When J. R. R. Tolkien takes on the legendary King Arthur, you can expect something special.
Unpublished until now, the poem The Fall of Arthur was Tolkiens take on the legendary leader and aftermath of the fall of Camelot.
Tolkien conceived of the poem in the 1930s, went through several drafts but ultimately abandoned his work for reasons even his third son and editor, Christopher Tolkien, doesnt know. The younger Tolkien, who is editing his fathers papers, has painstakingly gathered together the many drafts and fragments.
J.R. R. Tolkien chose to write The Fall of Arthur in Old English alliterative meter. (Think Beowulf.) Luckily for modern readers, he also wrote it in English.
His take on the tragic love affair and aftermath sketched a distinct portrait of the Queen and traitorous Mordred, who lusts after her:
In her blissful bower on bed of silver Softly slept she on silken pillows With long hair loosened, lightly breathing, In fragrant dreams fearless wandering, Of pity and repentance no pain feeling, In the courts of Camelot queen and peerless Queen unguarded. Cold blew the wind. His bed was barren; there black phantoms of desire unsated and savage fury In his brain had brooded till bleak morning.
From the West comes war that no wind daunteth, Might and purpose that no mist stayeth; Lord of legions, light into darkness, East rides Arthur! Echoes were wakened The wind was stilled. The walls of rock Arthur answered.
For the fans of Tolkiens Rings saga, there is a chapter on the cross-fertilization between The Silmarillion and The Fall of Arthur. In fact, there is a great deal of down-in-the-weeds discussion of earlier Tolkien poems and different versions of this one that may daunt some readers.
Those lucky enough to visit Oxford University this summer may be able to see the manuscript on public display. A new exhibit at the Bodleian Library of Magical Books: from the Middle Ages to Middle-earth opens May 23 and runs through October. It also will display some of Tolkiens artwork, C.S. Lewis map of Narnia, and manuscripts from Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) and Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising).
Christopher Tolkien doesnt want to get involved in current Arthurian controversies: It would lie far outside my intention here to enter into any account of the strains or streams of mediaeval Arthurian legend, the pseudo-historical or chronicle tradition on the one hand, and the vast romantic development of the Matter of Britain in French prose and poetry.
He does regret that his father didnt finish The Fall, though he admits, As a rule, indeed, no manuscript of my fathers could be regarded as final until it had safely left his hands.
The Fall of Arthur by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, NY (233 pages, $25)
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