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  • "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun":Sexuality, Imagery, and Desire in Tolkien's Works
  • Yvette Kisor

The book publication of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun in 2016 brought to wide attention a text first published in 1945 and likely completed in 1930 (Aotrou xi). "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun," based on Breton models,1 relates the story of a childless Lord (Aotrou) and Lady (Itroun),2 and the Lord's choice to seek out the help of a corrigan who then attempts to coerce him into sexual intercourse as payment once twins are born; when he refuses, he dies, followed shortly in death by his Lady. Neither sees their son and daughter grow up. Belonging to an earlier period than Tolkien's better-known works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and associated with his early experiments in turning medieval poetry of many genres into modern English verse of various forms,3 it belongs as well to his early work with the Silmarillion materials and is especially associated with "The Lay of Leithian." In fact, as Christopher Tolkien points out, it can be conclusively shown that The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun "interrupted the composition of Canto X of The Lay of Leithian" through comparison of written dates in both manuscripts (Aotrou xi). It is published along with two "Corrigan" poems, renderings into English of Breton lays, and speaks to an early interest of Tolkien's in Celtic literature, specifically the lays of Brittany, not generally acknowledged.4 This interest of Tolkien's could seem merely an early diversion, not nearly as important as his lifelong study of Beowulf, for example, and his deep engagement with Old English and Old Norse literature. Certainly his professional engagement with Beowulf and Old English more broadly is of prime importance, as has been acknowledged. However, "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" is not simply an early interest quickly discarded or merely a formal exercise in the craft of verse. It reaches out in various directions, both towards other writings from the 1920s and 1930s and even to his later, bestknown work, The Lord of the Rings.

It does this largely through the presence of desire, romantic love, and overt sexuality, as well as enchantment, elements often sublimated in his better-known fiction. In particular, the figure of the beautiful, cruel, seductive fay haunts the pages of these early works; the Corrigan in "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" and the "Ides Ælfscýne" from Songs for the Philologists embody her in a literal sense, and the [End Page 19] human women Grímhild in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and Guinever in The Fall of Arthur evoke her in subtler ways. According to Tolkien in "On Fairy-stories," written at the end of the 1930s, "The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp."5 Clearly it did not elude Tolkien's and a shadow of this preoccupation of the 1920s and 1930s can be found in the later figure of Galadriel.6 Further, much of the imagery found in "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" shows clear connections to The Lord of the Rings. This is especially true of images of light and dark, of the Corrigan and her abode with fountain and cave, and the incursions of Aotrou's adventure with the Corrigan into his domestic life, particularly his dreams. However, the text that "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" is most closely associated with is "The Lay of Leithian."

I. "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" and "The Lay of Leithian"

"The Lay of Leithian" bears a special relationship to "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun." Unusually for him, Tolkien kept running dates of individual sections of "The Lay of Leithian" (B&L 88–89; Lays 150), and when compared with the fair copy of "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" dated "Sept. 23 1930," it becomes clear that "Aotrou and Itroun interrupted the composition of Canto X of The Lay of Leithian" (Aotrou xi). Canto X introduces an element not present in the earlier version of the tale, "the...