What happened to the cats of Queen Berúthiel?

Reporting to Berúthiel by (c) Paula DiSante
Reporting to Berúthiel by (c) Paula DiSante

One of the things that I like so much about the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien is that he seems to be mentioning details in the texts as an apparently small matter, only hinted at and never fully explained. With some these enigmas end up in frenzied attempts to find the true meaning in them or if not explainable at any given time considering them flaws, even mistakes of the writer, where I can only find enjoyment in the mystery. However, there is one such passage in The Lord of the Rings I would like to shed some light on – the cats of Queen Berúthiel.

Remember this remark by Aragorn in Moria, talking about Gandalf:

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.’ [LotR, Bk II, Chp 4, A Journey in the Dark]

Well, who is Queen Berúthiel? Why would she have cats so good at stalking the night that Aragorn would use them as a metaphor for the certainty of being able to find the right path – always?

On a recent reread of The History of Middle-earth I came past a footnote by Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales, in the chapter on The Istari, to be more precise. This footnote (#7) appears on page 401 of my edition (UT by JRRT, Unwin, 1982):

In a letter written in 1956 my father said that “There is hardly any reference in The Lord of the Rings to things that do not actually exist, on its own plane (of secondary or sub-creational reality),” and added in footnote to this: “The cats of Queen Berúthiel and the names of the other two wizards (five minus Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast) are all that I recollect.” (In Moria Aragorn said of Gandalf that “He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel” (The Fellowship of the Ring II 4).)

Even the story of Queen Berúthiel does exist, however, if only in a very “primitive” outline, in one part illegible. She was the nefarious, solitary, and loveless wife of Tarannon, twelfth King of Gondor (Third Age 830-913) and first of the “Ship-kings“, who took the crown in the name of Falastur “Lord of the Coasts,” and was the first childless king (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, I, ii and iv). Berúthiel lived in the King’s House in Osgiliath, hating the sounds and smells of the sea and the house that Tarannon built below Pelargir “upon arches whose feet stood deep in the wide waters of Ethir Anduin;” she hated all making, all colours and elaborate adornment, wearing only black and silver and living in bare chambers, and the gardens of the house in Osgiliath were filled with tormented sculptures beneath cypresses and yews. She had nine black cats and one white, her slaves, with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, so that she knew those things “that men wish most to keep hidden,” setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them. No man in Gondor dared touch them; all were afraid of them, and cursed when they saw them pass. What follows is almost wholly illegible in the unique manuscript, except to the ending, which states that 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 Berúthiel never passed wholly out of men’s speech”), and that King Tarannon had her set on a ship alone with her cats and set adrift on 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. [my emphasis]

Now, if there ever was an illustration I desperately needed to be done by one of the many talented artists inspired by Tolkien’s writing, this might be it 🤩

The letter CJRT was referring to is #180 in Letters as edited by Humphrey Carpenter. I quite love it that Tolkien’s remark on this is just another footnote (did I mention I love them and no good book should go without them as Terry Pratchett well knew – see for some statistics here?) And no, I am not going the Tevildo or he didn’t like cats! route.

Interestingly enough, there is an interview with J.R.R. Tolkien where he mentions this particular Queen again.

“[Tolkien] There’s one exception that puzzles me—Berúthiel. I really don’t know anything of her—you remember Aragorn’s allusion in Book I (page 325) to the cats of Queen Berúthiel, that could find their way home on a blind night? 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. She loathed the smell of the sea, and fish, and the gulls. Rather like Skadi, the giantess, who came to the gods in Valhalla, demanding a recompense for the accidental death of her father. She wanted a husband. The gods all lined up behind a curtain, and she selected the pair of feet that appealed to her most. She thought she’d got Baldur, the beautiful god, but it turned out to be Njord, the sea-god, and after she’d married him, she got absolutely fed up with the seaside life, and the gulls kept her awake, and finally she went back to live in Jotunheim.

“Well, Berúthiel went back to live in the inland city, and went to the bad (or returned to it—she was a black Númenorean in origin, I guess). 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? I have a friend like that. I’m afraid she took to torturing them for amusement, but she kept some and used them—trained them to go on evil errands by night, to spy on her enemies or terrify them.”

[Castell] I should very much have liked to hear more about Queen Berúthiel, who sent a pleasant grue down my spine—it is not often you have the chance to listen to an entirely new story from your favourite storyteller. [Source]

New Worlds magazine, November 1955, vol. 50, no. 168. picture credit: isfdb.org

New Worlds magazine, November 1955, vol. 50, no. 168. picture credit: isfdb.org

This interview Tolkien gave in 1966 to Daphne Castell, a former student of his, and it appeared in New Worlds magazine (whose editor was the Tolkien-loving [not!] Michael Moorcock); please also note that James Cawthorn provided illustrations for this who is considered the first professional artist to have done illustrations of Middle-earth other than Tolkien himself (I will have to verify that, tho! 😄) For more information why the more and more reserved Tolkien gave an interview to her do read Colin Duriez’ research on this.

It does not come as a surprise that two of the most excellent Tolkien researchers of all time, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, get in the last word on Queen Berúthiel. 😇

In their Readers’ Companion to The Lord of the Rings, they deal with Aragorn’s remark on pages 283-284 [my edition is from 2005] and come to the conclusion that the outline mentioned above by Christopher was written by JRRT after he had talked to Castell. Given the fact that he had written to Auden in 1955 [Letters, #163]:

I have yet to discover anything about the cats of Queen Berúthiel.

… it is quite interesting to think that for many years this particular person who actually quite disliked her pets was on Tolkien’s mind until he wrote a few words on her existence.


Castell, D. (1966). The Realm of Tolkien. News Worlds, 50 (168).
Hammond, W. G. & Scull, C. (2005). The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion.
Tolkien, J. R. R. & Tolkien, Christopher. (1982). Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth.
Tolkien, J. R. R. & Tolkien, Christopher. (1988). The History of The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien, J. R. R. & Carpenter, Humphrey. (1981). The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994). The Lord of the Rings.

Picture credit (c) Paula DiSante. Reporting to Berúthiel.

Marcel R. Bülles

Marcel R. Bülles is the author of thetolkienist.com, a specialist blog centering on worldwide Tolkien fandom, geekdom and research. He works as a freelance translator, journalist and writer and is the founder of the German Tolkien Society as well as a co-founder to RingCon, Europe's formerly biggest fantasy film convention. You can find him in cafés all over the world sipping an espresso blogging, writing, reading. At one point he was married to an extremely lovely French lady by the nickname of Sauron. Yes, that Sauron. He is also active with the International Tolkien Fellowship on Facebook and the Tolkien Folk on Instagram.