This book follows the The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009), and is likewise another of J. R. R. Tolkien’s unfinished poems in contemporary English constructed upon an armature of ancient poetic meter. Tolkien was steeped in ancient northern languages and of course, was deeply influenced by the books written in those languages. Very little of England’s original mythic material survived the invasion of the Romans, and Tolkien felt this loss quite deeply. The story of King Arthur is perhaps the best-known tale that is distinctly English in origin, so it held a place of overwhelming importance in the professor’s study of the Old English epic tales and bardic language.
Professor Tolkien began writing his version of the story of King Arthur’s fall in the early 1930s. The work was abandoned around the time of the publication of “The Hobbit” in 1937. There are a few remarks in later correspondence contained in his files that indicate he longed to return to the project. Unfortunately, with one thing or another, he was unable to do so. Christopher admits that this is the literary project that he most wishes he father would have completed.
The book’s format is similar to that of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. Christopher provides introductory remarks that give the reader a context for understanding the work, followed by the surviving manuscript in its most finished form. The poem tells the story of Arthur’s overseas wars, Guinevere’s flight from Camelot, and the great sea battle against Mordred and his army upon his return to Britain. It also tells of the exiled Lancelot’s torment and guilt. The poem is divided into sections called Cantos, each with a descriptive title:
Canto I: How Arthur and Gawain went to war and rode into the East
Canto II: How the Frisian ship brought news, and Mordred gathered his host and went to
Camelot seeking the Queen.
Canto III: Of Sir Lancelot, who abode in Benwick
Canto IV: How Arthur returned at morn and by Sir Gawain’s hand won the passage of the sea
Canto V: Of the setting of the sun at Romeril
The poem is followed by detailed end notes about some of the more obscure notes and references. The following (unnumbered) chapters include The Poem in Arthurian Tradition (p 71) which provides comparisons to medieval Arthurian material; The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion (p 123) discusses how Arthurian lore influenced the epic Middle Earth sagas; and The Evolution of the Poem (p 169), which gives redactions of various sections of the work to show how he developed and modified the material and the order in which sections were finally presented.
A great deal of the Professor’s thought and effort went into the creation of this poem, as there are 120 pages of drafts, experiments in verse, a few narrative synopses to help him organize the material and arrange the order in which the story unfolds, and other notes. Tolkien considered the style and plot-line precedents for his Arthurian poem by studying the Old English and old French Arthurian poetry, prose romances, and English and Welsh chronicles (see below).
The Appendix features extracted passages from the transcript of Professor Tolkien’s January 14, 1938 BBC talk on “Anglo-Saxon Verse.” It begins with a passage from the Old English poem from the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, The Battle of Brunanburh. This poem relates the events of a tenth century war in which Aethelstan, the grandson of Aelfred, was victorious over an alliance of Norse, Scots, and Welsh kings and chieftains. Tolkien explains the techniques of Old English bardic verse, and the rules and aims of bardic poetry that survived well into the 14th century. This poetry was elaborate, highly polished, and was a form of entertainment prized by highly cultivated men and women. Old English poetry was a native form that developed independently of the classic models, and traces back to the time before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. The poetic forms are in some ways identical to Old Norse poetry, which depends not on rhymes but on sounds and stresses in parallel phrases.
The Fall of Arthur preserves yet another fragment of the Tolkien legacy. He was one of the most important authors and thinkers of the 20th century, and his son Christopher is meticulously preserving his unpublished writings for future generations. The poem itself is a well-considered re-write of the events surrounding Arthur’s demise. It is somewhat puzzling that Tolkien addressed only the fall rather than the rise and reign of Arthur, but perhaps the substance of tragic ends and sailing off into the West at death was more gripping to his poetic imagination. Arthur’s Avalon was transformed into Tolkien’s Tol Eressëa in The Silmarillion, “In Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, which is Avallon, for it is within sight of Valinor and the light of the Blessed Realm.” (pg 152). Likewise, many of the heroic personae of Middle Earth sail off into the West at the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth – and like Arthur, do not die, but continue to exist on in a land of legend. It is perhaps that alternative to death that is one of the most remarkable features of the Middle Earth legends. Humans have always longed for a path to immortality, and Tolkien answers that need in his books.
It’s fascinating to obtain a glimpse of how the heroic personalities and deeds of the Arthurian legends fed into Tolkien’s elaborate Middle Earth mythologies and histories. When set beside similar influences in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, the avid reader begins to comprehend the vast creative crucible of Tolkien’s inspiration and its strong reliance upon ancient heroic epic poetry and legends. This book is a must-read for all rabid Tolkien fans!
Review by Elizabeth Hazel
Author: By J. R. R. Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
pp. 233, $25
Note: Early Arthurian works cited in the book include: the alliterative Morte Arthur, the 14th century stanzaic Le Morte Arthur, and Sir Thomas Malory’s The Tale of the Noble Arthur, book #5 Tale of the Death of Arthur. He also referred to the French version of the story: Mort Artu, Conte de la Charette by Chretien de Troyes (12th century), the tenth century chronicle Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) entry for 537 AD, which refers to the Battle of Camden in which Arthur and Medrant fell. Further references include writings by Gerald of Wales from the twelfth century, Laзamon’s Brut, the Roman de Brut by Wace (Norman, 1155 AD), and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical Historia Regnum Britannieae and Vita Merlini.