Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: The Fall of Arthur

While I was writing a series of posts of the Magic of Medieval Fiction and the Late Fifth Century and the Age of Arthur, this little gem fell out of the sky: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur. Needless to say, I dove right in, and my review follows after this image of the book’s cover.

The Fall of Arthur is an unfinished poem published many decades after Tolkien’s death, but I am very glad it was. The poem is written in the Old English style (think Beowulf), and the only real knock is that it remains incomplete. For those unfamiliar with this style of poetry, here is an example from the poem’s beginning:
Arthur eastward   in arms purposed
his war to wage   on the wild marches,
over seas sailing   to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm   ruin defending.
The poem starts out with King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and their warriors heading overseas to fight the Saxons in their homeland, only to leave Camelot unprotected from Mordred’s treachery. Mordred is the singular villain of the poem, and early on seeks to abduct (and do worse) to Queen Guinevere. Meanwhile, Lancelot is living in exile in Benwick following his affair with Guinevere, but he longs to return to the service of his friend and king. This is how the story sets up, but unfortunately we never learn the ending, though it should be well-known to most fans of Arthurian fiction.
This is how it always seems to end ...
Fortunately, The Fall of Arthur offers a lot more than just an unfinished poem. An engaging Forward by Christopher Tolkien explains his father’s love of Old English poetry and offers explanations for why the poem may have never been finished (hint: it may have to do with that other little story he was working on – The Lord of the Rings). The book also contains a fascinating discussion of the origins of Arthurian myth, including the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory’s Tale of the Death of Arthur. I never knew how far out Monmouth’s work went, including a supposed account of Arthur defeating the emperor of Rome! Who knew? Fortunately, Tolkien’s poem is a bit more historically based – Saxons, not Romans, is a good thing, even if it’s unlikely that Arthur ever sailed to Saxony. In addition, the book includes an interesting discussion about Gawain and Lancelot, as well as an essay on the poem’s evolution and a surprising chapter on the unfinished poem and its relation to The Silmarillion.
In short, there is a lot more to this little book than an unfinished poem about King Arthur. Rather, it stands as a wonderful reference on early Arthurian legends and Tolkien’s love of epic poems. For true fans or Tolkien or Arthur, this book is a worthy read.


Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks for these thoughts on "The Fall of Arthur"! Here are mine:

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment! I enjoyed your review too, and appreciate the link.