Monday, June 24, 2013
The Fall of Arthur: A Review
I eagerly went to my local bookstore on its day of publication to get a copy of The Fall of Arthur, the latest posthumous offering from the pen of J. R. R. Tolkien. To my surprise and chagrin I was told that the store did not have it in stock and indeed was not scheduled to receive any copies. I was obliged to special-order it and wait another seven days before I could finally lay eyes on the one and only work by England's master fantasist on the Matter of Britain, the legends of King Arthur. At the time I was privately angry and a little disgusted: a unique work from a great author was, I felt, being slighted. On more sober reflection (I had a week to think about it) I began to perhaps understand the circumstances behind a more restrained release for this production of the Author of the Century, and I think that reason can be summed up in one title: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was the last posthumous publication by J. R. R. T., and one with a very wide publishing release (indeed, I remember seeing copies for sale at Wal-Mart). I think it was thought that, in the wake of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings films, anything by Tolkien would sell like hot cakes. But I imagine casual fans of LOTR coming to this long verse re-telling of an ancient Norse saga were in an analogous situation to Queen Victoria in the old apocryphal anecdote. The monarch, having expressed appreciation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Through the Looking-Glass and the desire to have a copy of his next work, received in due time a volume on abstract algorithms from the mathematics professor. S&G, while a good work of its kind, did not have the wide-spread popularity that was being banked upon, and perhaps has led to the more reined in release for The Fall of Arthur.
So what do we have in The Fall of Arthur? The poem itself consists of 954 lines of alliterative verse, divided into five cantos, and occupies only forty pages of this 233 page book. The rest of the volume is fleshed out once again by Christopher Tolkien, the professor's scholarly son, and includes a Foreword (introducing and placing the poem in its personal historical context), Notes on the Text (identifying persons and old words occurring in the poem itself), a chapter explaining the poem in relation to Arthurian Tradition, a chapter explaining the poem in relation to Tolkien's own developing ideas about his mythology, and a chapter on how the poem changed through several drafts (only the last version is presented in the book). Finally, there is an appendix explaining Old English Verse, the tradition in which Tolkien was working, relying on stressed alliterative words within the poetic line rather than rhyme.
This all sounds rather dry and drasty, except that it isn't. The real meat on this bone is Tolkien's own voice in the verse, and when it starts rolling out it swells and falls, thunders and sighs like the waves breaking on a stony beach. In the beginning of the poem, Arthur (on the advice of Mordred) leads a punitive army eastward to stem the repeated Saxon invasions and raids on Britain. Here is the vaunt of Gawain in the face of what seems to be a vast army of wraiths and darkness:
"--Clear went his voice
in the rocks ringing above roaring wind
and rolling thunder: 'Ride, forth to war,
ye hosts of ruin, hate proclaiming!
Foes we fear not, nor fell shadows
of the dark mountains demon-haunted!
Hear now ye hills and hoar forest,
ye awful thrones of olden gods
huge and hopeless, hear and tremble!
From the West comes war that no wind daunteth,
might and purpose that no mist stayeth;
lord of legions, light in darkness,
east rides Arthur!' "
In this defiance of the dark we hear once more the authentic Tolkien note.
The Fall of Arthur is woven around five main characters: Arthur, who strives to maintain his kingdom and the remains of the Christian Roman world; Mordred, whose lust for power and for Guinever will make him ally with any invader or outlaw; Lancelot, whose affair with the queen has divided and weakened Arthur's court; Guinever ("as fair and fell as fay-woman/ in the world walking for the woe of men") who cares for nothing as long as she gets what she wants, and Gawain, Arthur's chief knight after Lancelot, restored here to his original British position as the paragon of loyal knighthood.
The plot of the poem (as it stands) can be very plainly summed up. Arthur and Gawaine leave for the East on their mission. They hear that back home Mordred has taken over and caused Guinever to flee, Arthur turns homeward and considers asking Lancelot for help, but Gawain counsels against it, doubting his loyalty. Lancelot wonders if he should come to their aid, but his debate keeps him from leaving in a timely manner. Arthur's forces come once more to Britain and notice woeful changes in the land. And it is here that Tolkien left his work.
It is of course in relationship to the poem that all of the ensuing scholarship derives its interest: when, how, and why Tolkien wrote it, the tradition in which he wrote and how he selected and changed things from the tradition, how it affected his own 'legendarium.' In the end we are left with a beautiful, tantalizing fragment, another 'what if' of literature, and, as Christopher Tolkien phrased it, "one of the most grievous of [Tolkien's] abandonments."