2013 saw the release of The Fall of Arthur, a book which contains an alliterative poem that was uncompleted by J.R.R. Tolkien before his death in 1973. The book itself can be split roughly into two segments. The poem itself, which is rather short as it was uncompleted. And the notes by his son and editor, Christopher Tolkien, which include discussions of the poem in regards to Arthurian Tradition, as well as discussions on The Fall of Arthur with reference to J.R.R Tolkien’s other works such as the Silmarillion. The blurb describes this book as Tolkien’s “finest and most skilful achievement in the use of alliterative metre, in which he brought to this transforming perceptions of the old narratives a pervasive sense of the grave and fateful nature of all that is told: of Arthur’s expedition overseas into distant pagan lands, of Guinevere’s flight from Camelot, of the great sea-battle on Arthur’s return to Britain, in the portrait of the traitor Mordred, in the tormented doubts of Lancelot in his French Castle.” But how far is all this true? And is The Fall of Arthur a welcome addition to the now extensive pool of Arthurian Literature?
Though only taking up a marginal part of the entire text. The unfinished alliterative poem, written by J.R.R Tolkien himself is the most interesting, and poignant part of the entire book. Split into five individual cantos, the poem itself is only forty pages long. Though short, it deals with a number of events which stretch across the whole Arthurian Tradition when narrating the death of King Arthur. One early indication of Tolkien’s own influence on the poem can be found at the beginning of canto one. Here we are introduced by
“Arthur Eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on wild marches
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending” 1:1-4
unlike the alliterative Morte Arthur or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Briton,which discuss in length the reason Arthur rides east. Tolkien pushes the reader into the heart of an already moving story, perhaps with the purpose of explaining Arthur’s actions later? And as such it may have been expected by Tolkien, that the reader had a familiarity with certain elements of Arthurian legend. This emphasis on familiarity returns later in canto one, where we see the first mention of Lancelot
“Lancelot he missed; Lionel and Ector,
Bors and Blamore to battle came not” 1:44-45
The lack of Lancelot at Arthur’s side has been fleshed out in the Stanziac Mort Artu, a French work which includes the story of Queen Guinever’s adulterous lust for Lancelot. And the break up of the round table and following subsequent events including the death of one of Gawain’s brothers by Lancelot (Gawains ‘closest friend’.) Canto three in The Fall of Arthur later expands this when it looks at the character of Sir Lancelot. Throughout the poem we see a desire by Tolkien to characterize the poem, and to look at individual motives and emotions intimately. For example canto one also contains a piece of ingenuity on Tolkien’s part, when introducing the character of Sir Cradoc, unlike in other poems where Cradoc is introduced solely as a ‘traveler’ on the road, who tells King Arthur of Modred’s treachery. Here in The Fall of Arthur, though briefly, the character and his journey is explored by Tolkien
“from the mouths of the Rhine o’er many kingdoms
grimly riding. Neither grey shadows
nor mist stayed him mighty hearted..” 1:147-149
As well as further characterization of Cradoc in canto two, the motivations and desires of the character of Mordred and Sir Lancelot are explored in canto two and canto three respectively. Here we see a Mordred who opposes the alliterative prototype. Mordred is “reluctant to take on the position of viceroy” traditionally. However in The Fall of Arthur, Mordred’s own plan to seize Guinever and the crown for his own are explored by Tolkien.
“He heard nor heeded: his heart returned
to its long thraldom lust-tormented
to Guinever the golden with gleaming limbs” 2:25-27
“Mordred was marching; messengers speeding
northwards and eastwards the news bearing
through the land of Logres. Lords and chieftains
to his side he summoned swift to hasten
their tryst kepping, true to mordred,
faithful in falsehood, foes of arthur,
lovers of treason, lightly purchased
followers of fortune, and freebooters” 2:99-106
In both cases and throughout canto two, we are presented with a character of Mordred that is inherently bad. Which opposes the conventional picture of a reluctant Mordred, who simply falls to avarice. Here we see a theme which flows through most pieces of Tolkien’s work, which is often the stark contrast between the forces of good and evil. Though Arthur throughout the text is seen as a man whose world is crumbling for no other reason than his own hubris, he is not inherently bad when ultimately compared to the character of Mordred. And this nature between good and evil adds and interesting dynamic to the poem.
The character of Lancelot is then later developed in canto three. Here we understand the reasons behind the break up of the round table, which include Mordred and his machinations on power. But most importantly remains the relationship between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinever, and the subsequent killing of Agravain when the affair is uncovered. The Lancelot which we find in canto three of The Fall of Arthur is one who is wallowing in his own sorrow.
“Lancelot their lord with love guarding
in his days of darkness. Deep his anguish.
He lord betrayed to love yielding,
and love forsaking lord regained not,
by leagues of sea from love sundered.” 3:138-142
This sorrow of Lancelot’s has the potential to be redeemed in his own imagination if King Arthur, or more importantly Queen Guinever who he still deeply loved, would call for his aid.
“But there came neither from king summons
nor word from lady. Only wind journeyed
over wide waters wild and heedless.” 3:174-176
Throughout The Fall of Arthur we see a combination from differing aspects of the Arthurian tradition. Canto four and five follow a route which can be seen in the French Mort Artu. Here we see Arthur ready to invade England, and to reassert his dominance. As well as a deeper characterization of Mordred through his fears about Lancelo
“For Lancelot, lord of Benwick,
most he hated and yet most he dreaded” 4:102-103
“Thus came Arthur to his own kingdom
in power and majesty proud returning” 4:164-165
The naval engagement between Arthur’s forces and Modred’s is fast paced and shows Gawain to be the champion of Arthur in the stead of Sir Lancelot. Here we find a description of a battle that is not found commonly in the alliterative tradition, and may have been used as a tool for Tolkien to build the anticipation of victory, only to have it swept away. Ultimately the poem ends with the setting of the sun at Romeril without an indication of King Arthur’s ultimate fate.
“Now grim Galuth Gawain brandished
his sword renowned- smiths enchanted
ere Rome was built with runes marked it
and its steel tempered strong and deadly
forth leapt he as fire a flame wielding.
The king of Gothland on his carven prow
he smote to death and to sea drave him;” 4:197-203
“Death lay between dark before him
ere the way were won or the world conquered” 5:46-47
Even though the unfinished poem itself is beautiful and introduces and large number of characters intimately in the Arthurian tradition, the real strength of the book personally relies on the notes compiled by the editor, Tolkiens son, Christopher. Here we have a number of chapters in relation to the Unfinished poem and Arthurian Literature, it in relation to the silmarllion and a chapter on where the poem may have developed from its abrupt ending. In all cases, each chapter allows for a greater understanding of the Arthurian Tradition, Tolkien own work and his place that tradition. Some criticism of the poem itself would have been that it lacked the battles, noticeable in other works of Tolkien. Though it is unfinished and would have perhaps materialized. As well as this, the poem gave the impression that only someone familiar with the Arthur story could pick out the subtle nuances in the story Other than that The Fall of Arthur proves to be a welcome addition to the Arthurian tradition and legend.
Tolkien. J. R. R., The Fall of Arthur, (London 2013)
Pearsall. D, Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction, (Oxford 2003)