21 November 2016

The Fall of Arthur


From the apparently inexhaustible depths of J.R.R. Tolkien’s papers comes another gem brought forth for the public by Christopher Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur. Being a longtime fan of all things King Arthur and a huge fan of Tolkien, I’ve wanted to read this book since it was published three years ago. I finally got my hands on a copy and here are my thoughts.

The poetry here is breathtaking. There aren’t many people who laud Tolkien as a great poet, though I think he is, but this poem by far exceeds any of his other verse that I’ve read. The first canto felt like a bolt through my heart, and I’ll admit to getting a bit teary-eyed at the description of the land and setting. Nobody does sehnsucht like Tolkien. The other thing that surprised me was the level of character development given to both Mordred and Guinevere in the second Canto. Mordred’s characterization at the villain was especially vivid.

So, here’s the downside to the whole thing. The poem is unfinished. Tolkien abandoned work on it when he became more deeply involved in his Middle Earth stories, and never returned to it again. It’s a real shame because it would have been one of the most amazing things he ever wrote if he had finished it. As it is, it really shouldn’t have been published as a standalone work. I can see this working better as a single section in a collection of other shorter or unfinished works. That said, I’d also like to comment on the things Christopher Tolkien used to pad this out to the length of a book.

“The Poem in Arthurian Tradition” is an essay that focuses on the Arthurian tradition related to the fall of Arthur. For those who have read most of the major works pertaining to Arthur, this is simply review. Christopher does talk about how his father’s poem followed and differed from the major strands of tradition, and, using various notes that his father wrote, speculates about how the poem would have ended up had it been finished.

“The Unwritten Poem and Its Relation to the Silmarillion” was very interesting. Most of this essay focuses on Lancelot sailing into the west to find Arthur and never returning; this is how the story would have ended in Tolkien’s poem. Christopher explores the relationship between Avalon in Arthurian tradition and Tol Eressea in the Silmarillion, which is also called Avallon. To what extent are the two interchangeable? To what extent did he keep the two worlds separate? This essay is the best of the added essays in the book.

“The Evolution of the Poem” was largely unnecessary, focusing on the various manuscript stages that various parts of the poem went through before the final form printed in the book. This chapter seemed like a self-indulgent exercise on the part of Christopher Tolkien, and is probably only of interest to someone who might be writing a thesis on this poem by Tolkien.

So overall, I would give 5 stars to Tolkien’s poem and the chapter on the poem’s relation to the Silmarillion. The rest of the material is less interesting and important. It’s still worth a read for fans of Tolkien and Arthur.


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