Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Fall of Arthur by JRR Tolkien

Over the fifty years since his father's death, Christopher Tolkien has made an immense body of work--some finished, some unfinished, some edited into a finished-ish form--available to the public, all of it painstakingly distilled from JRR Tolkien's papers. Without him, there would be no Silmarillion, no Unfinished Tales, and no Lays of Beleriand--none of which I can imagine living without! In more recent years, the Tolkiens have continued strong with the publication of The Children of Hurin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur, and a recent prose translation of Beowulf.

While reviews of Hurin and Sigurd will need to wait for another day (both are excellent books, and I thoroughly enjoyed both JRR Tolkien's Sigurd poem and Christopher Tolkien's scholarly and learned commentary, which is a great introduction to the Volsung legend's history and variations), I'm excited to bring you a somewhat thematically appropriate review of one of the latest Tolkiens, The Fall of Arthur.

I have to say I never expected this to come to light. Tolkien, who wished to construct (in his Silmarillion) a myth for England, found the Matter of Britain inadequate to his purposes. The presence of a Christian backdrop to the Arthur legends dissatisfied him, not because he had any enmity with Christendom (on the contrary, he was always a devoted son of the church) but because his interest in myth was how it prefigured, rather than wove into, redemptive history. And so he pushed aside the Matter of Britain and attempted to construct a mythopoeic legend that embodied but did not occur against the backdrop of Christendom.

So I assumed that Tolkien never had any use for the Arthurian legends. I was wrong.

The Poem

Another reason to assume that Tolkien would not have been particularly interested in Arthurian legend is that he was proudly and very eald-fashionedly English, in the sense of Anglo-Saxon, in his tastes, and there has always been something rather un-English, something definitely and distinctively Welsh-with-French-glosses, about the Matter of Britain. Insofar as Saxons ever do appear in the myths or retellings of the Arthur legends, they're the bad guys, fought off by the heroic Welsh or Roman Arthur. Of all the medieval Arthurian legends, a good deal are in Latin, French, and even German, by comparison to the few authors--Brut, Wace, Layamon, and Malory--who wrote in English (and Malory is always adding, "as the French book telleth" to his tale). The exception seems to be an intensely English, and largely overlooked pair of Middle English alliterative poems that hark back, stylistically, to Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse like Beowulf or--if you've read The Lord of the Rings at all, the Rohir poetry (which itself is occasionally cribbed from original Anglo-Saxon poems like The Wanderer)--"Where now is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?/Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?"

One of these old-fashioned Middle-English alliterative poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a rattling good yarn, was translated into modern English by JRR Tolkien and published during his lifetime. The other, known commonly as "the alliterative Morte," is less well-known to history since it has more in common with the pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmouth than with the more courtly and congenial French romances of Chretien de Troyes. Lots of fellows being split from the nave to the chaps, and not so much courtly knight-errantry in the twisted woods.

Which brings us to Tolkien's Fall of Arthur, a fragment little more than 4 cantos long, written alliteratively in the style of these Middle-English poems and apparently based on the alliterative Morte with a few influences from the French romances, such as the addition of the guilty love of Lancelot and Guinever.

Why It's Awesome

Please. It's JRR Tolkien writing an epic verse retelling of the Arthur myth, taking a good deal of inspiration from obscure sources and adding his own neat twists. Imagine one of your favourite authors writing fanfiction for one of your favourite books. That's what makes The Fall of Arthur a treat for fans of both Tolkien and Arthur.

The plot includes some fresh and refreshing differences to the usual story: I particularly loved what Tolkien did with Gawain. The writing is, as always, meticulous and staggering:

On Benwick's beaches breakers pounding
ground gigantic grumbling boulders
with ogre anger.

In addition, there are repetitions and chiasms in the structure of the poem that give it an odd and mesmerising power. But it's the characters that I most admired.

The poem focuses--indeed, it only has time to focus--on five major characters: Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred, Gawain, and Lancelot. With Tolkien's pen, they each come to life--or something much larger. Gawain, always my favourite of the knights, gets better treatment here than from any other writer since, well, since the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Greatest was Gawain, whose glory waxed
as times darkened, true and dauntless,
among knights peerless ever anew proven,
defence and fortress of a falling world.
As in last sortie from leaguered city
so Gawain led them.

But I was most astonished by Tolkien's treatment of two of my least favourite characters from the legends, Guinever and Lancelot. His description of Lancelot's plight is wonderfully, surprisingly moving--and according to Tolkien's notes for the unfinished remainder to the poem, it would have culminated in a completely original (and rather Wandereresquely Anglo-Saxon) end to Lancelot's story. But in the poem as it stands, it's his Guinever who steals the show. In most versions of the legend, you don't get much of a look into the inner motivations of any of the characters, least of all hers. But in Tolkien's hands, in a few deft lines, we glimpse someone cold and calculating and somehow, despite all this, glorious--a woman we admire even as we condemn her:

Dear she loved him
with love unyielding, lady ruthless,
fair as fay-woman and fell-minded
in the world walking for the woe of men.

In most tellings of the Arthur legends, you always feel like smacking someone over the head. Not in this one: Tolkien has pruned, simplified, tweaked, and adjusted the raw materials of the legend into pure nobility and splendour. Add to all this one final thing to love: my favourite author writing a story set against the backdrop of Christendom: of Lancelot's fathers it is said in an early draft that they

to the western world wandering journeyed,
Christendom bearing, kingdoms founding,
walls uprearing against the wild peoples.

The only thing that's not awesome about The Fall of Arthur? The fact that it ends almost before it's gotten underway. A tragedy!

The Commentary

Accompanying the poem fragment are plenteous notes, and also three essays by Christopher Tolkien examining first, the poem's place in the larger Arthurian tradition (very interesting to Arthur nerds), second, the poem's relation to Tolkien's larger mythos (very interesting to Tolkien nerds, especially considering the remarkable link between the Arthurian Avalon and Middle-Earth's Tol Eressea/Avallone), and third, some commentary on the history of the composition of the poem (very distressing to authors who can't slap down glorious epic alliterative verse more or less on command). Finally, there's a brief essay on Old English alliterative verse, a sort of whirlwind tour of the artform. All these are very interesting, if not quite as informative as the commentary on Sigurd and Gudrun.

Sadly, The Fall of Arthur will probably only appeal to that niche audience with an intersecting interest in Tolkien, Arthurian legend, and Old English alliterative verse. But if any of these things appeals to you, you're going to love The Fall of Arthur.

Find The Fall of Arthur on Amazon or The Book Depository.

2 comments:

Alison's Wonderland Recipes said...

I'll have to give this book a try! I LOVE Arthurian myth and how its stories can be tragic, yet redemptive at the same time.

Suzannah said...

Then I'm sure you'll enjoy THE FALL OF ARTHUR!

Also, you might be interested in this :).

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