Postmortem: The Fall of Arthur

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For a man who died in 1973, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien still gets an awful lot of books published: The Silmarillion, 1977; the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth in the 80s and 90s; The Children of Húrin, 2007; and others.

All this is possible because one of his sons, Christopher Tolkien, has devoted a remarkable amount of time and energy over the decades to combing the elder Tolkien’s voluminous notes, sketches, and drafts, which are often incomplete and hard to decipher. Christopher is 92 today, and still going.

A few years ago he came out with The Fall of Arthur. A few weeks ago I discovered it in a local bookstore. A few days ago I finished it. And it’s excellent.

The Fall of Arthur is an unfinished long poem about the death of King Arthur, the last battle with Mordred, and the downfall of Camelot, covering roughly the same ground as the final chapters of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, though Tolkien draws on other sources as well. It is written in a form relatively unknown today, the so-called alliterative verse of the Old English poets, used most famously in Beowulf. Tolkien’s work has no rhyme, but a definite rhythm and structure, as in this bit from the first canto (chapter):

Dark and dreary     were the deep valleys,
where limbs gigantic    of lowering trees
in endless aisles    were arched o’er rivers
flowing down afar    from fells of ice.

That space in the middle of each line is part of the Beowulf form, too. When discussing it, Tolkien speaks of both lines and “half-lines.” The purpose of the half-lines would require a whole separate blog post (and more research on my part), but the Wiki page I linked above has some explanation.

More remarkable, from my perspective, is that this is really good poetry.

I grew up on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and I thought the poetry and songs in those books was amazing — but the older I got, the less impressed I was. So I wasn’t sure what to expect here. But his use of language is just beautiful.

I think the Old English form (as opposed to the more conventional rhyming verses he uses elsewhere) pushes him to find more interesting word choices. I also love all the old words he uses, which make the poem as a whole feel both ancient and truly connected with Arthur’s world. In the quote above, “fells” are hills or heights — so “fells of ice” are hills of ice. Elsewhere, he uses “tarn,” which is a small steep-banked mountain lake. (Incidentally, “tarn” appears in the first paragraph of The Fall of the House of Usher as well.) Other examples abound.

I’ve gotta say, too, it’s refreshing to read a serious work by Tolkien that isn’t in Middle-earth. I like hobbits as much as the next guy, but sometimes I also like, y’know, not hobbits. So that was cool.

As I mentioned, the poem is unfinished — as with so many projects in his career (and mine), real life got in the way. The story ends well before the apocalyptic Battle of Camlann (the battle that puts the Morte in Morte D’Arthur). At 40 pages, the poem itself takes up less than a quarter of the full volume. The rest is mostly commentary by Christopher in the form of three essays:

The Poem in Arthurian Tradition — Which sources did Tolkien draw on for his story? The Arthur mythology doesn’t have a single canonical source. It’s a jumble of different authors and traditions and languages over a span of centuries, with some altering or expanding on earlier works, and some inventing completely new stories. Christopher offers a solid historical context for the mythology his father decided to use.

The Unwritten Poem and Its Relation to The Silmarillion — Although The Fall of Arthur isn’t a Middle-earth story, there are certain parallels. The strongest parallel is between Avalon and Tol Eressëa, the latter being the “Lonely Isle” near Valinor from The Silmarillion. Tolkien also, at some point, wrote some lines of verse — which do not appear in the main poem — featuring the Silmarillion character Eärendel:

Eärendel goeth on eager quest
to magic islands beyond the miles of the sea,
past the hills of Avalon and the halls of the moon,
the dragon’s portals and the dark mountains
of the Bay of Faery on the borders of the world.

Even putting aside the Arthurian connection via Avalon, the lines above are gorgeous poetry, in my opinion — the word choice isn’t as sophisticated as what you’ll find in The Fall of Arthur, but it’s a vivid image nonetheless.

The Evolution of the Poem — Christopher had access to earlier drafts of the main poem, and he uses them to show how his father’s ideas grew and changed over the course of multiple revisions. He presents this evolution in considerable detail, taking a full 50 pages — which is longer than the poem itself. I confess this is the only section of the book I was unable to finish. I love writing, and editing, and revision, and poetry, and textual analysis, and Tolkien, and King Arthur, but even so, there’s only so much “See how he added five lines here?” that I can stomach. Nevertheless, it’s a great resource for anyone doing serious research, and its inclusion demonstrates once again Christopher’s dedication to his father’s work.

There’s also an appendix, an essay, where J. R. R. Tolkien explains in his own words what alliterative verse is all about, and explains the Old English verse tradition more generally. I found it fascinating, but I fear I may be in the minority there.

Whew! I always start these postmortems intending them to be just a few words about the book or movie or whatever, and I always end up being reminded yet again that writing “a few words” is beyond my abilities. But that’s how it goes.

Happy weekend!

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