Friday 16 August 2013

The Fall of Arthur — A Review

This is the first of three (at least as currently planned ...) posts on The Fall of Arthur. These posts are mostly a collection of my thoughts and writings elsewhere on the Tolkiens' new book, The Fall of Arthur, written for Pibeurten (the journal of the Malmö and Copenhagen Tolkien Societies, Angmar and Bri (Bree), respectively), and for The Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza.

This first post is mostly in the form of a review, though I am afraid that it has gotten slightly out of hand ...

As its predecessor, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, this is a poem in the old form, the head-rhyme. This poem follows the form of the Old English alliterative verse, which, as with the Old Norse forms, is somewhat stricter in the rules than is seen in the other Arthurian alliterative poems which stem form the Middle English alliterative revival.

The poem itself, in its latest form, constitutes nearly one thousand lines that are printed on just 40 of the more than 200 pages of the book. On the remaining pages we find mainly three essays by Christopher Tolkien, ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’, ‘The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion’, and ‘The Evolution of the Poem’, but also Christopher Tolkien's short foreword1 and an appendix on ‘Old English Verse’ from a lecture on the subject given by is father.

All in all I estimate that about 40%2 of the text in the book is written by J.R.R. Tolkien while the remaining 60% is written mainly by Christopher Tolkien interspersed with quotations from e.g. the Arthurian sources.

The poem consists of four more or less finished cantos and the beginning of the fifth. It opens in the first canto with Arthur who is with his army far east at eaves of Mirkwood3 in “Saxon lands”. The use of dark images in metaphorical language sets the tone of the campaign, giving the impression that Arthur is fighting not only the heathens, but also the land itself, the dark forests and the wild mountains, and perhaps even the heathen gods themselves. In the middle of all this a messenger brings news of Mordred's treason and Arthur hurries to leave home for Britain.

The second canto starts with a close-up of Mordred – a man whose treason and scheming is driven by his lust for Guinever.4 In a powerful portrait we see how Mordred is told that Arthur knows about Mordred's treason and is heading home, whereupon Mordred immediately journeys to Camelot to deliver an ultimatum to Guinever: whether she will bed him as his wife or as his slave. The queen asks for time, but escapes Camelot and Mordred's courtship, while Mordred must away to the coast to prepare for Arthur's invasion of Arthur's own realm.

The disastrous affair between Lancelot and Guinever is long over as the poem starts. Guinever is back in Camelot as Arthur's queen, while Lancelot is banished from Britain and expelled from the brotherhood of the Round Table. The affair and it's consequences is the subject of the third canto, in which we meet Lancelot in Benwick. Lancelot has also heard the rumours of the tide of time turning against Arthur and the reader gets another powerful portrait of a man torn by strong emotions: his pride, his loyalty – love, even – to Arthur, the fear of Gawain's judgement, the romantic love for Guinever (though the two appear at least partly estranged) – hope, shame, and anger fight within Lancelot and locks him in place. A summons from Arthur or Guinever would have resolved the deadlock, but no summons come and Arthur must prepare to attack Britain without the help of the kin of Ban.

The attack on Britain is the topic of the next canto, in which we first meet Mordred who is awaiting the invasion, and then get a graphic description of the naval battle where Arthur and Gawain fight the heathen sailors that Morded has bought. Here Gawain shines in earnest: the most valiant knight of all the knights associated with Arthur:

As straw from storm, as stalks falling
before reapers ruthless,    as roke flying 210
before the rising sun    wrathful blazing
his foemen fled.    Fear o’ercame them.
From board and beam    beaten fell they,
in the sea they sank   their souls losing.
Boats were blazing,   burned and smoking;215
some on shore shivered   to shards broken.
Red ran the tide   the rocks staining.
Shields on the water   shorn and splintered
as flotsam floated.   Few saved their lives
broken and bleeding   from that battle flying.220
Thus came Arthur   to his own kingdom
and the sea’s passage   with the sword conquered,
Gawain leading.   Now his glory shone
as the star of noon   stern and cloudless
o’er the heads of men   to its height climbing225
ere it fall and fail.   Fate yet waited.
Tide was turning.   Timbers broken,
dead men and drowned,   a dark jetsam,
were left to lie   on the long beaches;
rocks robed with red   rose from water.230

Notice the powerful images that Tolkien paints here – the tide running red, and the rocks that rise out of the water are ‘robed with red’.

Of the the fifth canto, Tolkien only wrote the beginning in which he describes how Arthur discusses with Gawain how best to win the passage of the cliffs, now that they have won the passage of the sea.

- – — * * * — – -
After the poem itself follows three essays by Christopher Tolkien. In the first essay, ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’ he discusses how his father's poem relates to the medieval sources such as La?amon's Brut, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, the French romance Mort Artu (the source of a fourteenth-century end-rhyming ‘Stanzaic Morte Arthur’), but the primary sources for both Tolkiens are Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur and the anonymous Alliterative Morte Arthure. If, as it was mine, your prior knowledge of Arthuriana and the Matter of Britain is limited to a couple of twentieth century re-tellings of the myth, then Christopher Tolkien's essay is extremely valuable for the understanding of the source material that his father was working with, and his argumentation that his father's primary source appears to have been The Alliterative Morte Arthure will be worth reading also for those who are already familiar with the medieval sources.

For readers who come to this work through their interest in, and love for, J.R.R. Tolkien's fiction and particularly his legendarium, the second essay, ‘The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion’, will of course be of great interest.

In this essay Christopher Tolkien quotes and comments the various notes that his father made while working on the poem. As with the plot notes we know from his other work, e.g. on both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, these notes outline how Tolkien imagined that the plot would progress and end, but we should of course treat them with the caution that is evident when we compare the plot notes for the finished works with the published story. The primary surprise here is probably that Tolkien was planning to let Lancelot follow Arthur to Avalon, never to return.

Christopher Tolkien has already, in The History of Middle-earth, shown how is father at one point5 linked his legendarium to the Arthurian world by identifying Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, with Avalon, but in the notes to this unfinished Arthurian poem, we discover that he also planned to link the Arthurian world (presented in the poem) to his legendarium explicitly letting Lancelot arrive at Avalon,the Lonely Isle in the Bay of Faërie.

In the last of the essays, ‘The Evolution of the Poem’, Christopher Tolkien is back in one of the roles for which we know him from The History of Middle-earth: tracing the creation of the poem, unravelling the complicated threads of layer upon layer of corrections, emendations, manuscripts etc. Christopher Tolkien even attempts to trace the sequence in which his father had his ideas. This is probably the most academical of the three essays where Christopher Tolkien makes it possible for later Tolkien scholars to dig into the manuscripts and by help of his work sort out how J.R.R. Tolkien's ideas replaced each other. Less academically inclined readers might  find that they are better off merely skimming this part.

The last pages of the book is an appendix on Old English Verse. If you are interested in head-rhymes, or alliterative verse, then this is a gold mine, which excellently complements what Christopher Tolkien put in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún with surprisingly little repetition. The words are once again those of J.R.R. Tolkien, and they come from a lecture he gave on the subject, first for the BBC, and later elsewhere, and every time he emended and expanded his discussions. All this work come across quite clearly in the text.
- – — * * * — – -

As a dedicated Tolkien-enthusiast The Fall of Arthur is of course worth buying and reading simply because it is a book by J.R.R. Tolkien. If you like  alliterative verse (like Tolkien I prefer the phrase ‘head-rhyme’ or the Danish stavrim, stave-rhyme), you will not find many, if any, modern authors who can measure up to Tolkien in this poetic form, and that alone makes the book worth reading, just as an interest for Arthurian literature is a possible route to this book – John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is not just anybody among modern authors of myth and legend.

For me, however, it is the poem itself – the head-rhyme – that really makes this book a treasured contribution to my collection. I am overwhelmed by the power that this verse form can convey, and by the ability to create so strong portraits of people and situations, with the terse metaphorical and pictorial language and a strong sense for the natural rhythm of language. This is, to me, entirely incredible.

- – — * * * — – -
It would, of course, be presumptuous to pretend to know what topics will become the main focus of scholarly studies of The Fall of Arthur, but I can at least list three issues that I have already found are being commented.
  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. 
These discussions will be the topic of my next post on The Fall of Arthur: ‘Philosophizing    on Fall of Arthur’.


1: Who on earth do so many people insist on mistakenly calling a foreword a “forward”? Different things entirely!  Return

2: My estimates have the book at some 45,000 – 52,000 words, of which I estimate that some 17,000 – 21,000 are by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Return

3: As many will know this is the Old Norse Myrkviðr which is known in this sense from e.g. the Völundarkviða.  Return

4: Tolkien spells her name ‘Guinever’ and I will follow him when speaking of his character, while adding the final ‘e’ when speaking of the character of the queen more generally in the Arthurian tradition, both ancient and modern.  Return

5: That is, after he had abandoned the idea that Tol Eressëa would become Britain itself.  Return

1 comment:

  1. Part of the trouble, no doubt, is that foreword is a relatively new and fancified term, a calque (loan translation) of the German Vorwort made in the 19th-century. If it were truly old, it would probably be forword. Ironically, the Latinate preface has been with us since the revival of learning.


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