The Fall of Arthur: An unfinished poem by Tolkien

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy book reviewsThe Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Fall of Arthur is another one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfinished works made available to the public via his son and editor, Christopher Tolkien. Between its unfinished nature, its form (alliterative verse in Old English style — though not actually in Old English), and its brevity, the book is really mostly, perhaps solely, of interest to diehard Tolkien “completists” or those with a semi-academic interest in the form.

The poem, as mentioned, was never finished. Tolkien managed to complete five cantos, totaling in this edition about 40 pages (with a goodly amount of white space). The rest of the slim text, just over 200 pages, is made up of the following:

  • A forward by Christopher Tolkien briefly explaining the history of the poem, his thoughts on its context in his father’s work, and a short description of the afterword sections
  • A few pages of notes on the text, explaining vocabulary, giving background to various images, etc.
  • A more academic-for-laypeople essay entitled “The Poem in Arthurian Tradition,” where Christopher gives concise summaries with some excerpts of a few of the source materials for the Arthurian myth with some specific connections to his father’s use of or divergence from those sources
  • A section making some minor connections (mostly in terms of setting names) between the poem and The Silmarillion
  • A look at the draft process of the work, entitled “The Evolution of the Poem.”
  • An appendix excerpting parts of a talk J.R.R.Tolkien gave on alliterative Old English verse

The poem itself is in a form that most people, if they recognize it at all, will connect to the Old English epic, Beowulf rife with alliterations, filled with kennings, split-lines. Here is its beginning:

Arthur eastward     in arms purposed

his war to wage     on the wild marches,

over seas sailing     to Saxon lands,

from the Roman realm     ruin defending.

Thus the tides of time     to turn backward

and the heathen to humble,     his hope urged him . . .

will unyielding     in war with fate.

Clearly this is not for the casual reader. Despite being only 40 pages, it is a slow read, one requiring lots of close attention, thanks to the unfamiliar sentence pattern, the tightly-wound imagery, the sometimes unfamiliar sentence structure/word order, and use of strange words such as embayment, fewte, vaward, trewage, and the like.

One shouldn’t, however, take this to mean the work is at all impenetrable or opaque. Really, it’s quite the opposite. The unfamiliar vocabulary is quite rare (and nearly all of them defined in the notes that follow) and lends the poem a sense of historical authority and a welcome difference of voice. The alliteration and sentence structure, meanwhile, drive much of the poem powerfully forward, especially in the battle scenes. Actually, I’d suggest reading them out loud, though perhaps not in a crowded room. I dearly wish we had a recording of Tolkien himself reading this.

Those familiar with the Arthurian tales as popularized by later sources such as Mallory or Tennyson or Pyle, or modern constructions such as T.H.White, Mary Stewart, the film Excalibur, etc. will find some familiar elements but many that will prove strange. The story picks up quite late in the Arthurian cycle, starting with Lancelot already banished from court due to his affair with Guinever and Arthur having left England in the hands of his son-by-incest Mordred, who covets both Arthur’s throne and his wife. It is not long into the poem that Arthur hears news of Mordred’s betrayal. Soon he is wending his way back to England and bemoaning the absence of his greatest knight and all his kin. Gawaine, no knightly slouch himself in the poem, painted in glory as he is throughout the narrative, urges against calling upon Lancelot for help when Arthur considers it. Arthur agrees, and after Mordred is warned of his father’s approach, the two forces wage a great sea-battle, the resolution of which closes out the fragment of a poem.

Despite the poem’s brevity, we get a surprisingly strong sense of character with regard to several of the players, especially Lancelot, who is torn between his pride and his love of both Guinever and Arthur:

Then half he hoped,     and half wished not,

to receive summons,     swift commandment,

to king the allegiance     loyal recalling

of Lancelot     to his lord Arthur.

Guinever is at the center of much of the events, both past (her and Lancelot’s story is told in flashback) and present (fleeing Mordred’s attention) and it seems she would be a major presence in a finished version — a cooler, more controlled presence perhaps than she is often portrayed as. Arthur, meanwhile, is less present than one would expect, though again, we have only a fragment here, so one has to assume we’d see much more of him. Here he nicely characterized as a man seeking one last bit of glory (that “turning back time’s tide”) and is surprisingly indecisive (whether or not to call back Lancelot, how to follow up his victory at sea). Mordred, meanwhile, is quite vividly portrayed via his lust for Guinever and his jealousy and fear of Lancelot, while Gawaine is described in truly elevated and epic fashion:

Now grim Galuth     Gawain brandished

his sword renowned     smiths enchanted

ere Rome was built     with runes marked it

and its steel tempered     strong and deadly—

forth leapt he as fire     a flame wielding.

The king of Gothland     on his carven prow

he smote to death    and to sea drave him . . .

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.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to replace “Gawain” with “Aragorn” and envision the Corsairs of Umbar being attacked, or the Pelennor Field battle. Tolkien was steeped in this Old English battle verse and he turned it to good stead in his fantasy. One can clearly see the stylistic connections here despite one being poetry and the other prose.

The sections after the poem vary in interest. I consider myself relatively well informed on the Arthur story cycle and many of its sources, yet I found much I was unaware of in Christopher’s essay on Tolkien’s source materials. He quotes these texts frequently in their original language (including one in Old English), which makes it a tough slog to say the least, but as with Tolkien’s poem, he offers up immediate explanations of the wholly archaic vocabulary and his explanations of the materials, their historic context, and their connection to Tolkien’s poem are all laid out in clear, concise fashion. He’s a perfect guide through this section, never condescending, taking us where we need to go steadily and confidently.

The connections to The Silmarillion are fascinating, less so for the actual concrete connections themselves (the use of the place name Avalon, for instance) as in the implied idea that Tolkien may have been trying to make a direct line from his “historical” works on the Three Ages to modern (relatively) myths and legends. Even if this isn’t the case, the repetition of some of the shared motifs (a ship sailing to the utter West, for instance) is also interesting for Tolkien fans (and, admittedly, probably only hardcore Tolkien fans).

I confess the draft section was more detail than I personally needed, though there are points of interest. I’ll also admit to dipping in and out of this one rather than reading word for word. Tolkien’s words on Old English verse, on the other hand was entirely engaging, especially in his discussion of kennings (I can see others skimming through his discussion of meter and line length).

As I said at the start, The Fall of Arthur isn’t a book to pick up and casually read. Nor more than you’d pick up a book advertised as being four chapters of an unfinished ten-chapter novella. The poem itself is enjoyable, vibrant in its force thanks to its form and language. But the poem,  unfinished as it is, isn’t the reason to pick up The Fall of Arthur. The real reason is to get a fuller sense of Tolkien the scholar and the author, to see where he obtained much of his sense of style and theme. If you own THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, you don’t need The Fall of Arthur and, I suspect, the vast majority won’t read it. If you, on the other hand, own THE LORD OF THE RINGS and The Silmarillion and The Lost Tales and Unfinished Tales of Numenor and The Children of Hurin, etc. you’ll want to add The Fall of Arthur to your collection.

Publication Date: May 23, 2013 The Fall of Arthur, the only venture by J.R.R. Tolkien into the legends of Arthur, king of Britain, may well be regarded as his finest and most skillful achievement in the use of Old English alliterative meter, in which he brought to his transforming perceptions of the old narratives a pervasive sense of the grave and fateful nature of all that is told: of Arthur’s expedition overseas into distant heathen lands, of Guinevere’s flight from Camelot, of the great sea battle on Arthur’s return to Britain, in the portrait of the traitor Mordred, in the tormented doubts of Lancelot in his French castle. Unhappily, The Fall of Arthur was one of several long narrative poems that Tolkien abandoned. He evidently began it in the 1930s, and it was sufficiently advanced for him to send it to a very perceptive friend who read it with great enthusiasm at the end of 1934 and urgently pressed him, “You simply must finish it!” But in vain: he abandoned it at some unknown date, though there is evidence that it may have been in 1937, the year of publication of The Hobbit and the first stirrings of The Lord of the Rings. Years later, in a letter of 1955, he said that he “hoped to finish a long poem on The Fall of Arthur,” but that day never came. Associated with the text of the poem, however, are many manuscript pages: a great quantity of drafting and experimentation in verse, in which the strange evolution of the poem’s structure is revealed, together with narrative synopses and significant tantalizing notes. In these notes can be discerned clear if mysterious associations of the Arthurian conclusion with The Silmarillion, and the bitter ending of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, which was never written.

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BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

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