High Adventure: The Fall of Arthur

The second piece of High Adventure my wife gave me for Christmas 2014 is J R R Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur. I recommend it — here’s my Goodreads review.

The Fall of ArthurThe Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Someone mentioned to me that Christopher Tolkien must be scraping the bottom of the barrel by now — if The Fall of Arthur were any good, surely it would have been published 20 years ago! My cynicism runs slightly differently — if The Fall of Arthur were destined to make a lot of cash, it would certainly have been published 20 years ago. It isn’t, so it wasn’t. But it is still worth reading.

So why only three stars, if I recommend it?

If I were judging merely J R R Tolkien’s poem, I would give it four, maybe even five, stars. However, the poem is only 40 pages of this book. The rest is Christopher’s explanatory notes and appendices. Most of these I am glad for, but some I am not, as you shall see.

My second ‘warning’, if you will, is that this poem is not for the faint of heart. It’s probably not for anyone who doesn’t like Old and Middle English literature or who is unacquainted with Arthurian legend. The explanatory notes do help clear up some of the oblique references in the poem, so if you’d like to try your hand at reading mediaevalesque narrative poetry, this is as good a place as any to begin — with the benefit that this poem is shorter than the contents of The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún (I think).

But I do, I really do want to recommend this book. Because I really like it. When I read the aforelinked Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, I learned that modern English has so similar a natural cadence to Old English that one can write poetry in modern English using Old English meters and alliteration. This is what Tolkien did in Sigurd, and that’s what he does here. And it works.

The poem begins:

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.

This is not the time to discuss the niceties of versification, but I find this Old English meter works for narrative poetry. I like it. Combined with Tolkien’s word choice and imagery, it is here moody and evocative, full of depth and power.

Tolkien here tells the tale of Arthur from his departure to engage in war on the Continent up to the battle at the beach upon his return to wrest his kingdom back from Mordred’s hands. The poem stops abruptly, unfinished. But here is the melancholy tale of the sundered Round Table, of chivalry lost, of doom, death, and deceit.

Such gloom, such moodiness, does not, from what I’ve read, tend to weight heavily upon the Arthur story as told. It does, however, weigh upon Old English literature — a literature that never knew Arthur, yet whose moods lend themselves to this fatal clash of uncle and nephew, father and son, king and regent, right and might.

One of the themes of much Anglo-Saxon poetry is exile — whether from the perspective of the exile, or of the wanderer, or (as in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’) the wife left behind. Canto III of The Fall of Arthur gives us this with great pathos, bringing the narrative to Benwick and Lancelot, where the tale of Lancelot’s exile from Camelot is told allusively. And Lancelot wishes to be reconciled with his liege, awaiting Arthur’s summons at any moment.

It is a summons that never comes. Lancelot is not at Camelon fighting Mordred.

The main knight in this tale is Gawain, likened by Tolkien time and again to light and brilliance. He leads the knights in Europe and the ships back to Britain. He is all glory and power. Tolkien has found a way to reconcile two Arthurian traditions, one which favours Lancelot, the other which favours Gawain, without compromising the characters of the two knights.

As you can see, I really do like this poem.

Following the poem, Christopher provides some very helpful notes on it, which I recommend you keep your finger amongst, or at least a second bookmark. After the notes on the text are three appendices (these Tolkiens like their appendices): The Poem in the Arthurian Tradition, The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion, and The Evolution of the Poem.

The first of these appendices will be especially helpful to those unacquainted with the wider tradition of Arthurian literature. I was glad to read it, although I skimmed some of the long extracts from Mallory and completely skipped some of the Middle English verse Christopher quotes.

The second is also very interesting. Here selections of continuations of the poem drawn from Tolkien’s notes are presented with some commentary and questions of where the poem may go from there. Then a long and involved discussion of the relationship of the unwritten poem’s Avalon to Númenor and The Silmarillion ensues. I’ve not read The Silmarillion, and am far more interested in Avalon than in Númenor, but I’m certain other fans will relish every word.

The third appendix I didn’t read, frankly. I skimmed over it and set it aside. I’m sure other people will find the textual criticism of Professor Tolkien’s notes of interest — I do not.

Finally, there is an appendix on Old English Verse that repeats material from The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

All in all, I really like this book, even if not all of Christopher’s material is to my taste. It’s a shame J R R Tolkien never finished the poem.

View all my reviews

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