The popular memory of JRR Tolkien’s literary output will forever be overshadowed by his novels of Middle-earth, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but other gems are to be found amidst his rich body of work. One of these is a lengthy poem written in octosyllabic rhyming verse in the style of a medieval Breton lay, entitled The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun; a tragic tale featuring several motifs found in the traditional folklore of Brittany.
Believed to have originated in Brittany, lays are long narrative poems that typically explore the nature of love while recounting the deeds of great heroes and marvellous beings. Written in rhyming verse, these poems were initially designed, in medieval times, to be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.
Tolkien wrote The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun around 1930; some seventeen years after he had stayed several weeks in the up-market Breton resort of Dinard. However, the lay was not published until December 1945 when it appeared in the literary journal, The Welsh Review. Amazingly, another seventy years would pass before the poem became more widely available at the end of 2016 when it was published internationally along with two other similar but complementary poems.
Several scholars have suggested that Tolkien’s inspiration for this lay came from the pages of Folklore in English and Scottish Ballads (1928) by Lowry Charles Wimberly or even English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) by Francis James Child. However, it is far more likely that Tolkien’s source was ultimately the same as that of both these authors: a collection of traditional Breton ballads set down from the oral tradition by Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué in his book, Barzaz Breiz (1839), where a similar story appears under the title Le Seigneur Nann et la Korrigan (Lord Nann and the Korrigan or Aotrou Nann hag ar Korrigan in Breton). Tolkien is known to have possessed his own copy of this work as well as a number of other volumes of Breton folklore.
The Aotrou and Itroun of the title refer to a long-married but childless Breton lord and lady. Tolkien sets the scene with his customary, tightly expressive language: “In Brittany beyond the waves, are sounding shores and hollow caves; in Brittany beyond the seas, the wind blows ever through the trees.” Over the next 500 or so lines, Tolkien weaves a wonderfully worded tale relating how the lord was haunted by sad dreams of “lonely age and death; his tomb unkept, while strangers in his room with other names and other shields were masters of his halls and fields.” Desperate for an heir, the lord secures the assistance of a witch “who span dark spells with spider-craft and as she span she softly laughed; a drink she brewed of strength and dread to bind the quick and stir the dead.”
In just a few lines, Tolkien powerfully evokes the pall of dread surrounding Aotrou as he locates the witch seated outside her cave in “the homeless hills” whose “eyes were dark and piercing, filled with lies, yet needle-keen all lies to probe.” The old witch gives him a glass phial filled with a magic potion but refuses any payment, saying: “Let thanks abide till thanks be earned” before ominously adding “we shall meet again one day and rich reward then you shall pay, whate’er I ask: it may be gold, it may be other wealth you hold.”
Having returned to the sanctuary of his castle, the lord was filled with hope for the future and thus: “A merry feast that year they made, when blossom white on bush was laid; there minstrels sang and wine was poured, as if it were the marriage of a lord.” In acknowledgement of a toast raised by her husband, Itroun drains her glass: “The wine was red, the cup was grey; but blended there a potion lay” and the die is cast.
“Now days ran on in great delight with hope at morn and mirth at night” and the noble couple were “after waiting, after prayer, after hope and nigh despair” soon blessed with twin children; a son and daughter. Completely overjoyed, Aotrou demands to show his appreciation to his wife by gratifying her whims and desires but she does not wish for gold, jewels or silks, telling him only: “I would not have thee run nor ride today nor ever from my side.” However, Aotrou refuses to relent until Itroun expresses a sudden craving for “water cool and clear and venison of the greenwood deer.”
Setting out with his bow and lance of ash-wood, “his horse bore him o’er the land to the green boughs of Brocéliande, to the green dales where listening deer seldom a mortal hunter hear.” Aotrou soon espies a white doe that he hotly pursues, to the sound of dim laughter on the wind, until “the sun was lost and all green was grey.” Finding himself before a fairy grotto and fountain, he sees a female korrigan or fairy sat upon a silver stool combing her long pale hair with a golden comb. “He heard her voice and it was cold as echo from the world of old, ere fire was found or iron hewn, when young was mountain under moon.”
The korrigan now demands her payment but Aotrou is slow to appreciate that this creature is indeed the witch that he had dealt with so many months ago and claims not to know her. Affronted, she responded: “How darest, then, my water wan to trouble thus, or look me on? For this of least I claim my fee, if ever thou wouldst wander free.” She presses him to forget his wife and to marry her but Aotrou refuses to betray his love and is summarily cursed by the korrigan to die within three days.
Once safely home, Aotrou is seized with the realisation that his death is near and instructs his trusted steward to conceal news of his return from his wife in order to save her from any anxiety and grief. However, Itroun does worry about her husband’s continued absence and her questions are repeatedly evaded even when she asks about the tolling of the death bell she hears rung a few days later.
Attending her churching ceremony, she passes a bier covered with a pall bearing the arms and banner of her lord. Her shock is total, her sorrow overwhelming and Itroun dies of grief during the night. “Beside her lord at last she lay, in their long home beneath the clay; and if their children lived yet long, or played in garden hale and strong, they saw it not, nor found it sweet their heart’s desire at last to meet.” The korrigan’s revenge was complete for “deep in dim Brocéliande, a silver fountain flowed and fell, within a darkly woven dell and in the homeless hills, a dale was filled with laughter cold and pale.”
As is so often the case in both Breton folklore and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, direct encounters between mortal humans and immortal enchanters rarely end well. Tolkien wrote two other, shorter, ballads about human incursions into the world of the korrigans but it is likely that these were written as a means of working-out his thoughts for the fuller tale he would subsequently weave in The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun.
Like the versions collected by la Villemarqué and later by the folklorist François-Marie Luzel, Tolkien’s ballads of the korrigans contain many classic ingredients from traditional Breton folklore: ancient dolmens are the hallowed homes of the supernatural; the forest is a gateway to the Otherworld, a place of magic where supernatural creatures closely guard their sanctuaries and human trespassers are punished by being united with the tutelary spirit or else are destroyed by it; disturbing a female korrigan is to invite her wrath; a white doe enjoys a special affinity with the supernatural world; true lovers remain united beyond death.
In the folklore of Brittany, there are certain prohibitions in the magical domain of the korrigans and any mortal who transgresses them is usually exposed to an unavoidable sanction. Such notions of punishment befalling mortals who betray their promises to the fairy folk are, of course, found in the folktales of other regions. For instance, the 12th century Breton Lay of Lanval by Marie de France sees Lanval repel the advances of King Arthur’s wife by invoking the greater beauty of his own wife, even though he had promised to never tell of her existence. Her sudden appearance eventually saves him from being executed on account of what was regarded as a slanderous lie. Similarly, a 13th century history of Raymond of Poitou tells of his marriage to the fairy Melusine whom he was forbidden to see taking her bath; an instruction he had promised to honour. He eventually broke his promise and saw his wife’s serpent tail; a betrayal that caused her to disappear forever.
Some commentators have suggested that the korrigan in Tolkien’s lay inspired the character of the elf queen Galadriel, “the mightiest and fairest of all the elves” who features in The Lord of the Rings written between 1937 and 1947. Alas, this is probably a piece of wishful thinking. While both characters are described as immortal enchanters with long pale hair and strongly associated with sacred water and a magical phial, these few qualities are far from unique in folklore and in Tolkien’s writings.
Keen-eyed readers of Tolkien might have recognised in his description of the korrigan’s voice, the enigmatic answer given by the sorcerer Gandalf to King Theoden’s question asking whose wizardry had summoned the huorns to his aid during the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Gandalf replied: “It is not wizardry but a power far older; a power that walked the earth, ere elf sang or hammer rang, ere iron was found or tree was hewn. When young was mountain under moon, ere ring was made or wrought was woe.”
It is worth noting that all of the wonderful artworks used in this post were produced by JRR Tolkien himself and I believe that The Tolkien Estate retains the copyright to most of these.