Saturday 17 August 2013

Philosophizing   on Fall of Arthur

This is the second of my posts on The Fall of Arthur. Here I intend to give some more thoughts on the three discussions I identified in the previous post, ‘The Fall of Arthur — A Review’:

  1. Tolkien's portrait of Guinever
  2. The connection to the Silmarillion mythology
  3. Juxtaposing the poem with his comments on the faults of the Arthurian world in his famous 1951 letter to Milton Waldman. 
Much of this is more or less a copy of things I have posted elsewhere before this, just slightly reworked for this format. The third and last post is intended to be simply a collection of links to reviews by others. 

The Fall of Guinevere

Tolkien's portrait of his Guinever is probably the issue that has attracted the most negative comments even from reviewers / commentators known to be sympathetic towards Tolkien. I have collected a few such comments below:

Renée Vink, ‘Lancelot's death in battle in The Fall of Arthur’, 2013-06-04: “his picture of Guinevere could hardly have been more misogynist - she resembles Morgan le Fay at her worst” (the ensuing discussing between Renée and Carl Hostetter, while severely hampered by the 160 character limit on comments, is also worth reading).

David Bratman, ‘it's just a flesh wound’, 2013-05-28: “[Mordred] rushes to the bower of Guinever, for whom he secretly lusts, and tells her she can be his queen or his slave, and she'd better choose quickly. Guinever defies him gallantly, and uses the little time he allows her to sneak off and run away, thereby earning herself a minor place among Tolkien's little-known list of gutsy female characters.

John D. Rateliff, ‘The Fall of Arthur’, 2013-05-23, “in Guinevere he's produced what I think must be his least sympathetic female character. That should make for some interesting discussions.

John Garth, ‘Tolkien’s Unfinished Epic: ‘The Fall of Arthur’’ on The Daily Beast, 2013-05-23: “Lancelot has an impulsive, glad optimism out of tune with the times. His love of Guinevere is misplaced: she is a “greedy hearted” hoarder of gold or love, whose feelings ill-suit the Round Table’s ethos of public service, honour and chivalry: a “lady ruthless, / fair as fay-woman and fell-minded / in the world walking for the woe of men.” Mordred is a slave to his lust for the Queen, finding no outlet for his thwarted energies except in scheming action.

Tom Shippey, ‘Tolkien’s King Arthur’ in The Times Literary Supplement, 2013-06-26, “The price of this tinkering with the story is paid, alas, by Guinevere, who is treated with something like the scorn and anger reserved for her in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. She seduced Lancelot. She betrayed Arthur. She does flee from Mordred, but her penitent death in Amesbury is removed, and the last words on her are, “Guinevere grew grey in the grey shadow / all things losing who at all things grasped”.

Anna Smol, ‘“Wild blow the winds of war”: Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur’ 2013-06-21, “In her we see a woman who is greedy for love and glory, dissatisfied with her present lot, and extremely clever in negotiating her precarious situation. There is much more that can and will be said about these characters by Tolkien readers and scholars.

Andrew O'Hehir, ‘Legend Retold’ in The New York Times, 2013-06-21, “As for Guinevere, the Helen of this particular war, if she is in some respects a stock female character — wily and manipulative, more than willing to trade on her sexuality for power — she is nonetheless an unusually robust woman in Tolkien’s universe, full of vigor and intelligence.

Kathy Cawsey, ‘The Lord of the Round Table’, 2013-08-01, “I don’t think Guinever, for example, could have been written today in the way Tolkien writes her [...]. Tolkien doesn’t spare much understanding or pity for Guinever. Throughout both the completed section and the fragments of drafts, Guinevere’s love for Lancelot is equated to greed, and Tolkien blames her (not Lancelot) almost entirely for the love affair.

Bruce Charlton, ‘Review of The Fall of Arthur by JRR Tolkien’, 2013-06-07, “This version of the Arthur legend is focused around the character of Guinevere - who is beautiful, cold-hearted, selfish and evil: she instigates the plots, and the main male characters - Arthur, Lancelot and Mordred - are in thrall to her fey glamour (only Gawain perceives her true nature).

Sørina Higgins is at best suggestive in speaking of “Lancelot and Guinevere’s treasonous love” (‘King Arthur was an Elf!’ on Curator, 2013-06-21), while other commentators and reviewers (Capon, Gilsdorf, Hand, Whyte) do not (yet) comment on this particular aspect of the poem.

It is tempting to begin to argue with every single of these comments — there is in each of them something that I think misses the point, even if just slightly, but that would soon grow far too bulky even for me.

Rateliff brings up an interesting way to look at this: Tolkien's other female characters. The character that comes to mind to me as the closest parallel to Guinever (obviously this is limited by my inability to recall all of Tolkien's characters) is Isfin / Aradhel — sister to Turgon of Gondolin. There is in her character some of the same wilfulness that I see in Guinever, the same spoiled belief in her own right to get her way both with things and with other people.

It is, to my mind, a serious mistake, a logical fallacy even, to extrapolate the portrait of Guinever to women in general: Tolkien's Guinever is a sample of exactly one, she is princess, queen and adulteress, and thus so exceptional in every sense that we can say absolutely nothing about Tolkien's, or even his Fall of Arthur narrator's, views on women in general. At best we can say something about how he viewed adulterous people whose position require them to act as role models of virtue (here we have in the poem a sample of two — still hardly enough for generalizations). I fully understand what emotional mechanisms prompt e.g. Renée Vink to call the picture of Guinever ‘misogynist’, but in terms of critical thinking this is nonetheless a logical fallacy.

And in these comments, I think I have already begun to give hints of my own reading of Guinever.

I think that Tolkien's characterization of his Guinever is overwhelmingly shaped by the inevitable role that she plays in the story: adulteress, one who should have been a role model, a ideal of faithfulness and virtue for all the court to follow and look up to, but who fell, and falling dragged with her the unity of the Round Table. From this, Tolkien tries to portray a woman who might play such a role, but he does not (as Charlton suggests) portray her as actually evil — he creates a wilful and strong woman, but one that is spoiled and who is used to have her way with other people, and who cannot accept rejection.
Guinevere grew grey    in the grey shadow
all things losing    who at all things grasped.
Grasping at all things, with little concern of what it might do to others — selfish, spoiled, grasping, but never evil.

I hope that someone manages to get in a paper about Guinever in the announced Mythopoeic Press book,  Women in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, projected for spring 2014. I do hope that this book will not be dominated by a so-called ‘politically correct’ perspective (while Tolkien was certainly respectful of women and strongly supported women's education at Oxford, his views on women can hardly be called politically correct today) or by misogynists finding a kindred spirit in their own confirmation bias rather than in Tolkien. Fortunately both these scenarios appear highly unlikely with Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan at the helm.

The Connection to the Quenta

As explained in my review, Tolkien's notes to the unwritten ending of The Fall of Arthur indicate that he planned to send Lancelot across the sea to Avalon in the wake of Arthur, never to return, and they also reveal that Tolkien explicitly placed this Avalon as the Lonely Isle in the Bay of Faërie – i.e. Avalon was Tol Eressëa. Since we have, as demonstrated by Christopher Tolkien in The History of Middle-earth, already seen Tolkien linking from his mythology to the Arthurian world by stating, within the sub-created Secondary World of his mythology, that the Arthurian Avalon was identical to Tol Eressëa, the linking here is the other way around – here the link is shown to exist also in the Secondary World of King Arthur.

Strengthening this link by making it bi-directional has some rather significant consequences. In mathematical theory, a bi-directional implication is the same as an equivalence, and the implication here is that Tolkien is telling us that the Arthurian world (or at least his Arthurian world) and his Silmarillion world are equivalent – that they are the same. This also allows us to speculate what the consequences of this equivalence might be on the internal history of the Silmarillion world.

In his very perceptive review, ‘Tolkien’s Unfinished Epic: ‘The Fall of Arthur’’, John Garth asks
Was Tolkien’s decision to send Lancelot to Avalon, reconfigured as the island of the High Elves, simply self-indulgence by an author whose writings were so often drawn into the orbit of Middle-earth—something no more significant than when a whale carries the dog-hero of his children’s story Roverandom within sight of the Bay of Faërie and away again? Or was Tolkien actually planning to use The Fall of Arthur to introduce readers to his Silmarillion stories, making Lancelot the mariner who would learn those ‘lost tales’ from the Elves of Avalon? 
The idea of Lancelot in the role of Eriol / Ælfwine, the mariner who comes to Tol Eressëa / Avalon and there hears the old myths and legends from the Elves that live there, is, to my mind, a more likely scenario than the idea that Sørina Higgins suggests in her review, ‘King Arthur was an Elf!’, where she states “Here is the key: Lancelot is Eärendel.” Still, David Bratman has an important point on his blog-posted review, ‘it's just a flesh wound’, in which he points out
The suggestion that Lancelot is to be identified with Eriol/Ælfwine, the sea-wanderer who, in Tolkien's earliest tales, comes to Tol Eressëa and has the stories of the Silmarillion recounted to him, doesn't hold up for me, because the important thing about Ælfwine is that he comes back and passes on those stories. By longing for the West, but we never learn if he gets there or not, it seems to me that Lancelot here is to be placed with Tuor and Amandil, who share his yearning and his unknown fate.
David Bratman's protest is, I think, very valid. the role of Eriol / Ælfwine is not just to sail to Avalon / Tol Eressëa and there hear the legends told from the Elves – it is a far more important aspect, particularly in the earlier stages of the legendarium, that Eriol / Ælfwine bring the stories back to England. However, comparing Lancelot to Tuor and Amandil doesn't quite do it either: they may be Men and their fate be unknown (and in these respects they are fine matches), but their purposes are very different from Lancelot, as are the general circumstances of their voyages.

What we do know is that Tolkien explicitly identified Tol Eressëa with Avalon (as Bratman also points out, this should not really be a surprise as this is documented in The History of Middle-earth), that Lancelot (in a move unique to Tolkien's version of the story) takes sail to follow Arthur to Avalon and never to return, and that Tolkien in his drafting regarding Lancelot's voyage to Avalon refers to the imagery of Eärendel's voyage to Valinor.

There are parallels in Lancelot to all of the characters mentioned, Eriol / Ælfwine, Tuor, Amandil, and Eärendel, but in no case is the match of a quality that would allow us to assume that Lancelot is in any way fulfilling that exact role in the the legendarium, and this would indeed be very surprising: Lancelot, when all is said and done, is not English, at best he is a Briton, closely related to the Celtic people that inhabited England before it became England.

Having said all this, I do not think that it is in such specific links that we should seek the importance of the link.

To me, the significance is simply in the existence of this link. What has been revealed previously in The History of Middle-earth of the identification of Tol Eressëa with Avalon (once the idea in The Book of Lost Tales of identifying Tol Eressëa with Britain had been abandoned) is, like the initial linking of The Hobbit to the legendarium, a one-way link: the Quenta is linked to the Arthurian world. The references in The Fall of Arthur makes this link two-way by also linking the Arthurian world to the Quenta.

If we take Shippey's ideas about Tolkien's legendarium as a kind of asterisk-mythology for the English, this double-sided linking to the Briton / Celtic world of Arthur is important because it shows Tolkien understanding something important about mythologies in the real world: particularly how mythologies tend to merge and meld. When invading tribes take over a land, their myths and legends will become dominant, but the myths and legends of the people whom they have conquered will also enter into the mythology of the new place, just as elements of their language will sneak in. Neither language nor myth are, in Tolkien's views, independent of land – of the physical landscape of the people, and thus the myths and legends and language of the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons in any case had to be adapted to the new physical lands that they found themselves inhabiting, and one, I think quite natural, route for this was to adopt into their own elements of those that had lived in, on and of the land before them.

So, if you will bear with me for a moment longer as I extrapolate my musings further into the realm of speculative hypotheses, I think I am inching my way towards suggesting that Tolkien understood that anything attempting to be an asterisk-mythology for the Ænglisc would, necessarily, also have to be able to explain much of the Celtic world, including the incorporation of the Arthurian world, and the reverse-connecting that we see in The Fall of Arthur is an expression of that understanding.

What is wrong with the Arthurian World?

This is actually a very interesting question. It is raised in a thread on the LotR-Plaza, ‘Arthur: Mythology and History’.

Essentially this is an exploration of the ties between Tolkien's treatment of the Arthurian world in The Fall of Arthur and his later letter to Milton Waldman in which he bemoans the absence of a truly English mythology, ‘and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history’ that is ‘bound up with [the]tongue and soil’ of England of the quality that Tolkien sought.
There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its ‘faerie’ is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.

For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian days. And I will not repeat what I tried to say in my essay, which you read.)

Carpenter, Humphrey; Tolkien, Christopher. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition. Letter no. 131 to Milton Waldman.
The key here is the quality that Tolkien sought – what was that quality?

One of the benefits of now having The Fall of Arthur is that it can give us yet another piece to the puzzle of figuring out what the quality was, that Tolkien sought – what he found in elements in the mythologies of other peoples, and which he evidently was trying to create with his legendarium. It might no longer have been the ‘mythology for England’ that Carpenter writes about, but the quality that Tolkien sought was doubtlessly much the same when he was writing Waldman as it had been when he set down the first of his Lost Tales more than thirty years earlier.

Another perspective on this that we may get to understand a little better by juxtaposing the letter with The Fall of Arthur is Tolkien's statement that the explicit inclusion of the Christian religion is a problem for the Arthurian world insofar as one would see it as myth or fairy-story. All this Matter of Britain of course have some strong ties to myth and, not least, to fairy-story – we have magic, a wizard, a special sword, etc. but also a divine object and a divine quest, but Tolkien nonetheless thought that this was fatally flawed as myth and fairy-story, even though his own poem also includes the Christian religion – the conflict between Arthur and the Saxons (and presumably also the Angles and the Jutes) is made one of Christian Arthur against heathens, and we are told how their souls are lost when they die.


  1. Dear Troels,

    once again a very enlightening read; I do agree with your reaction respecting some of the more critical voices on FoA and do hope for some high-quality volume on the 'women and the works of Tolkien' - both the author and the topic deserve it.

    With posts like yours and the discussions by Shippey, Garth, Bratman, Vinke etc. there really isn't much to add :)

    However, I will try my hand at something from a slightly different angle and do hope it to be published at some time later in the year.

    1. Thank you very much, Marcel.

      There is surely a lot to add even to these questions.

      The connection to the Silmarillion legendarium deserves further thought, though I hope it will it will go beyond fan-fiction speculations about Arthur and Lancelot in Tol Eressëa ... :)

      There is a lot to say about Tolkien as an alliterative poet, and not least his use of riddling imagery in his writings – akin to inventing new kennings even in his prose.

      And of course the whole thing about his comments on myth and fairy-tale in that letter has only just started. What was the quality he sought? Why could myth and fairy-tale not explicitly involve the Christian religion? What did he see his Arthurian poem as if he didn't think it was myth or fairy-story?

      Christopher Tolkien's essay on the poem in the Arthurian tradition is probably not the last to be said on that issue – Kathy Cawley, for instance, has some interesting comments about its place in the modern end of that tradition.

      This is just off the top of my head – there will be loads of topics to look into that haven't occurred to anyone yet :-)

  2. Very perceptive review, Troels. I entirely agree with you regarding Guinever's treatment in _The Fall of Arthur_. Despite the respect I owe to Renée Vink, I think she is sorely mistaken. One example is not sufficient to demonstrate misogyny, especially when the extant poem is barely the beginning of the work that was to be. And indeed, Guinever demonstrates some qualities, such as courage and determination, despite her flaws.

    I'd like to correct one point, however: in all versions of Lancelot's stories, he is a Breton, not a Briton. As such, he is one of only two heroes from Brittany in Tolkien's works, the other being Aotrou. Interestingly, both are courageous but sinful men, who later deeply repent (and pay the price for) their mistake.

    1. Thank you, Damien.

      My intention was to use ‘Briton’ to refer to the Celtic peoples on both sides of the channel, though checking up in Carl Phelpstead's Tolkien and Wales (which is really very excellent!) shows that this usage is medieval – and though I am middle-aged, I can hardly claim to be of the Middle Ages ;-)

      (On the other hand, Phelpstead notes that Tolkien, in his translation of Sir Orfeo “treats modern English ‘Britain’ and ‘Briton’ as if they could still also mean ‘Brittany’ and ‘Bretons’, as they could in Middle English.” At least I am in good company :-) )

  3. Troels,

    I actually do agree with you on the character of Guinever -- I do not think that Tolkien was creating a misogynistic picture of the queen. Although I have pointed out some of Guinever's negative characteristics, that alone doesn't qualify her as a negative image of all women. In fact, I think that Tolkien is able to suggest, in very few lines, a complex character for Guinever. One of my favourite moments is when Mordred comes running up the stairs to her bower and stands at her door staring at her with "burning eyes." She returns a proud and challenging look but in her heart she is fearful. When I consider her situation at that moment -- she is completely isolated -- I can feel sympathy for her plight and I can admire her cleverness and bravery in getting herself out of that position. Her political situation is filled with potential dangers, and I think she is aware of that. It's remarkable that Tolkien is able to suggest so much within so few lines.

    Thanks for raising the other issues as well about the relation of Tolkien's mythology to the Arthurian world. Lots of food for thought!


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