Approaching Tolkien: The Fall of Arthur

The Fall of Arthur might not appeal to every reader interested in the stories and realms from Middle-earth. The poem, considering its subject matter and unfinished state, might put off some people attempting to tackle this slightly academic book.

The reason for this post is for me to try and convince you in giving it a go!

First off, two things attracted my attention when the book’s publication was first announced:FallOfArthur book cover

One: Somewhere out there was a piece of Tolkien writing yet to be consumed by a hungry fan (me!) …

Two: Arthurian literature has always been fascinating to me, well before I was ever introduced to Tolkien.

Merging these two together meant only one thing – that I was completely vulnerable and it was impossible to resist the temptation in acquiring and reading the book!

And here I am, having just recently finished my second reading.

I love The Fall of Arthur.

It’s – for lack of a better, more elaborate and justifiable word – mesmerizing.

– The Poem

The poem itself runs to just under 1,000 lines. Written in the famous alliterative metre (synonymous with both Old English poetry and Tolkien himself), the style is quite “old-fashioned” – giving the whole work a sense of history and identity to it.

From the get-go, it is not a requirement to be well versed in the Arthurian world – thus having to read Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur or any other literary work of the type. Needless to say though, they will help in orienting Tolkien’s poem with the rest of the literature.

But all a reader needs to know before tackling this work is the general knowledge associated with Arthur (King of Britain), his loyal (and not so loyal) knights, the Round Table, Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit relationship and all those elements you most certainly may have come across in life – especially during history lessons at school.

At least, I hope.

arthurTolkien picks off his poem at a later stage in Arthur’s life when, together with his army, he marches across Europe – intent on cleansing the heathen lands. But trouble soon emerges as Arthur is called back – when his nephew, Mordred, usurps the throne and seeks to make Guinevere his wife (and prisoner). The poem culminates in the famous Battle of Camlann – reputedly Arthur’s last battle.

All the elements of chivalry, betrayal, lust and honour (very much synonymous with the Arthurian legends), find their way in this brilliantly-constructed piece of fine poetry.

Admittedly, the text might prove a herculean task to read at first – but after a stanza or two (having successfully managed to adapt to the flowing and cohesive style of the writing), it will become much easier – and definitely more enthralling.

I promise.

Nevertheless, Tolkien tackles the alliterative and dynamic style of writing with a bold and fierce approach – composing flowing verses, intricately woven thanks to a supremely-crafted approach to sentence construction.

Fall of Arthur poem extract

The skill with which Tolkien manages to describe so much in such a short amount of words is astonishing.

But not only the descriptions – it is also the style of the writing and the way it is meant to be read that really is the quality of this work. Tolkien demonstrates his supreme talent as a poet, creating dynamic lines that are filled to the brim with all sorts of atmospheres and feelings and emotions – evoking those same sensations in the readers as they voraciously go through the lines.

– The Commentary

Suffice to say, the unfinished state of the work will leave many readers frustrated (me included) – wishing Tolkien’s text was complete.

Thankfully, Christopher Tolkien (in his usual, brilliant accompanying commentaries) provides the necessary background to the construction and development of the poem.

The book is actually structured very similarly to The Children of Húrin.

Indeed, after the first fifty pages or so, the rest of the book is dedicated to notes, three highly-fascinating essays and an appendix – written by Christopher Tolkien. Each of the three essays is dedicated to a particular aspect of the poem:  ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’, ‘The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion‘, ‘The Evolution of the Poem’.

Yes, you read that right. “… its relation to The Silmarillion“.

ArthurChristopher Tolkien proposes an intriguing concept involving an Eärendil-figure in the character of Lancelot – delineating the common linguistic and contextual similarities between the poem’s reference to “Avalon” and that found in The Silmarillion as “Tol Eressëa”.

Furthermore, another essay provides for a satisfying conclusion to make up for the lack of poetry – whereby Christopher Tolkien unearths his father’s drafts and sketches made for the poem and literally pieces together (using scattered verses found in manuscripts), the continuation of the poem up until a further point in the story.

Truly fascinating stuff.

– Reading The Fall of Arthur before Tolkien’s Norse legend

The release of The Fall of Arthur recalls to my mind the equally-fascinating book, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (another posthumous publication including Christopher Tolkien’s commentary). But even though the latter was released earlier (in 2009), both the content and writing style might prove slightly more challenging.

Which is why, in my opinion, it would be better to read The Fall of Arthur first – to get yourself comfortable with both the highly-artistic poetic style of Tolkien and the way the book is structured between text and commentary.

After that, you can tackle the brilliant The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, on which a similar post will follow soon 😉

Related Articles:

– Arthurian Legend: The Story Of Humanity.

9 thoughts on “Approaching Tolkien: The Fall of Arthur

  1. You made some strong arguments. I might have to tackle it after reading The Silmarillion. On a difficulty scale from 1-10 where would you place The Fall of Arthur? Just so I know what I’m getting into.

    I myself, am an Arthurian fan. The Boy’s King Arthur and Le Morte had me hooked before I knew who Tolkien was. I’m currently crafting my own novel (an Arthurian parody) because I enjoy the lore so much.

    Thank you for this detailed review–analysis actually of the work.

    1. Hey Kylie, many thanks!

      I’d give it a 6.5 – “moderately intense” (in terms of difficulty). Again, it’s quite easy once you get used to the flow of the text. Tolkien writes in a very poetic (naturally) and eloquent way, but even certain “old-fashioned” words are explained in the notes at the end of the poem itself.

      It’s far, far easier than ‘The Silmarillion’ – definitely!

      Wish you luck with your novel 🙂

      1. Oh, well then maybe I should tackle it first. I do enjoy The Silmarillion, I do; it’s just so difficult. The prose is poetic and beautiful at times. It’s just so laden in detail. Thank you for the rating:)

  2. Reblogged this on The Leather Library and commented:
    An excellent guide to the literature of Tolkien, both his well known works as well as his more obscure ones. The Fall of Arthur is a must read, not simply because it is a work of Tolkien, but because it tells a fundamental story of English/French history.

  3. A very informative review. The books sounds very interesting, however, English is not my first language and I would wonder how easy it is to follow along (or how you would judge it for people not growing up in an English speaking environment) as I wont enjoy it much if I have to use a dictionary all the time while reading it.

    1. Thanks! Well, it’s hard to judge for the general non-native English speakers, but I suggest you take a look at the couple of verses posted in the article, just to get an idea of how the poem is written. If you find that difficult to grasp the general idea of the scene, approach with caution! 😉

  4. I picked this one up yesterday and have yet to find time to read it but your review has me very intrigued to do so asap. Even if it’s an unfinished work, “The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion” should make it a satisfying experience.

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