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fall-of-arthurReview by Phoebe C. Linton
The University of Edinburgh

The Fall of Arthur should be considered a text of interest both to current medievalists interested in the fourteenth-century alliterative revival and those studying the development of Arthurian literature through history, as well as die hard fanatics of Tolkien. It constitutes the most recent posthumous publication by Christopher Tolkien of his father J. R. R. Tolkien’s work, a poem of 954 lines written sometime between 1931-4. The last section is sadly unfinished because Tolkien abandoned The Fall of Arthur for his epic narrative on Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings; consequently the final sixteen lines are draft material rather than polished prose.

Characteristically, Tolkien’s supreme strength as an author lies in his unfolding of a journey. In the alliterative Fall of Arthur, his characters’ passage through time and over the landscape evokes the spirit of “quest” in every stanza. In his essay explaining the background of The Fall of Arthur, Christopher Tolkien references Edmund Chamber’s evaluation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, who wrote that “no work of imagination, save the Aeneid, has done more to shape the legend of a people.” I consider it equally true that no work of modern fantasy has done more to shape the British literary imagination as The Lord of the Rings. The seeds of several themes, character prototypes and voices in Tolkien’s greatest work are apparent in The Fall of Arthur, and offer signs of the workings of the author’s imagination as he prepared, unconsciously or otherwise, to begin his magnum opus.

Tolkien was steeped in the lore and literature of the Middle Ages, and his familiarity with the spirit, language and style of his sources is evident in the fluency with which he handles Arthurian tragedy in his own unique voice. Much like the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century, which was not a mainstream tradition, Tolkien’s alliterative reimagining in the twentieth century was also not indicative of a revival. However, the genre lends itself to the subject of Arthurian epic due to the rhythm achieved by the dipodic hemistich, which infuses Tolkien’s distinctive imagery with energy. Dipodic hemistich is a verse form which divides each line into two halves (hemistich); in each half there are two feet, or syllables of emphasis (di-podic). These emphases can fall anywhere in each half. In this style and form, alliteration and poetic emphasis work together to form a motivated poetic pulse that drives the narrative forward. Therefore this form and style is particularly suitable to war epics such as the legends of Arthur.

Unlike the most complex and exemplary British Arthurian romance, Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory, which follows the whole of Arthur’s life from youth to age, Tolkien’s poem begins in media res during the final days of King Arthur. Readers familiar with the Arthurian myths and romances will recognise that at this point the best known events, such as the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Guinever, have passed. Tolkien’s personal reimagining of King Arthur is not about how people become who they are, but how they face the consequences of their life choices.

The Fall of Arthur is divided into five cantos. The first follows Arthur in his final decision to seek a last glory in battle. As in Tolkien’s life work The Lord of the Rings, the landscape plays a huge part in the narrative, where events are played out across the “wild marches,” the “houseless hills,” and “veiled forest” rather than in the civilised environment of the medieval court.[1] Many ideas to be found in The Lord of the Rings are begun in this poem; for example Tolkien’s concept of war as a force that is almost above human control, like heaven and hell. War is portrayed almost as a wave of energy triggered by but not wholly because of mortal interference: “Thus Arthur in arms | eastward journeyed, / And war awoke | in the wild regions.”[2] Tolkien’s language allows for two readings, where Arthur can be seen as travelling to find the potential for evil that already exists in the east, as well as purposefully causing strife in order to augment his own glory. Here, Arthur could be the one to awaken war, but it is equally possible that it wakes of its own accord. The solitude of the lonely warrior “waiting watchful | in a world of shadow” who shines with heroism is counterbalanced by the moral ambiguity of such a mission.[3] In The Lord of the Rings different civilisations of men do not fight one another in battle, since they are united in their common goal to rid the earth of Sauron and the orcs. In this poem there is something unsettling about a king whose war efforts abroad are usually depicted in a favorable light, but here wreaks devastation on lands far away with no obvious cause except to enhance his own reputation:

folk fled them [Arthur’s company] | as the face of God,
till earth was empty | and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them | in the endless hills,
save bird and beast | baleful haunting
the lonely lands.[4]

In scenes such as this Tolkien was clearly influenced by the early medieval texts he studied and wrote about in his literary criticism: Beowulf and the Norse sagas.

Whilst Arthur is abroad on this mission, Tolkien portrays a traditionally depraved Mordred at home in the second canto, juxtaposed with a less conventional Guinever, who here is pure antithesis to the disloyal Mordred, despite her illicit affair with Lancelot. Although the second canto opens with Mordred, it turns halfway to present Guinever as a heroine acting within a world turned politically dark. She reflects some of Eowyn’s qualities, such as defiance and coldness in face of the heat of anger:

Grey her eyes were | as a glittering sea;
glass-clear and chill | they his glance challenged
proud and pitiless.[5]

In the third canto, Tolkien captures Lancelot’s conflicting passion for Guinever and love of his liege lord, the king. As in the second, Tolkien infuses age-old characters with new psychological depth, encouraging emotional complexity in their love triangle. Tolkien presents their relationship as tarnished; in order to save Guinever, Lancelot has unwittingly killed some of his closest fellows in the midst of their escape, among them Gareth, whom he himself knighted. Tolkien portrays how this guilt alters their perception of one another. In Guinever’s mind, “[s]trange she deemed him / by a sudden sickness | from his self altered.”[6] On the other side of this gulf, Lancelot feels similarly: “Strange he deemed her / from her self altered.”[7] Tolkien’s poetry is particularly emotive at this point, since the change each lover perceives as resting in the other is actually something that has occurred in their own minds and evinces a sophisticated concept of projection.

The tragic mood that inflects all the characters is strongest in the fourth canto. It is the most evocative and atmospheric section of the poem, epitomising Tolkien’s skill at complementing each protagonist with the pervasive force of the landscape which propels the narrative:

Wolves were howling | on the wood’s border;
the windy trees | wailed and trembled,
and wandering leaves | wild and homeless
drifted dying | in the deep hollows.[8]

This scene forms the backdrop for Mordred’s stand against Arthur’s forces, and descriptions such as this infuse the poem with a lonely mood that conveys the isolation of each and every character.

The fifth canto returns to Arthur as he travels home to Camelot to face his final reckoning with Mordred and his death. Christopher Tolkien tells us in this edition that his father’s notes demonstrate Tolkien’s intentions to include Avalon, and that he would have written a sequence where Lancelot follows Arthur to the other world. The medieval sources like the alliterative Morte Arthure, which would have been part of the basis of Tolkien’s research, do not describe Avalon at length. It is disappointing that readers can never know Tolkien’s vision for Arthur’s end, how fully he intended to draw out these final scenes, or what emotion he may have portrayed between father and son as they met their deaths together. As Christopher Tolkien laments, this unfinished cycle is “in my view, one of the most grievous of his many abandonments.”[9] Nevertheless, the unfinished nature of this poem gives us insight into ideas that translated into his work on The Lord of the Rings. We can imagine Arthur at his disappearance into Avalon voicing such thoughts as the elves upon their imminent departure; Galadriel speaks for herself as well as for all elves: “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”[10] Arthur is a figure of legend, and in one source, Lazamon’s Brut, is described as being raised by elves. Both heroes and elves are immortal, both physically and in spirit. Just as Arthur can only remain himself by escaping death through the immortality of Avalon, at least in the promise of his return, so too do Tolkien’s elves have access to the isles of the Valar.

As a publication, The Fall of Arthur is a beautiful edition, well presented and informative. The poem is accompanied by a foreword, select notes to the cantos, an appendix and three essays by Christopher Tolkien. For anyone interested in the medieval or neomedieval, this poem is worth owning as well as reading, and will make a welcome addition to any library. This haunting work is effective independently as much more than a historical piece. When read aloud, the lines sing to the listener with an almost dreamlike quality, a homage to the poetic form of centuries past from an author who possessed an acute awareness of temporality that fed his ability to create and recreate legend.

Works Cited

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fall of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: Harper Collins, 2013.
–. The Lord of the Rings. London: Harper Collins, 2007.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur, I.2, I.70, I.71, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: Harper Collins, 2013).
[2] Tolkien, Fall, I.39-40.
[3] Tolkien, Fall, I.135.
[4] Tolkien, Fall, I.63-7.
[5] Tolkien, Fall, II.118-20.
[6] Tolkien, Fall, III.95-6.
[7] Tolkien, Fall, III.106-7 (own emphasis).
[8] Tolkien, Fall, IV.1-4.
[9] Christopher Tolkien, ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition,’ Fall, p. 122.
[10] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p. 366 (London: Harper Collins, 2007).