Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is life, death, and immortality. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound is hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring guest posts and interviews!
Goodreads: The Fall of Arthur
Published: May 2013
Christopher Tolkien presents the text of his father’s unfinished poem about Arthur’s final battle with Mordred, along with three essays–one of the evolution of the poem, one on the poem in relation to Middle-earth, and one on the context of the poem in the Arthurian tradition.
In releasing his father’s works, many of which remain unfinished, Christopher Tolkien has obviously wrestled with how to present scholarly writings to the general public. Generally, as in the case of Beowulf and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, he has begun by providing his father’s poem, then added notes and some essays on the background of the poems. These essays attempt to walk a fine line, condensing detailed and heavy research into an easily digestible format. I have always found the results mixed.
“The Fall of Arthur”
To begin, however, I would like to consider Tolkien’s “The Fall of Arthur,” since this alliterative poem, though unfinished, is the centerpiece of the book. Tolkien’s narrative is character-based, meaning that the portraits drawn of Mordred, Guinevere, and Gawain move the story more than the actual plot (which, in fact, does not get very far before the poem breaks off). With concise power, Tolkien reveals the lust of Mordred, the selfishness of the queen, and the stubbornness of Gawain–one senses that the history being told is truly the result of the interactions of these individuals, more than the fate that Arthur faces as he attempts to fight the fall of Christendom.
Guinevere’s portrait proves especially compelling. In Tolkien’s version, she is the temptress, the seducer. Lancelot would have held to his oats of loyalty had she not assailed him with her smiles and tears. Guinevere knows nothing but to grasp what she wants and she seems to delight more in her power over Lancelot than she does in his love. In the end, Guinevere cares about only herself, grieving more for her own losses than for the ruin that she helped cause.
Still, despite this intriguing look at the lone woman in the poem, Tolkien does not dwell on the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, often seen as the catalyst for the downfall of the Round Table. Instead Tolkien dwells on the bitter landscapes of the east, focuses on Gawain rather than Lancelot, spends time listening to the dying words of a sea captain. Along with providing portraits of the main players, he seems concerned with the overall effect of the poem, the sense of doom falling on the dying era, a doom advanced by the decisions made through the defining characteristics of individuals.
The poem ends after only 40 pages, so we cannot know where Tolkien might have taken it, or how he would have continued to follow or to break away from his sources. However, what we possess is still a powerful and evocative piece of poetry.
The essays provided by Christopher Tolkien, despite being written for a general audience, will still probably appeal to those interested in the specialized subjects of Arthurian tradition or Tolkien’s mythology. The account of how Tolkien’s poem fits into the tradition of Arthurian literature is potentially the most interesting and accessible, simply because it seems to justify its existence; looking at how Tolkien chooses to follow one source and not another really does tell readers something about the work. The other material seems less necessary, however, a means of expanding the length of the book to make it seem worth buying.
For example, the essay on “The Fall of Arthur” in relation to Middle-earth provides little information about this relationship, other than pointing out some obvious parallels between Avalon and Tol Eressea, or between Lancelot’s sea journey and Earendil’s. In the end, Christopher admits he really isn’t sure what the relationship between this poem and Middle-earth is, unless his father was trying to fit his legends into some tradition of already established legends.
An essay on the evolution of the poem is also included and will probably interest mostly scholars of Tolkien–few others will probably care to read several versions of the same poem as it was written. An appendix on Old English poetry follows and may interest some, but it does not go much beyond what most students likely learned in their freshman surveys of English literature. In that sense, it may appeal to those who took no such survey course.
I appreciate the work Christopher has done to decipher his father’s notes and handwriting, and to publish so much of his father’s unfinished work. I also understand that, since The Silmarillion, he has seemed to want to be more careful in delineating what and where he edited–hence the addition of all the essays on the evolution of his father’s writings. Still, the latest selections he has published try to balance a sense of being scholarly yet accessible–and very often, the balance does not work.