The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun – JRR Tolkien (ed. Verlyn Flieger)

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by J.R.R. Tolkien, Verlyn Flieger
Also by this author: The Battle of Maldon: Together with the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, The History of the Hobbit, The Story Of Kullervo, Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien
Published by HarperCollins on November 3, 2016
Genres: Academic, Fiction, Fantasy, Historical, Tolkien
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Coming from the darker side of J.R.R. Tolkien's imagination, "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" is an important non Middle-earth work to set alongside his other retellings of existing myth and legend, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur and The Story of Kullervo.
Unavailable for more than 70 years, this early but important work is published for the first time with Tolkien's 'Corrigan' poems and other supporting material, including a prefatory note by Christopher Tolkien.
Set 'In Britain's land beyond the seas' during the Age of Chivalry, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun tells of a childless Breton Lord and Lady (the 'Aotrou' and 'Itroun' of the title) and the tragedy that befalls them when Aotrou seeks to remedy their situation with the aid of a magic potion obtained from a corrigan, or malevolent fairy. When the potion succeeds and Itroun bears twins, the corrigan returns seeking her fee, and Aotrou is forced to choose between betraying his marriage and losing his life.
Coming from the darker side of J.R.R. Tolkien's imagination, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, together with the two shorter 'Corrigan' poems that lead up to it and which are also included, was the outcome of a comparatively short but intense period in Tolkien's life when he was deeply engaged with Celtic, and particularly Breton, myth and legend.
Originally written in 1930 and long out of print, this early but seminal work is an important addition to the non-Middle-earth portion of his canon and should be set alongside Tolkien's other retellings of myth and legend, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur and The Story of Kullervo. Like these works, it belongs to a small but important corpus of his ventures into 'real-world' mythologies, each of which in its own way would be a formative influence on his own legendarium.

Before Tolkien was the Master of Middle-Earth, he was a humble academic specializing in medieval English literature and philology. The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun comes from this non-Middle-Earth academic side of Tolkien merging with his passion of fantasy and folklore. Written in 1930, while Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, the lay is a 506-line poem modelled on the “Breton lay,” a popular form of Middle English literature.

The Plot

The story revolves around the title Aotrou (Middle English for ‘lord’) and Itroun (‘lady’) and Aotrou’s pact with a witch to give life to Itroun’s barren womb. When Itroun becomes pregnant, the witch reveals herself as a Corrigan (a fairy or dwarf-like spirit in Breton folklore) and demands Aotrou’s love as payment. It’s a classic story of how you shouldn’t purchase a good or service without at least getting an estimate on what it will cost you. Also, about how you shouldn’t mess with the occult.

Upon the birth of the child, Aotrou refuses to honor his word and is cursed by the Corrigan to die in three days. Aotrou chooses to willingly sacrifice his life for his child, accepting his death. His wife’s death follows, as she dies with a broken heart. Their child lives, but they are not able to experience the joy of being a parent or of knowing what becomes of their baby. It’s a dark tale and Tolkien admits this in the closing stanza:

“Sad is the note and sad the lay,

but mirth we meet not every day.

God keep us all in hope and prayer

From evil rede and from despair,

By waters blest of Christendom

To dwell until at last we come

To joy of Heaven where is queen

The maiden Mary pure and clean.

The Publication

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun sat around for fifteen years before Tolkien was able to publish it in the December 1945 edition of The Welsh Review. While the most recent publication of the lay, coming from HarperCollins in 2016, claims to be the first printing of the poem since then, it was actually reprinted in 2002 in a limited 500 copy run in as a bilingual Serbian/English edition. The authoritative edition—and the one I read and is being reviewed here—is 2016’s The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun which includes a thorough literary review by Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger.

This version sits at 106 pages which immediately makes one wonder how a 506-line poem is translated into a 106-page book. Flieger’s edition contains multiple versions of the poem taken from Tolkien’s archives. Flieger offers commentary and annotations for each edition and gives readers a short history of the edition in order to contextualize it within Tolkien’s life. There’s also an overarching introduction to the lay as it relates to Middle English literature, particularly some of the literature that could have served as Tolkien’s inspiration. Finally, there is also a preface by the great Christopher Tolkien, effectually providing his blessing over the work.

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun is arranged like this:


3 pages – Christopher Tolkien’s “Note on the Text”

5 pages – Introduction from Verlyn Flieger

1 page – Acknowledgments

Part 1 – The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun proper

19 pages – The Lay as published in The Welsh Review with minimal definitional footnotes from Flieger

5 pages – Notes and commentary from Flieger.

Part 2 – Earlier thematically similar work from Tolkien

2 pages – An introduction to the “Corrigan Poems,” two shorter unpublished poems that also feature a Corrigan and show Tolkien’s development of the concept for The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

2 pages – An introduction to Corrigan 1.

5 pages – The text of Corrigan 1, including a photocopy of Tolkien’s handwritten work on the poem

7 pages – Notes and commentary from Flieger

2 pages – An introduction to Corrigan 2.

6 pages – The text of Corrigan 2, including a page of Tolkien’s handwritten work.

3 pages – Notes and commentary from Flieger

Part 3 – Drafts and fragments of the Lay

3 pages – Discussion and reprinting of an early fragment of the lay.

3 pages – Introduction to manuscript copies of the lay.

19 pages – A reprinting of the ‘fair copy manuscript’ of the lay

1 page – Notes and commentary from Flieger

8 pages – Notes on the typescript copy sent to The Welsh Review along with where Tolkien had amended that copy by hand

Part 4 – Comparative Verses

10 pages – Comparing Tolkien’s work with comparative titles

2 pages – Works Cited

As you can see, there’s a lot of work done to pad the length of the content to get to a book-length standalone version. And yet, I’m going to complain that there’s not enough padding. Flieger presents to readers Tolkien’s work like it is on display in a museum. It is a faithful representation and portrayal of what Tolkien wrote with a minimum of narrative. I think The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun would have been a much stronger work had Flieger’s commentary taken the form of a narrative rather contextualized the writing of the lay and its themes into a cohesive whole. For everything that the book shows us from Tolkien—various versions of the poem and precursors to it—there’s really not much literary criticism going on. Flieger does not go deep into Breton folklore to talk about the Corrigan mythos and barely touches on how the Corrigan could have been a precursor to Galadriel (and thematically what that means about the character of Galadriel).

Even in explaining the poem, Flieger is sparse on commentary. There’s so much that could be said thematically about Tolkien’s views on the supernatural or in terms of literary criticism regarding the tropes we see about supernatural interference with the child of a royal (see Cinderella or Rapunzel, etc.). Flieger is content to simply arrange Tolkien’s handiwork and get out of the way, but the entire purpose of reprinting this in book-length form, I would think, is not simply to show the stages of the poem’s literary development, but to show exactly what it meant to Tolkien and why he chose to revive this element from Breton Middle English literature some 700 years later.

If you just want to read the poem, the full text is available online. Alternatively, you can read the original in The Welsh Review if you have about $3,500 to spend. The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun is an attempt to capitalize on Tolkien’s continued popularity and expand new editions of his work beyond just Lord of the Rings and Middle-Earth. The concept is great, the execution is a bit dry and lacking.