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

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien
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Book Name: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien; Edited by Christopher Tolkien
Publisher(s): Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (US) HarperCollins (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Poetry
Release Date: May 23, 2013 (US)

My journey into fantasy began with Tolkien, which I imagine is the case for a lot of people. His legendary works were a deep foundation for modern fantasy, and when I was a young, hobbit-sized person and discovered the One Ring with Bilbo in the depths of the Misty Mountains. I uncovered a world of magic and adventure that sparked my imagination and never let it die.

At some point, many years before most of us (probably all actually, but I don’t like to assume) were born, Tolkien made that same discovery. If you read Ryan’s brilliant article on the Epic of Gilgamesh the other day, the origins of the fantasy genre thousands of years ago will be fresh in your mind and you may well be feeling the same sense of wonder that fascinated Tolkien for his entire life.

The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are probably the greatest and most-familiar Britain has to offer. Combining a hearty mixture of preordained royalty, brave knights, ruthless battles, religious zeal, picturesque scenery, buckets of magic and the obvious draw of Olde English to a distinguished philologist, it’s easy to see why Tolkien would find these tales appealing.

The Fall of Arthur is Tolkien’s incomplete retelling of the great King’s final campaign before he either perished in battle or sailed to the Isle of Avalon to recover from his mortal wounds and was never seen again (there are many variations on the fate of King Arthur, the sources of which are discussed in detail in the latter half of the book). Written in alliterative verse, the poem is split into three cantos that follow the events of Arthur’s crown being usurped while he is away at war and the epic battle that takes place when he returns to claim his throne. Tension is heightened by the politics of Queen Guinevere’s affair with Sir Lancelot, leading to the banishment of the knight and his kin and the division of strength of Arthur’s military force. The unfinished tale is a vivid and complex poem despite its lack of climax when, after 40 pages of carefully constructed verse, it was left abandoned, but unlikely forgotten, among copious notes and drafts.

Fortunately for fans of his legendarium, Tolkien’s son, Christopher, has continued his seemingly endless task of organising his father’s notes and unfinished work into new publications, notes and essays that provide a significant amount of background and context to Middle Earth and other half-written stories and projects. He has clearly spent a great deal of time editing The Fall of Arthur, the result being a sturdy analysis of the legend, his father’s influences, the plot summaries and planning stages, the poem’s relation to The Silmarillion and the nature of alliterative verse.

While too tediously dry at points to be a raging party of a read, the extensive notes on the text provide a fascinating insight into the complex mind of J.R.R. Tolkien – the poet, the man and the scholar. The poem was started sometime in the early thirties and abandoned in 1937, the year The Hobbit was published. From the provided notes and contextual information it becomes clear that a large amount of the imagery and key themes we are all so familiar with today originated in the creation of this poem.

In the first canto, Arthur and his army march east to face the dark forces threatening the idyllic wonderland that was Anglo Saxon Britain (sound familiar?). They stand terror-stricken on the borders of Myrkviðr (The Black Forest in Norway), which roughly translates to “Mirkwood” in English – one of the many names featured in Middle Earth that developed from Tolkien’s fascination with Icelandic languages, which are also the basis for his invented Elvish.

Later, in Christopher Tolkien’s notes, we discover that Tolkien’s plans for the end of the poem involved Arthur sailing west to the Isle of Avalon where he will seemingly live eternally until he sees fit to return, like the Elves of The Lord of the Rings. Even the contradictory descriptions of Guinevere’s fair and fell beauty arguably match the dangerous magnificence of Lady Galadriel.

Of course, for Tolkien, the true joy of this project would have been in shaping the language itself. He had a lot to say on the merits of alliterative verse, which is worth looking into, but as I understand it (forgive me if I’m completely wrong), it is a type of poetry that was popular in the Anglo Saxon period with learned men (who I guess were the only people who could read anyway) who considered it a higher form of art. It’s similar to Nordic, Norwegian and Icelandic poetry, with rigorous Germanic rules and forms. Rather than relying on metre or rhyme for structure, each line is split in half, separated by a caesura, and the chief – or most stressed – syllable in each half must begin with the same consonant. If the chief syllable in the first half of the line is a vowel than any other vowel works. When done properly, by someone like Tolkien, you end up with something rather pretty, like this:

There was woe in Britain__and the world faded;
bells were silent__blades were ringing
hell’s gate was wide__and heaven distant.

Despite its loveliness, the archaic arrangement does make it difficult to read and I found that the only way to make sense of it was to read aloud – this way it’s possible to get into something of a rhythm.

Christopher Tolkien isn’t wrong when he mentions that the style is “…harsh and stiff and rugged to those unaccustomed to it” but there is no doubt that incredible amounts of time and skill went into those 40 pages (evidenced by the sheer amount of intricate redrafts included throughout the text notes) giving weight to Christopher’s opinion that the unfinished poem is “…one of the most grievous of his many abandonments.”

I don’t think I can say that I wholly enjoyed this book. It was a struggle that prodded awake a lot of faculties I thought I’d left behind in an empty English classroom at school. I do, however, think that if you aren’t faint of heart it’s a worthwhile read, particularly for hardcore Tolkien fans, although for contextual purposes I would recommend the following reading list first:

The Hobbit
The Lord of the Rings
The Silmarillion
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
Gawain and the Green Knight
The Children of Hurin
The Book of Lost Tales

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Rating: 9.1/10 (7 votes cast)
The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, 9.1 out of 10 based on 7 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Ryan Howse says:

    I imagine the specifics of the alliteration and the stanzas come from the oral tradition of this style of poem. The stringent structure was there to assist poets in memorization. It was most likely meant to be read aloud.

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