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  • J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur:Creation from Literary Criticism
  • Leonard Neidorf (bio)

I. Introduction

For decades prior to its publication in 2013, The Fall of Arthur held a privileged position among Tolkien enthusiasts as one of his most eagerly anticipated unpublished works. Knowledge of its existence had been disseminated primarily through Humphrey Carpenter's J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977). Because he was granted unrestricted access to Tolkien's private papers, Carpenter was able to read the poem well in advance of the general public and compose a short description that summarized its content, situated its composition in the early 1930s, and identified some of its more striking features. Carpenter stirred up considerable interest in the work with the observation that "it is one of the few pieces of writing in which Tolkien deals explicitly with sexual passion, describing Mordred's unsated lust for Guinever" (168). Carpenter also revealed that Tolkien's Guinevere "is not the tragic heroine beloved by most Arthurian writers" (168) and thereby left little doubt in the minds of readers that The Fall of Arthur was an original and provocative work. Outside of Carpenter's biography, there were few references to the poem in primary sources. Tolkien mentioned it only once in his published papers, in a letter from 1955, written more than two decades after work on the poem had begun:

I write alliterative verse with pleasure, though I have published little beyond the fragments in The Lord of the Rings, except 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth' … I still hope to finish a long poem on The Fall of Arthur in the same measure.

(Letters 218–19)

C. S. Lewis expressed the same hope when he alluded to the poem in his essay, "The Alliterative Metre." Recommending contemporary use of this medieval form, Lewis notes that W. H. Auden has already revived it and then writes: "Professor Tolkien will soon, I hope, be ready to publish an alliterative poem" (119). The name of the hoped-for poem is not given, but Walter Hooper, the biographer of Lewis and editor of his posthumous publications, reported that Tolkien told him that The Fall of Arthur was the work in question.1

During Tolkien's lifetime, circulated drafts of the poem generated positive responses from members of his personal literary circle. Lewis [End Page 91] evidently admired the poem, and so did E. V. Gordon, according to Carpenter,2 and R. W. Chambers, who wrote a warm letter to Tolkien on 9 December 1934, which registers the enthusiastic reaction that the poem elicited in him. The letter is unpublished, but Christopher Tolkien includes some excerpts from it in the foreword to his edition of The Fall of Arthur. Chambers relates that he read Arthur on a train from London to Cambridge, and on the return trip "took advantage of an empty compartment to declaim him as he deserves" (10). He proceeds to encourage his correspondent: "It is very great indeed … really heroic, quite apart from its value in showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English … You simply must finish it" (10). Reviews of the poem since its publication have been generally positive, though less enthusiastic. Tom Shippey ("Tolkien's King Arthur") admires its fluid versification, judging it superior in its use of the alliterative line to the Silmarillion and Sigurd poems.3 Verlyn Flieger rates the poem favorably, writing that "as far as it goes it is a very good poem indeed," while expressing some uncertainty as to whether others will share her opinion: "The tides of time will determine The Fall of Arthur's ranking in the Tolkien canon" (225). Shaun F. D. Hughes takes a position similar to Flieger's: he is uncertain about the communal reaction, but recommends the poem to Arthurian enthusiasts because "it takes a familiar and beloved story and filters it through Tolkien's own considerable narrative skills, to give it a fresh and engaging interpretation" (135).4

Reviewers invariably regret that Tolkien did not finish The Fall of Arthur—"one of the most grievous of his many abandonments," in Christopher's view (122)—and that the work ends abruptly after 954 lines...