There are surprisingly few epic poems that have won their place among popular literature, and most of them have little audience outside of classrooms. It may be for this reason that “The Fall of Arthur,” just released this week, is one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most important, yet most tragic works.
The book is important because it is a fantastic telling of the war between Arthur and Mordred, written in a nearly forgotten form of poetry, by one of the greatest authors of our time.
It is tragic because Tolkien never finished it—a book that could easily sit among “Beowulf” and “The Iliad” as a classic, with importance both to modern literature and the revival of traditional poetry.
The full text of the poem takes up 44 pages, although the book has 233 pages in all (I’ll go into the other content in a bit). It is written in the Old English “alliterative verse,” from the Anglo-Saxon period, which is very different from the poetic metre and forms which are more common today.
I just want to pause here and mention that while “The Fall of Arthur” is written in a very old form, it reads very well, and reads in a way that is very mature and powerful.
You read the poem based on stresses, and the effect is that you emphasize strong, descriptive words while almost breathing over the rest. The poem is filled with imagery, yet captures the mental and emotional state of each character with wonderful precision.
It starts at the onset of Arthur’s last battle, as he sails back to England from his storied conquest of Rome (told in “Morte Arthure”). Mordred has taken Arthur’s kingdom and raised a dark army, with Guinevere as his captive. Lancelot is exiled in his castle, longing to fight again by Arthur’s side.
Each of the five cantos builds in power and passion, with scenes of glowing ships on horizons, silver spears and swords glistening in the sun, as they smash into the ranks of dark kings and chieftains, with splintering wood and heroes on-board unmoved by fear.
There is hope and heroism, fear in the darkness, longing beneath moonlight, and the glory of the last days of a legendary king.
Tolkien captures it all perfectly. Yet, while the poem could have easily held my interest through several hundred pages, it quickly ends. To the credit of Christopher Tolkien, it ends on a solid note (which I won’t reveal), and it is a gift that this book has been published. But, oh, if only Tolkien had finished it.
The book, like many of Tolkien’s, was published posthumously on his behalf by his son, Christopher Tolkien. Going by J.R.R. Tolkien’s notes, he began the poem in the early 1930s and abandoned it sometime around 1937, the year he published “The Hobbit.”
Tolkien said in a letter in 1955 that he hoped to finish “The Fall of Arthur,” but it never happened.
The book includes the full text of “The Fall of Arthur,” as well as four chapters that include what little text J.R.R. Tolkien left about the work, and descriptions about how the book fits into Arthurian legend, its relation to The Silmarillion, and a comparison between the final version and the drafts left behind by Tolkien as he wrote the poem.
I also recommend reading the appendixes before the poem, itself, since they briefly explain how to read the Old English form.
Tolkien had a special love for Arthurian legend, and this is his only work that ventures into it, although he did translate “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (which came with two other epic poems: “Pearl” and “Sir Orfeo”). He also had a passion for the ancient poetic forms used in “The Fall of Arthur,” as well as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and his similar work on “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” (which he also did not finish).
This passion comes through strongly in “The Fall of Arthur,” both in Tolkien’s use of the classic forms, and in his portrayal of the characters. Also, as we have come to expect from Tolkien, each line has deep roots in his own extensive research, and this creates an effect that gives the story and its characters an uncanny depth.
Overall, I highly recommend “The Fall of Arthur.” While it is a pity that Tolkien never finished the poem, even in its current state, it is a must-read that does justice to one of our greatest tales, and to the works of one of our greatest authors.