Book Review: The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun (J.R.R. Tolkien)

Book Review: The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun (J.R.R. Tolkien)

The Lay of Atrou and Itroun by J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

Now, I think most people are familiar who J.R.R. Tolkien, mot likely due to Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, or just in general knowledge of the man. I’m not about to give a full wrap up or summary of the man, his works, and his influence on the world of literature, especially in fantasy, here, just because… well…. that’d be several blog posts in and of themselves. Maybe for a future in – depth look? Maybe a segment on authors? Who knows. Would be fun or interesting to do. But for here, I’m just going to kinda give an overview, and just a shout out and mentioning.

He’s a man who needs no introduction…. so let me go ahead and introduce him. Unless, we pull the Futurama joke where Bender says “And now, a man who needs no introduction” and just walks right off the stage. Leaving Fry sitting in bafflement until Bender kicks him and tells him he has to go up.

A quick summary of him can be taken from Wikipedia:

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien CBE FRSL (/ˈruːl ˈtɒlkiːn/;[a] 3 January 1892 – 2 September 1973) was an English writer, poet, philologist, and academic, best known as the author of the high fantasy works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

He served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945 and the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford from 1945 to 1959. He was a close friend of C. S. Lewis, a co-member of the informal literary discussion group The Inklings. Tolkien was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II on 28 March 1972.

After Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher published a series of works based on his father’s extensive notes and unpublished manuscripts, including The Silmarillion. These, together with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, form a connected body of tales, poems, fictional histories, invented languages, and literary essays about a fantasy world called Arda and, within it, Middle-earth.[b] Between 1951 and 1955, Tolkien applied the term legendarium to the larger part of these writings.

While many other authors had published works of fantasy before Tolkien, the great success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings led directly to a popular resurgence of the genre. This has caused Tolkien to be popularly identified as the “father” of modern fantasy literature—or, more precisely, of high fantasy.”

J.R.R. Tolkien: Wikipedia Page
J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1940s (Picture credit: Wikipedia)

Like I said, he is most famous for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and as a whole his Middle-Earth world. He is a world class linguistic specialist, creating several of his own languages for his Middle-Earth, as well as a top notch world builder. His list of bibliography, most of which was produced posthumously by his estate through his son Chris Tolkien is nearly a mile long. This – The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun being just one such example.

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

As per GoodReads:

“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.”

GoodReads: The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

This is Tolkien working on his idea of the great British fantasies, in the vein of Sir Arthur, and the Green Knight, and fay and faerie. There’s been several released by Chris Tolkien, such as: Beowulf, Roverandom, The Story of Kullervo, and numerous Middle-Earth pieces (like The Children of Hurin, etc.). Chris Tolkien and a few others have done diligent work reconstructing his father’s manuscripts and page notes and little pieces of scrap paper to make the most comprehensive books out of it all, with numerous versions and editions of the stories, showing you the dates of changes, and everything.

Book Review

Ok, so lets discuss the book finally. Its a very thin, 120~ ish page piece of work (counting in indexes, prefaces, etc.), with a lot of repetition and blank spaces. Its almost an academic study of his work that was originally published in the Welsh Review back in 1945. There’s not a ton of substance to all of this, and much of the work is the same story reiterated in a couple of different but similar ways with just a few, sometimes notable, sometimes not, changes.

Thats not to say this is bad, or boring, or poor piece of work. There is a lot here, and its actually, I think vital, to see all of what Tolkien wrote, and how his own writing evolved too. It gives you a bit of a glimpse into his mental mind and his creative process. Something that is lacking from most authors because all you see is a polished, formal, finished piece of work.

It follows a relatively simplistic plot of a fairy that is in fact evil, tricking a King and causing his wife’s death rather than giving him the heir he thought he was destined to get from her. Most of the versions in the book are done in poem form rather than in prose form, so (in my opinion) loses some of the nuance of character emotions, beliefs, and driving force. You get more of a bare bones of the story, the plot, and it shows the level of ignorance and stubbornness (and stupidity) on the Bretton Lord’s part.

Especially now in 2021, the plot seems obvious, cliche, and done to death. Perhaps back in 1945 it wasn’t, and perhaps even further back from whence Tolkien got the story, it wasn’t (pretty certain it wasn’t then), but nonetheless, this works more as an academic “here’s a story from the past” rather than as a story of the day.

And I think thats the way this needs to be viewed, as an academic view of a past story, and the past of British fantasy in the form of faerie storytelling, rather than as a fictional piece of work to be enjoyed for its fiction and storytelling in that sense. Look at it as the precursor that helped build future fantasy genres and novels and stories rather than as a story in and of its own right.

Maybe? I’m not sure if thats the intent, but thats my way of looking at it, and the way I think it works best as.

My GoodReads Rating: ***
Global Average GoodReads Rating: 4.06 (as of 7.3.21)
LibraryThing Rating: ***

As always everyone, thanks for reading, and hopefully you’re enjoying these non – beer related articles. Between the hikes, the book reviews, etc, if you do or don’t, either way, let us know in the comments!

Cheers and thanks for reading everyone! Hope you enjoyed. Let us know your thoughts on the book and hike reviews! Thanks!

-B. Kline

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