J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur
June 23, 2013 § 5 Comments
‘Now never again from northern wars
shall Arthur enter this island realm,
nor Lancelot du Lake love remembering
to thy tryst return! Time is changing;
the West waning, a wind rising
in the waxing East. The world falters.
New tides are running in the narrow waters.’
– from Canto II, lines 144-150 (p. 32)
For nearly a millennium, ever since the fanciful writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth gained a wide audience and inspired generations of poets and prose writers to write about the Round Table, the betrayal of Mordred, the Holy Grail, the legend of King Arthur has fascinated listeners and readers alike. No matter the medium selected for the story, the tale entrances readers who already know the basics by rote. Its themes and tragic elements mixed with romance are not just the stuff of which dreams are made, but they are more “real” to us than even ground upon which we trod or the air which we breathe.
I have been a fan of “The Matter of Britain” for nearly three decades now. I have read Arthur’s story in many forms, ranging from Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King to Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles. Each storyteller, great and lowly alike, have explored facets of the legends that most fascinated them, often with good results. Therefore it was with great interest that I look forward to reading the incomplete poem that J.R.R. Tolkien left behind on the downfall of Arthur and his kingdom. Although the unfinished poem runs only just over 950 lines divided over four complete cantos and a partial fifth, there certainly is much to admire about the poem.
Tolkien decided that alliterative verse, traditionally used in pre-Norman conquest England and other Germanic-speaking lands, best suited the tale he wanted to tell. He stripped away most of the courtly romance, focusing instead on the final, tragic part of the Arthurian legends: the news of Guenevere’s tryst and Mordred’s betrayal. The action begins in media res, with Arthur returning from his “Eastern campaign” to surprise Mordred and his Saxon allies:
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,
that with harrying ships they should hunt no more
on the shining shores and shallow waters
of South Britain, booty seeking.
– from Canto I, lines 1-9 (p. 17)
There is a sonorous quality to good alliterative verse, the way that “war” and “wage” rise and then on the second half-verse (the spaces denote a caesura or breath break) it descends to “wild.” There is no rhyme nor set metre, but instead a dependence upon a rhythm set by the rise and fall of words whose first syllables alliterate. It is not a poetic form often seen in Modern English and there is a portion of the book devoted to explaining how to read this. Being somewhat familiar with alliterative verse, primarily through some translations of Beowulf, it was easy for me to settle into the rhythm of the poem.
Rhythm is very important here in The Fall of Arthur, as Tolkien attempts to capture a bleaker, more urgent movement of forces. Arthur here is more the hero of an edda than the king in background of the medieval romances. He is driven, relentless in his purpose. Time is changing, all is under assault. This mood might remind some of the tone present in his fantasy writings and there certainly are thematic similarities, such as the passage quoted at the beginning of this review. The west wanes, the world falters, new tides are running. Here the struggle against the forces of Mordor finds its immediate predecessor, as The Fall of Arthur was composed sometime between 1933-1937 according to internal evidence. And yet here are other connotations present: the Celtic west falling before the Saxon east, the world of the Britons changing irrevocably. Tolkien does an excellent job of foreshadowing that calamity throughout The Fall of Arthur. Doom certainly is more present here, with religious imagery used to underscore the differences between hero and heathen:
Foes before them, flames behind them,
ever east and onward eager rode they,
and folk fled them as the face of God,
till earth was empty, and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them in the endless hills,
save bird and beast baleful haunting
the lonely lands.
– from Canto I, lines 61-67 (p. 19)
The overall effect is a melding of the later accruals of Arthurian myth (Lancelot, however, is relegated to a relatively minor role and Gawain instead rises in importance) with the style and imagery present in Beowulf. In some respects, The Fall of Arthur feels like a “lost” work of the 10th century that has been translated into modern English; the metaphors and imagery can apply equally to the invasions of the 5th and late 9th centuries. It is little wonder, then, that one of Tolkien’s fellow academics, R.W. Chambers, wrote to him in December 1934 saying:
“It is very great indeed… really heroic, quite apart from its value in showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English.”…”You simply must finish it.” (p. 10)
But yet like so much of his superior work (The Lord of the Rings I consider to be one of his lesser achievements as a writer), The Fall of Arthur tragically was left undone. If it were complete and published during the author’s lifetime, it easily could have cemented Tolkien’s legacy as a writer. Instead, he is now primarily known for a lesser-accomplished work that influenced over two generations of pulp writers to write fictions that are bereft of the soul of the original masters. But for those who do love Arthurian tales and who do have some knowledge of the various poetic and prose compositions over the past millennium, The Fall of Arthur will certainly be a work well worth reading. For those who are not as familiar with these works, Christopher Tolkien has provided three long essays on the poem’s origins, its connections to his father’s fantasy writings, and how the poem evolved during various drafts. In addition, Tolkien’s 1938 BBC radio lecture on “Anglo-Saxon Verse” is provided as a coda to the work. Some will find these essays to enhance the work, others might find them to be less useful due to their own prior knowledge of the subject. Regardless, The Fall of Arthur, incomplete as it is, I consider to be Tolkien’s best composition and it is a shame that it was left unfinished during the final 30+ years of the author’s life.