“THE LAY OF AOTROU AND ITROUN,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 128 pages (f) (ages 14 and up)
For readers anticipating a new adventure in the worlds of "The Silmarillion" and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" may be initially disappointing.
The three short poems and one fragment that constitute the poetic content of this volume explore a different universe of mythical enchantment — our own. They are examples of the once highly popular medieval Breton lai, originating in Brittany and spreading through much of western Europe: relatively short, rhyming poems dealing with love, chivalry and the supernatural, especially as manifested in the lands of Faërie.
The poems — “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” “The Corrigan I,” “The Corrigan II” and a “Fragment” — use traditional octosyllabic lines and intensive end rhyme (along with occasional alliteration) to retell stories of the intrusion of the Perilous into human lives. In the case of the longer, more fully developed “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” a childless Lord seeks progeny and, through the good/evil offices of a Corrigan, a “fay of the fountain” (in other words, a fairy) finds children — and death.
“The Corrigan I” is a slightly earlier work on a similar motif, in which the Lady’s child is kidnapped and a faërie changeling left in its place, while in “The Corrigan II,” the father of newborn twins promises his Lady a “fallow deer” and on the journey inadvertently enters Faërie and suffers the consequences.
As poems, they are pleasantly intriguing and easily accessible to modern readers despite Tolkien’s frequent use of archaisms — where needed, the editor has supplied definitions. They demonstrate Tolkien’s skill at transforming seemingly simple poetic forms into sophisticated vehicles for complex, resonant stories of love and loss, magic and mystery, and life and death.
In addition, however, the contributions of editor Verlyn Flieger and Christopher Tolkien, with the multiple drafts of the poems included, allow readers to trace the creative processes of one of the great imaginations of our time. We can observe as he fine-tunes the forms, the sounds, the rhythms, the meanings of lines to create precise effects, while still remaining true to the structures of the centuries-old originals. This elegant little book functions not only to restore to print a poem last published in 1945 but to educate readers, gently, on a long-lost, delicate literary genre.
Content advisory: “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" contains no strong language, violence or sexual content.