[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0544115899″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/61aQmt5BXSL.jpg” width=”232″ alt=”J.R.R. Tolkien” ]A World of Marvels and Magic
A Feature Review of
The Fall of Arthur: An Epic Poem
edited by Christopher Tolkien
Hardcover, HM Harcourt, 2013
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Reviewed by Holly Ordway
As J.R.R. Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis put it, before one judges the merits of anything – from a corkscrew to a cathedral – it is necessary to know what it is, and thus what for what use it is intended. Conversely, once one knows what something is for, one can decide whether it is the thing one is looking for. If after Sunday Mass one wants to have a pint of beer and a nice lunch, it’s no good staying in the cathedral; one must go to the pub down the road.
This point is relevant for a review of Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur because, perhaps more than other recent releases, it may not be immediately clear what it is.
Tolkien was notorious for leaving writing projects unfinished. The Fall of Arthur is one such work, begun in the 1930s and receiving sporadic attention potentially as late as the 1950s. A concise description – it is a narrative poem about the fall of Camelot, told in alliterative verse in the Anglo-Saxon style – places it firmly in a niche category. Thus it is unsurprising that much of the early attention to The Fall of Arthur has been on its potential connection to Tolkien’s Legendarium, the elaborate and complex system of invented mythology, literature, and language that he worked on for most of his adult life. Whether this is the most rewarding way to approach the poem, however, is debatable.
In the excellent supporting essay “The Unwritten Poem and Its Relation to the Silmarillion,” Christopher Tolkien provides a thoughtful, balanced, and thorough assessment of the poem’s planned development and its relationship to his father’s other writing. Christopher does not leap to conclusions about the poem’s relationship to the Silmarillion, and in fact takes pains to show that the poem is almost entirely rooted in the medieval and early modern Arthurian source texts that Tolkien followed closely even while creatively adapting them.
It is certain that Tolkien did have his own vivid conception of Avalon as “an island in the remote West” (145); later, the name would appear in The Fall of Númenor and The Lost Road, as well as in various working notes. Indeed, Christopher’s reading of the manuscript evidence supports the idea that Tolkien did make some sort of connection between the Avalon of the Arthurian legends and “the Avallon that was Tol Eressëa” (156), but he is appropriately cautious and avoids speculation. The major evidence for a connection between The Fall of Arthur and the Silmarillion is this:
Among my father’s notes for the continuation of The Fall of Arthur the one that tells Lancelot took a boat and sailed into the west, but never returned, is of particular interest in the present context on account of the words that follow and concluded the note: ‘Eärendel passage.’ (156-157)
Thus, the only substantive connection between the poem and the Legendarium is a single phrase in a draft. The link is of interest to Tolkien scholars, to be sure, but the disproportionate attention given to the Silmarillion connection is regrettable; it turns the reader’s attention to the poem-as-literary-puzzle-piece, and away from the poem as a work of literature.
What of the poem as poem, then?
The Fall of Arthur is perhaps best appreciated as a creative cousin to Tolkien’s translations of Old English and Middle English poetry, where he shows his great gifts as a poet working with complex metrical and stanzaic patterns while also capturing the flavor of the medieval world. The Fall of Arthur is an accomplishment even simply as a recreation of a form long out of fashion, but what is particularly notable is its freshness and freedom from any hint of pastiche or nostalgia. Tolkien had so thoroughly assimilated the alliterative mode that he was able to compose in as naturally as if it were modern English prose.