Approaching Tolkien: The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun


Tolkien’s poetic skills are undisputed: eloquent, beautiful, moving.

I am in no way an expert on poetry. However, I like to read the odd verse or two every now and then. So what I look for in a poem is a consistent rhyming pattern, the clever construction of words and meaning in a restrictive format, and all this through an easy and clear read.

This is why I have enjoyed Tolkien’s poems above any other author’s. He is capable of saying so much, in such a beautiful way, without reverting to the abstract or metaphorical that is typical of so many poems. His pacing is progressive and the content itself is both meaningful and straight to the point.

I’ve said this many times before, out of all of his poems I find The Fall of Arthur to be his most beautiful and moving. In my opinion, an unprecedented feat since  Beowulf and other Old English poetry.

The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun is a 500-line poem, teeming with Celtic mythology themes from the land of Brittany. A childless lord decides to seek the assistance of a faerie (also referred to as a fay or corrigan) in order for him and his wife to conceive an heir. Recurring themes such as the enchanted forest, the wicked hag and the chivalric setting are all present in this short, yet delightful poem that is so exquisitely worded. (I will not spoil the ending like the article in The Guardian did prior to the publication of this book).

The books also include two other, much shorter poems: Corrigan I and Corrigan II which, as editor Verlyn Flieger explains, precede and are almost the first drafts to the longer and final poem of Aotrou and Itroun. These poems are works of art in themselves, and offer an interesting exploration into Tolkien’s own mind, and his ever evolving writing style.

It is not necessary for a reader to be well-versed in Breton folklore or Celtic mythology. Christopher Tolkien’s ‘Note on the Text’ and Flieger’s ‘Introduction’ serve as a solid and straightforward exposition to the necessary themes and concepts before tackling the poems.the-lay-of-aotrou-itroun-book-cover

Flieger’s commentaries and notes are not exhaustive and give an almost point form explanation on the major poem and some background information to the two Corrigan works. Unfortunately, one would have expected more in-depth analysis in a Tolkien book such as this. The term “commentary” that is used after each piece of work is somewhat misleading. There are repetitions, especially when Flieger quotes several times from Christopher Tolkien’s ‘Note on the Text’.

Speaking of The Fall of Arthur, the notes and analyses that accompany that unfinished poem are unmatched. The balance of providing non-exhaustive essays, whilst delivering just the right amount of information, is unparalleled.

I have not read Verlyn Flieger’s other Tolkien books: The Story of Kullervo and Tolkien On Fairy Stories, so I cannot compare this to her previous publications. However, from a 128-page book, apart from providing the three poems and some useful and concise background notes on each, we get another version of the Lay prior to its final form, which is almost a word-for-word duplicate of the final copy, and seems to have been placed there solely to add a few extra pages.

The fourth and final part of the book consists of a selection of verses from Tolkien’s poem, compared with three other poets from the 19th century who were influential in reviving the breton ballad or lay.

In summary, the actual poems are great pieces of writing and a must for the Tolkien enthusiast, but the commentaries and analyses leave much to be desired. Yet, for those readers who are not looking for an in-depth or extensive read, this is the perfect addition to your Tolkien collection.

The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun was published by HarperCollins on 3 November 2016.

2 thoughts on “Approaching Tolkien: The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun

  1. James, you are a wonderful reviewer. Thanks so much.

    Too bad about the commentaries and notes being so sparse. I read “Kullervo” a few months ago, and I found those notes to be a bit sparse as well – nothing compared to Christopher’s notes and commentary for “Sigurd and Gudrun,” “The Fall of Arthur,” or “Beowulf.”

    I’ll still have to add this book to my Christmas list. It should make a good winter afternoon read.

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