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Unpublished until now, the poem “The Fall of Arthur” was Tolkien’s take on the legendary leader and aftermath of the fall of Camelot.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, doesn’t know. The younger Tolkien, who is editing his father’s 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 Tolkien’s “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 Tolkien’s artwork, C.S. Lewis’ map of Narnia, and manuscripts from Philip Pullman (“His Dark Materials”) and Susan Cooper (“The Dark is Rising”).
Christopher Tolkien doesn’t 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 didn’t finish “The Fall,” though he admits, “As a rule, indeed, no manuscript of my father’s 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)