- The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien
Few of J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumously published works have been so long anticipated as The Fall of Arthur, and few have been the focus of so much advance excitement. Now that the poem is available in its incomplete entirety and with commentary by Christopher Tolkien, now that the first enthusiasm has calmed and the dust has settled, fans and scholars alike have the opportunity to answer for themselves the overriding question: was it worth the wait?
The answer depends very much on what you were waiting for.
If you were waiting for poetry in the archaic alliterative meter at which Tolkien excels, The Fall of Arthur will satisfy your expectations. Fragmentary though it is, Tolkien’s poem is a worthy addition to a long tradition of Arthurian works in English alliterative verse, not just that darling of English syllabuses Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but also Layamon’s Brut, a recasting of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittiniae into verse; the anonymous Of Arthour and Merlin and The Awnters of Arthure at the Tarn Wadling; and in particular the Alliterative and Stanzaic Morte Arthurs, which were Tolkien’s immediate sources. This should put to rest some reviewers’ rationale for the poem’s unfinished state, that Tolkien realized the irony of writing about a Celtic hero, Arthur, in the language and verse style of his enemy, the English. By the time Tolkien wrote his poem, Arthur had been assimilated into the English cultural imagination for some seven centuries.
You may have been waiting to see how Tolkien’s Arthur would measure up against better-known Arthurs such as Malory’s, or Tennyson’s, or even T. H. White’s, whose The Sword in the Stone was written in the same decade as The Fall of Arthur. In this case also, your expectations will be met. Tolkien’s hero-king compares well with the best, and Tolkien’s treatment stands apart from the shifts and changes of the various versions. His Arthur is neither Malory’s Renaissance monarch nor Tennyson’s blameless king. Nor is he White’s once and future one. Markedly different from these, Tolkien’s Arthur is at once older and sterner, less idealized, and decidedly less romantic. Yet he is as true to his author’s period as were his predecessors to theirs, as different from White’s as chalk from cheese but equally fitted to the war-torn century the two authors shared.
In these respects The Fall of Arthur will reward your patience. In other respects it may not. If you were looking for a substantial volume [End Page 213] containing a finished, fully realized work of art on the order of Christopher Tolkien’s editions of The Children of Húrin or The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, you are in for disappointment. Unlike these others, The Fall of Arthur is neither substantial nor fully realized. What we have is at best a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. It is a slim volume whose content gets off to an impressive start but halts frustratingly before the climactic moments—the death of Gawain, the last battle, the final confrontation with Mordred, and most important, the wounding/death of Arthur.
“You simply must finish it,” wrote R. W. Chambers to Tolkien in 1934 (10), but Tolkien never did. Three years after Chambers, Tolkien’s colleague E. V. Gordon referred to its incomplete form, suggesting that Tolkien had made little or no progress in the interim. Christopher Tolkien calls this “one of the most grievous of his many abandonments” (122), and most readers, their expectations raised and dashed in quick succession, will agree. The poem itself—just under 1000 lines—is slight in relation to the story it sets out to tell and proportionally brief in relation to Christopher Tolkien’s surrounding secondary material. Of the volume’s 233 pages, it comprises a scant 40. Christopher’s foreword, his...