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

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.

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, 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.

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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21 Responses to Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: Reading and Writing The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction: A Note on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” and “Leaf by Niggle”

  1. Tolkien as Discoverer: Thanks for the CSL comment on Williams as an insight into Tolkien’s method. Illuminating.

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  2. Thanks Brenton. As an artist I have affinity for Leaf By Niggle. I helps me remind myself that the most insignificant brushstrokes are all part of the Lord’s beautiful fabric.

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  3. Pingback: Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: Reading and Writing The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction: A Note on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” and “Leaf by Niggle” #TolkienReadingDay – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  4. John Gough says:

    This is, Brenton, profoundly true.
    Tolkien’s writing, especially the fiction and poetry, is intensely intertwined with drafts, revisions, footnotes, commentary, and even, sometimes, illustrations and maps. The specific “text” is shaded, in a sense, by what we could describe as “palimpsests”, background texts and alternatives, and connections to other texts.
    In recent critical jargon the term “intertextuality” refers to the way Author X includes references, quotes, paraphrases, and allusions, to other authors, composers, artists, books, music, poetry and so on. (Elizabeth Goudge is one example of an author whose style is powerfully, organically, and persistently intertextual. Barbara Pym is another.)
    I mention this, because Tolkien’s writing could be described as “self-intertextual”.
    But there is more in Tolkien’s writing than this self-intertextuality.
    Often (I am tempted to say “always”) Tolkien writing about “elves”, “men”, “valar”, “good”, “evil”, “love”, “death”, and other key topics, within what we refer to as his “legendarium”, is also alluding to matters outside his legendarium. However , he rarely spells this out explicitly, except in especially striking letters where he tries to explain how “valar” are “angels”, or “angel-like”, and Morgoth is a version of Satan, and death may be followed by resurrection. In short, as you know, Tolkien, as a faithful Roman Catholic, always wants to ensure that his legendarium never becomes heretical. Although some of his characters or their behaviours may seem, for example, Christ-like, he never wants them to be, or do, what Christ was, and did, for humans.
    He accepts the limits of SUB-creation and never wants to BE the Creator.
    Occasionally, some Tolkien critics explore the way Tolkien’s legendarium fits with, or parallels, Christian ideas and orthodox (Catholic) theology. This is supported by those striking letters where Tolkien explains how his sub-creation fits with the Creation and Salvation, without contradicting or replacing the Creation. and Salvation. It is further supported by sensitive critics’ very cautious reading-into, or interpretation of Tolkien’s actual words, in the legendarium, and the surrounding intertwinings.
    That is, you are right to highlight how Tolkien’s “text” may appear to be a “leaf”, but is actually a “tree” within a “world” — within the legendarium and its Tolkien-written and Christopher-Tolkien-written offshoots.
    But Tolkien’s text is also a “leaf” within the non-legendarium world of (Catholic) scripture and theology.
    Of course, you know this.
    Finally, by contrast, C.S. Lewis is (seemingly) far simpler, in his writing, because he tended to write once, and then publish. His letters and essays augment the books, of course. But Lewis’s works do not have the tree-like, vine-like, rhizomatic self-intertextuality and (implicit-)intertextuality that exists in Tolkien’s (and Christopher Tolkien’s) multi-layered, multi-stranded body of work.

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    • Thanks for this note. I think you have captured Tolkien really well. Let me “niggle” on a couple of points.
      First, this note on Tolkien: “Although some of his characters or their behaviours may seem, for example, Christ-like, he never wants them to be, or do, what Christ was, and did, for humans.”
      Yes, sure–no character tilts the whole universe toward redemption. But what did Christ do except lay his life down? rejecting the violence of the world and its patterns and draw the ire of consequence and empire and sin upon himself? … in that way, so many of Tolkien’s characters do this very thing.
      However, I think it is important to see that Tolkien is resisting overt links to religious or classical or medieval literature or culture, even when they are part of the furniture of his mind.
      Now, Lewis–here I think you and, indeed, the whole world has missed what Lewis is doing. First, I don’t think Lewis wrote and then published. At least, that’s not the evidence I see of his work. He was, of course, radically quicker than Tolkien. Lewis probably wrote Out of the Silent Planet in 7-13 weeks, though editing took some months. Tolkien would have needed 200 or 225 years to finish the Silmarillion.
      Second, I think Lewis is deeply layered and intertextual, both with regards to his own work and that of the people he loved (Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, MacDonald, etc.), and of the writers he loved (Dante, Malory, Spencer, Bunyan, MacDonald, etc. … even Jane Austen).
      On #1, I haven’t produced the evidence yet and I haven’t fully proved #2. It is quite frankly a 3-part book trilogy that is my project over the next 12 or so years, if the Lord tarries. But I have gone some way in demonstrating #2 in an essay in “The Inklings and King Arthur.” If you can’t get a copy, let me know.

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      • John Gough says:

        Many thanks, Brenton, for your comments. (I am a self-taught amateur in the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis, and any comment I offer, occasionally, is tentative.) I’m glad I was close to right in my view of Tolkien, and accept what you say about how many of Tolkien’s characters and their actions are, indeed, Christ-like — as Christians are exhorted to be. But of course, never making the heretical claim (albeit as elements of Tolkien’s fiction) that they are, even allegorically, Christ. Gandalf’s seeming resurrection, and transformation from Grey to White, after his battle with the Balrog, is one extreme example, as you know, but the wizards are a special creature, spiritually, within Tolkien’s rich sub-creation. (I am a self-taught amateur in the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis.)
        Of course you are right that Lewis is powerfully intertextual, in the usual meaning of the literary critical term, quoting, citing, mentioning and alluding to many other writers and books as a natural part of the literary mental world he thinks and writes from.
        What I had in mind in a comparison with Tolkien, speaking of “trees, leaves” and “vines”, is that, except for the extent that Lewis provides self-comment on is works through his letters (now all, or mostly, published) and essays, and rare Prefaces and Introductions, there is very little in extant manuscripts, drafts, revisions, and matters that would require a variorum edition. (Or, maybe place such as the Wade Centre do have manuscript evidence to the contrary. If so, I have not heard of it.)
        That is, while Lewis has benefited, posthumously, enormously from the scholarly editorship, and curatorship, of Walter Hooper, he has little need of a counterpart to Tolkien’s son, Christopher, or John D. Rateliff, to untangle and reveal the thickets of alternative drafts and self-commentary — self-intertextuality –that surround Tolkien’s works published in his lifetime.
        Alas, I have been unable to find your essay in “The Inklings and King Arthur”, separately, and in my retirement lack the university research funds I used to rely on. (I feel bad, crying poor, knowing how freely I spend SMALL amounts on MANY hard-to-get books. But I have to accept limits to my hobby.)

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        • Hello, yes, Lewis is certainly more linear and has far fewer drafts. He burned most of his manuscripts, so we don’t know the whole process of writing. It was, I think, complex for Arthurian Torso, The Magician’s Nephew, and many of the poems (including the first two books), and, I suspect, far more direct-to-publication in the BBC talks and Perelandra. Of course, we can’t know what evidence we don’t have. In rejecting the view that Lewis was a one draft writer–like many in the field suspect–I am simply saying that the evidence suggests a far more complex process, but nothing like Tolkien’s project.
          And I have another argument on Lewis and self-intertextuality, but it will take me some years to make it.
          If you send me an email I can get you that chapter in “Inklings and King Arthur.”
          junkola[at]gmail[dot]com

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          • John Gough says:

            My direct e-mail address, Brenton, is jagough49 [at] gmail [dot] com
            Burning manuscripts is unhelpful.
            But I am sure you are right about Lewis being not as linear a writer, sometimes.
            His early poems, especially, we know were heavily revised across many years.
            I wish you the best for your own scholarly work on Lewis (and Tolkien, and Montgomery, and so much more), for which I am very grateful!
            With many thanks,
            John

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  5. m28181920 says:

    Thank you very much.
    I am sorry if this is the wrong place to ask, but my daughter needs to read The English Morte by C.S. Lewis for a research paper. It does not appear to be available online. It is from Essays on Malory edited by Bennett, and this seems available only in book form. If anybody could help me access a copy of this essay, I would be so grateful. Please let me know.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “The English Prose Morte” is reprinted in Image and Imagination, edited by Walter Hooper (Cambridge University Press, 2013), on pages 248-76, with end notes on page 357. That might give more chances of finding a copy in a library (or by way of some sort of Inter-Library Loan). And, a quick check (at this moment) shows new copies of Image and Imagination at $12.15 and “used & new offers” from $10.95 and $8.99 Kindle at amazon.com (and you could check other country amazon sites if you are not in the U.S., and of course other online possibiities – but if that price-range is not unusual, there may be hope in that direction). It is certainly an interesting collection, and might be one you could resell a paperback copy of (locally?) if you did not want to own it.

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