The True Stories Behind Queen Beruthiel and Her Cats

It’s been awhile, so if you need a quick reminder of my intent with this project, click here.

Today’s passage opens with Aragorn giving a pep talk to the hobbits in the Mines of Moria. Gandalf had stopped walking and was whispering to Gimli. Aragorn assured them that Gandalf had faced greater perils than this. “He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Beruthiel.”

This is basically like saying that someone is as illusive as Robert Denby. There’s no prior reference – who is Queen Beruthiel? Who was Robert Denby? Let’s find out! (About Queen Beruthiel – I’ll leave Robert Denby alone.)

This line actually comes from the first draft, written in August of 1939. In that, it was the narrator, and not Aragorn, who brought up the Queen and her cats. Gandalf was, “better at steering in a tunnel than a goblin, and less likely to be lost in the wood than a hobbit, and surer of finding the way through night as black as any can that ever walked.”

Tolkien quickly changed the last bit to “then is the cat of Benish Armon.” That immediately became “than the cats of Queen Tamar.” Tamar was renamed Margoliente and then Beruthiel. The line was then rewritten as “and surer of finding the way through night as black as the Pit than the cats of Queen Beruthiel.” And this is where it came to rest before taking the form it did in the final published version.

But that is hardly the full story. After the release of Two Towers, but before Return of the King was came out, in a June 1955 letter (#163) to a book reviewer, Tolkien explained a bit of his writing process, especially about how he just made some stuff up as he went along. Typically, he’d be able to suss out the details, but in some places, that had not happened: “I have yet to discover anything about the cats of Queen Beruthiel.”

Then, a few months later in November, Tolkien replied (#174) to a suggestion that the Silmarillion might be published as a serial if his current publisher passed on it. Sadly, Tolkien believed that because of the great interest in Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion was sure to be picked up. (Ugh…)

Expanding a bit on how the Silmarillion and his greater legendarium worked, Tolkien described how pretty much everything mentioned as an aside in Lord of the Rings was part of that greater story – “except only the cats of Queen Beruthiel.”

And then, in still another letter, this one written in January of the following year (#180), Tolkien made a note describing the same thing he had mentioned in the previous letter. Curiously, he now added that he had left out “the names and adventures of the other 2 wizards.”

But even this isn’t the full story. In the chapter on the Istari from Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien explained that his father’s description and naming of the two other wizards most definitely was written long after Lord of the Rings was published. Then, in an end note, he references the 1956 letter, and goes on to tell the story of Queen Beruthiel. However, he doesn’t really explain when or where it came from.

That was left up to Hammond & Scull to figure out. In the late spring or early summer of 1966, one of Tolkien’s postgraduate students asked if she could interview him. He agreed, and, among other things, she asked about the cats of Queen Beruthiel. This was probably what got him thinking about it again, and was probably when he invented the story – eleven years after this reference was first published (and twenty-seven years after he first jotted it down in the first draft).

He told his student: “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….”

The story he told her differs in some ways to the one written down in the note in Unfinished Tales, though the latter is not in Tolkien’s own words, but paraphrased by Christopher.

Beruthiel was the queen of the twelfth King of Gondor (the first “ship-king”). The city of Pelargir, at the mouth of the Anduin, was a great port. The only problem was that Beruthiel hated the sea, hated the smell of fish, and wanted to live in Osgiliath instead. She was kind of a dark lady, who wore only black and silver, and surrounded herself with “tormented sculptures.”

In the Unfinished Tales version, she had ten cats – nine black and one white, “with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor.” She would also set her white cat to spy upon the black cats and torment them.

In the interview version, Tolkien went on to explain that when Beruthiel went to Osgiliath she became or returned to the bad – “she was a black Numenorean in origin, I guess”. He also altered her relationship with the cats. While in Unfinished Tales, the cats were her slaves, in the interview, he said 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?”

Apparently, Beruthiel began to torture the cats for her own amusement. She kept a few to use as spies, which brings us back to the Unfinished Tales version.

The men of Gondor were terrified of the cats as they might learn their darkest secrets. Tolkien wrote more, but, according to his son, it was “almost totally illegible… except for the ending.”

Her 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 Aragorn knew to reference her.

Fed up with Beruthiel and her cats, the King “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.”

Camera: Zeiss-Ikon Ikoflex || Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D (expired 08/1994)(xpro as C-41)

Camera: Zeiss-Ikon Ikoflex || Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D (expired 08/1994)(xpro as C-41)

    A Few Notes

  • I love how he ended this tale with what’s probably a fable. More than likely, the King set her adrift and that was the last anyone saw of her and her feline thralls.
  • I don’t want to assume anything, but it seems that having both the two other wizards and Queen Beruthiel stories go untold bugged Tolkien. He never got around to telling much about the two other wizards, but I’m glad the story with the cats was outlined.
  • That it took him twenty-seven years to plot out this bit of a story is wonderful.
  • Incidentally, this period of time (August of 1966) saw Tolkien also working on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as a bit of the Children of Hurin story.
  • All this without mentioning Tolkien’s opinions on cats!

About the Photo
Weirdly, this is the only photo I have of a cat (actually, that’s not true – I just took another). While I certainly adore them, they are almost never photogenic for me. Even this fellow turned his back on me right when I was ready to snap the shutter.

  • Day 163
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 804 (350 from Rivendell)
  • 87 miles to Lothlórien
  • 975 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s place in the narrative begins with: ‘Do not be afraid!’ and ends with …and then grew still. Book II, Chapter 3. Inside the gate of Moria! 21st day out of Rivendell. January 13, 3019 TA. (map)


21 thoughts on “The True Stories Behind Queen Beruthiel and Her Cats

  1. In all of my readings, I never gave much attention to Queen Beruthiel and her cats. (Honestly, I don’t even remember it.) Thanks for not only giving me something to look for next time around but also the rest of the story!

    • The bit about a cat being at the masthead really makes me happy. It seems the fellow on the masthead was still alive. However, I don’t know enough about boats to know the difference between a masthead and prow. I sort of thought they were the same thing.

      Anyway, I’m really happy I dug this deep into something that’s basically a throwaway line. But then, that’s my bread and butter.

    • Wonderful! Thanks! I couldn’t remember where in the book it was, but knew the note from Unfinished Tales. I was absolutely delighted that I came across it so soon.

  2. You’re as elusive as Queen Beruthiel!

    Seriously never made the connection, but once I hear it, it’s hilarious. I’ll never read it again without hearing William Sylvester…

    It’s odd how in fiction these throwaway references are more acceptable. In films or tv shows, it stands out somehow. In books, it seems appropriately mythic and literary.

    • That’s so true. In Tolkien, it just seems like he’s expanding his subcreation. But in Riding with Death, it sort of feels like they just crammed two basically unrelated stories together.

      I’m on the air… I’m on the air…

    • Thanks! One of the fun things about reading LotR so slowly is that you don’t really have a choice to skim anything. Sometimes, I really have to dig for something to write about. It makes the little details so important.

    • I’m glad that people are at least remembering the line. There’s definitely something to that. Sure, you’re not going to work your way through the Appendices and say, “hey wait a minute! What about Queen Beruthiel?” But it’s fun that Tolkien sort of did – though it took him a couple decades.

      • Yeah is better late than never I guess, and it’s one of them lines that as you read it, it makes you wonder who it is. Haha you would need some seriously gifted memory skills to reach the appendices after all them pages that come afterwards and wonder that.

  3. Tolkien seems not to have liked cats 😦

    Tevildo on his “sunning terrace” in BoLT 2 is a cat – and a very nasty one – a sort of kitty Shelob;
    the Eye has a “slit” that is described as being “yellow as a cat’s” (Book 2, “The Mirror of Galadriel”);
    and now there is the reference to Queen Beruthiel.

    Since in one of his Letters he compares the Numenoreans to the Egyptians, & since the Egyptians worshipped the puss-goddess Bast, one would have thought the Numenoreans, and their creator, would be rather keen on them. But it seems not 😦

    • He really didn’t like cats, yeah. It’s a bummer, but hey, he can’t be right about everything! I’ll forgive him this transgression.

      The BoLT cats stuff is pretty awesome. That whole book is just fascinating. After I finish this LotR project, I really want to delve into the Silm – maybe a page a day or something.

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