Tolkien and the Cats of Queen Berúthiel

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’.