In 1955, poet W. H. Auden was asked by the BBC to talk about The Lord of the Rings. Auden asked Tolkien for some background information about how the story had come into being, and Tolkien replied that he had had very few conscious intentions when writing the book. For example, he said that Ents were not deliberately invented at all, and though he liked Ents now it was largely because they seemed to have nothing to do with him.
He then mentioned something which was important then and is perhaps even more important now in trying to understand more deeply the whole sub-created world of Middle-earth: he wrote that he had had the feeling while writing that he was not inventing but reporting, and at times had to wait until he could find out ‘what really happened’. In the case of the Ents, the name came from the Old English eald enta geweorc, while as an idea they had something to do with Tolkien’s disappointment with Shakespeare’s Great Birnam Wood in Macbeth; Tolkien really wanted and expected the trees to truly move in that tale. But the whole back story of the Ents came as a direct result of the way in which Tolkien’s mind worked.
This ‘waiting to find out what really happened’ indicates that Tolkien’s imagination operated a little differently than one might at first expect. The clearest case to explore this in detail is perhaps that of Queen Beruthiel.
Aragorn mentions this figure in passing in The Fellowship of the Ring, when discussing Gandalf’s ability to find his way in the blackness of Moria:
`Do not be afraid! I have been with him on many a journey, if never on one so dark; and there are tales of Rivendell of greater deeds of his than any that I have seen. He will not go astray-if there is any path to find. He has led us in here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself. He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel.'
Before The Return of the King was released, in a June 1955 letter to a book reviewer, Tolkien expressed how the notion that he ‘just made stuff up as he went along’ was not normal for him. Standard practice was for him to ponder something to find out its origins and roots. There were some exceptions: ‘I have yet to discover anything about the cats of Queen Beruthiel’, he wrote at that time. A few months later, Tolkien expanded on how The Silmarillion and his greater legendarium arose in his mind, ‘except only the cats of Queen Beruthiel’.
It was ten years later, in 1966, that one of Tolkien’s postgraduate students asked if she could interview him. She asked him about the cats of Queen Beruthiel. He replied
‘Beruthiel. I don’t really know anything of her…. She just popped up, and obviously called for attention, but I don’t really know anything certain about her; though oddly enough I have a notion that she was the wife of one of the ship-kings of Pelargir…’
Beruthiel, it turned out, was the queen of the twelfth King of Gondor. The city of Pelargir, at the mouth of the Anduin, was a great port, but Beruthiel hated the sea and wanted to live in Osgiliath instead. She was a dark lady, wearing only black and silver, who surrounded herself with ‘tormented sculptures’. In the version of the story given in Unfinished Tales, Beruthiel had ten cats ‘with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor.’ In the interview version, Tolkien said that when Beruthiel went to Osgiliath her true nature came to the fore: ‘she was a black Numenorean in origin, I guess’. Whereas in Unfinished Tales, the cats had been her slaves, in the interview, Tolkien elaborated that she was ‘one of these people who loathe cats, but cats will jump on them and follow them about – you know how sometimes they pursue people who hate them?’
In the end, according to Tolkien’s more fully-fleshed-out thoughts, Beruthiel’s name was erased from the Book of the Kings, ‘but the memory of men is not wholly shut in books, and the cats of Queen Beruthiel never passed wholly out of men’s speech,’ which is how she gets mentioned by Aragorn centuries later.
‘had her set on a ship alone with her cats and set adrift in the sea before a north wind. The ship was last seen flying past Umbar under a sickle moon with a cat at the masthead and another as a figure-head on the prow.’
Though this is a small example, it opens the door to a much more fundamental truth about Tolkien’s work: Middle-earth and its contents, while being assembled initially perhaps as a conglomeration of imagery, were then moulded into shape by a particular kind of imagination. This process of ‘sub-creation’ was not satisfied even with casual references made on impulse by characters in passing - such things had to be kneaded into a whole. And the whole had to be shaped like the world itself - streamed out over long periods of time and pressed into a thorough and convincing consistency of reality.
Powerful examples can be found of the results.
For much more about Tolkien, you'll have to wait for my forthcoming book about him. Or you can visit a secret page on my website here.