonfiction will no doubt extend the conversation. Two of the three major parts of that collection are “Time and Ageing” and “Body, Mind and Spirit,” and there are particular chapters on “Elvish Life-cycles” (Pt. 1.XIX), “Elvish reincarnation” (Pt. 2.XV), and “Death” (Pt. 2.XVII), as well as an appendix on “Metaphysical and Theological Themes.”
Meanwhile, though, Andreth’s statement resounds in my mind: “dying we die … a loss irremediable.”
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, which is one of the names of Aragorn the hoped-for king. “Hope” is perhaps too thin of an English word to capture the concept as we discover it 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 personal discovery, my reading of the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” was for a purpose: to guide a discussion of Signum University students. Rather than reading simply for leisure, I was reading with a pencil in hand. My screen and keyboard were not far away and student learning was on my mind.
Thus, I also had some other volumes open as I hunted down some of the many links within the legendarium. Have you seen these Middle-earth histories? It isn’ simply that Christopher Tolkien gave us his father’s work with an introduction and index. Rather, there are J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, sometimes presented as a variorum capturing the various versions and drafts. Beyond the variant and experimental texts, there are also marginal notes and footnotes that J.R.R. Tolkien makes upon his own texts. Christopher Tolkien then draws our attention to deeper meanings in these texts and in the notes with his own footnotes and commentaries, which include also his clarifications and comments about curiosities, unanswered queries, and even occasional corrections of the corrections.
Thus, as I was writing a note in my copy of Tolkien’s letters–having been sent there from an endnote Christopher wrote to one of his father’s own self-commentaries–I realized how ridiculously implicated these stories are for writers and editors and readers. I wrote a note like this in my journal:
When I think of it, in reflecting upon a lecture for students, 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.
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, interwoven, interconnected, 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 circles, 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 vines that send out roots and shoots as they move out into the world.
More deeply still, 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, in Lewis’ estimation, Williams’ 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).
Is there a better description of at least one part of Tolkien’s writing project? 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 where the Weaving takes place–I suppose our metaphors for the work could spread out from here in their own branches, tree-like, rhizomatically.
Thus, it strikes me at such a time as this, on Tolkien Reading Day, how deeply layered Tolkien’s works are, and how we as readers are invited into the intricate patterns of his interwoven and implicated worlds and thus become, in a certain sense, part of that great circular, rooted, vine-ish, and Niggle-like imaginative experience of discovery of Tolkien’s great project.
“Leaf by Niggle” by Emily Austin. Adding to the layers of our reading experience, you can find Emily’s Inklings-inspired art here.