J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fall of Arthur [Feature Review]

November 1, 2013


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B00CNVPEYQ” locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/61WD%2BJSnRML._SL160_.jpg” width=”100″]Page 2: J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fall of Arthur


The distinctive flavor of alliterative verse comes from its repetition of sounds in the stressed syllables of each line. Here we have the scene being set for Mordred to hear the news of Arthur’s return in force:

Dark wind came driving     over deep water,
from the South sweeping    surf upon the beaches,
a roaring sea    rolling endless
huge hoarcrested    hills of thunder.
The world darkened.    Wan rode the moon
through stormy clouds    streaming northward. (II.1-6)

This passage, like many others in the poem, shows two of Tolkien’s literary gifts that are most fully on display in The Lord of the Rings: landscape description used to create emotional tone, and an underlying moral vision.
This moral vision comes through most vividly in the portrayal of Guinevere, which has drawn some ire for indicating Tolkien’s supposed misogyny. In modern versions of the story, the Queen is often depicted as a woman tragically caught between the love of two men. Tolkien will have nothing to do with such a whitewashing of Guinevere. The truth is that she betrays her husband and commits adultery; furthermore, Tolkien follows the Arthurian tradition in showing that, as Guinevere is the assertive one in the relationship with Lancelot, she is guilty of tempting him to commit mortal sin.
Both Guinevere and Lancelot can be redeemed, and indeed, Tolkien’s poem would almost certainly have followed his sources in showing their eventual repentance. But while Guinevere is actively continuing her adulterous relationship with Lancelot, she is deliberately sinning, knowing that she is dishonoring her husband and harming the kingdom. Tolkien shows us a woman who is self-centered and ultimately destructive of those who love her: “as fair and fell    as fay-woman / in the world walking    for the woe of men / no tear shedding.” (II.28-30). We need more authors as morally clear-sighted as Tolkien.
The poem, then, is well worth reading in its own right. It is also interesting for its glimpse of Tolkien’s approach to the ‘Matter of Britain,’ which has inspired so many retellings of the Arthurian cycle – including works by his fellow Inklings C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Readers who are interested in the poem’s relationship to the Arthurian sources will be pleased by the inclusion of the essay “The Poem in Arthurian Tradition” and an appendix on “Old English Verse.”

Tolkien reworked this poem extensively, as we see in the detailed supporting essay “The Evolution of the Poem.” Why did he abandon it? Ironically, the cause may be its relationship to the Legendarium. Christopher notes that connection, tenuous as it is, may have overwhelmed Tolkien with the tying up the various (and contradictory) threads of geography, mythology, and etymology that potentially linked the poem to the Silmarillion.
Had Tolkien completed The  Fall of Arthur, it would likely have been a work of tremendous power; it is to be regretted, perhaps more than any of Tolkien’s other unfinished works, that he abandoned it. One is made even more grateful for the constant pressure of C.S. Lewis to finish The Lord of the Rings; it becomes increasingly evident that Tolkien might very well have left that work, too, to languish in a state of perpetual revision.
As a work on its own, The Fall of Arthur tantalizes rather than satisfies, but perhaps to a good end. If readers are moved by this poem to seek out J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, they will be led into a world of marvels and magic, adventures and enchantment, found in the literature of the medieval period that Tolkien so loved and to which he devoted his life as a scholar.


One response to J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fall of Arthur [Feature Review]

  1. Thanks for this review. Now I know that I want to grab it as soon as the term is over. I would imagine there is at least a light connection between his academic work of Arthur and his fantasy work. I know that this term has been especially hard for me, because as I read all these primary sources I start wandering off into how I would incorporate them into my own fiction.