Lord of the Round Table
In creating Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and the entire universe of Middle Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien was at once thoroughly original and surprisingly derivative. He essentially created an entire genre – despite forerunners such as George MacDonald, fantasy literature would not exist in the form it has today without Tolkien – but in doing so, he drew from a wide array of earlier texts and stories. Indeed, even the name “Middle Earth” is just the Old English for the earth, the “middangeard,” the middle yard between heaven and hell. I remember being almost indignant the first time I read the Old English poem “Beowulf,” realizing that Tolkien had lifted much of The Hobbit from its pages – from the image of the dragon and the hoard right down to the number thirteen and the reason Bilbo is called a “burglar.”
In addition to “Beowulf,” Tolkien drew on most of the major stories and myths of medieval England and Scandinavia: the Norse Poetic Edda, the Icelandic sagas, the German Nebelungenlied, the Old English poems “The Wanderer,” “The Ruin,” “The Seafarer” and “The Battle of Maldon,” the Middle English works “Pearl” and “Sir Orfeo,” even Welsh texts such as “Cad Goddeu” from the Book of Taliesin. In true medieval fashion – he was a medievalist, after all – Tolkien created as much by rewriting and repurposing as by inventing out of thin air. Even Chaucer and Dante receive honorary mentions in the depiction of the Eagles.
Yet there is one medieval myth which is striking by its absence. More than any other mythological cycle, the stories of King Arthur were pervasive in the Middle Ages. But aside from having – maybe! – minor influences on the depiction of Aragorn and the sailing of the company into the West, as well as a more significant impact on the character of Gandalf, Tolkien’s mythology is remarkably lacking in overt Arthuriana. As a Tolkien lover and a medievalist myself, but also a lover of the Arthurian stories, I’ve often wondered at the absence of what has now become a staple legend for fantasy writers and successors of Tolkien. After all, Tolkien clearly knew the legends – he produced one of the standard editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and he would have taught Arthurian texts ranging from Chrétien de Troyes to Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur.
Part of the answer is given in a letter Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldman, in which he explains that the Arthurian myth was almost too pervasive, its fantastical elements too “lavish”; as well, he felt that its overt Christianity was too explicit. But another reason Tolkien avoided the Arthurian legends in his epic trilogy has recently come to light: he was already working with those myths in another form. Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.’s son and primary editor of his posthumously-published works, has recently published the fragments of an unfinished work called The Fall of Arthur. It shows that Tolkien, far from wanting to avoid the Arthurian legends, had a deep and abiding love for them, and a profound and intimate knowledge of some of their key texts, such as the alliterative Morte Arthure, the stanzaic Morte Arthur and, of course, Malory.
Tolkien’s “new” old poem is, in many ways, an exciting publication and a literary tour-de-force. Unfortunately, while The Fall of Arthur will be of interest to medievalists and to diehard Tolkien aficionados, it will probably disappoint both casual Lord of the Rings fans and lovers of Arthuriana. Even if it had been finished, its archaic form would have been off-putting to many modern readers: despite writing it in (mostly!) Modern English, Tolkien chose to use the verse form of Old English alliterative poetry. A novel it is not. Moreover, Christopher Tolkien’s edition is a bit overwhelming in its attention to the minutiae of J.R.R. Tolkien’s process of creation. The poem takes up only 57 pages of the book; the rest of the 233 pages are devoted to notes, appendices, and commentaries. An invaluable resource for Tolkien scholars, this edition probably won’t be much loved by readers looking for another Lord of the Rings.
The poem starts near the end of the story, with Arthur already well-established as a king, travelling eastward to wage war. If there is any thematic connection between The Fall of Arthur and The Lord of the Rings it is here: Tolkien, as always, is more interested in passings than arrivals, in falls rather than creations. We don’t get any of the story of the creation of the Round Table, or the establishment of Arthur as king, or the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere, or even of the adventures of the knights in the glory days of Camelot. The audience is assumed to know the Arthurian story, and Canto I of the four-and-a-half extant cantos begins with Arthur and Gawain fighting overseas in rather undefined “Saxon lands.” As Christopher Tolkien notes in the section “The Poem in Arthurian Tradition,” this is a change from the story as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the alliterative Morte and Malory, who have Arthur fighting on the continent against the emperor of Rome, not defending Rome from Saxon barbarians. A messenger arrives, seeking Arthur, and tells him that Mordred, Arthur’s son by his half-sister and the traditional villain of the story, who was left in England as regent, has betrayed him, and Arthur turns back home.
Canto IV recounts Mordred’s discovery of Guinever’s escape and his pursuit of her, which is interrupted by the return of Arthur’s ships. Not seeing Lancelot’s emblem among the sails, Mordred exults, and the canto ends with the sea battle and landing of Arthur and Gawain. The unfinished Canto V starts with Arthur’s thoughts, and his words to Gawain suggesting that they delay the land battle until the situation is more favourable.
In the section “The Unwritten Poem,” Christopher Tolkien gives his best guesses as to where his father intended to take the story from there, based upon plot summaries and fragmentary notes. Gawain counsels Arthur not to wait but to attack Mordred immediately. Arthur insists upon leaving, but after nightfall Gawain leaps overboard, fights his way to the top of the cliffs, and is shot by Mordred with an arrow. Arthur arrives as Gawain dies, and Christopher Tolkien prints an early draft of Arthur’s lament for Gawain. Then there are notes about the battle of Camlan, where Arthur kills Mordred and is fatally wounded. Lancelot finally sets sail, and, coming too late to Camlan, meets Guinever. In despair at Arthur’s passing, his love for Guinever dies, and he sets sail for the West, for Avalon, where Arthur has been taken rather than being buried ashore. Guinever is left behind. Christopher Tolkien then speculates on the connection his father seemed to be making in later drafts between Avalon and Valinor or Eressëa, the land to the west in the Lord of the Rings universe.
The poem is written in alliterative verse of the form used for Old English poetry. Unlike modern poetry, which depends upon striking images and combinations of sounds for its poetic effect, or the traditional poetic form of most of English literature, which uses rhyme and regular rhythm, Old English poetry was based on stress and alliteration. A line of poetry could have a varying number of syllables, but only four stresses, and usually three of those stresses alliterated. So The Fall of Arthur opens,
Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.
Since vowels are considered to alliterate with each other, the first line alliterates on the vowels, the second on ‘w’, the third on ‘s’ and the fourth on ‘r’. Although the lines have different numbers of syllables, they all have four main stresses, corresponding with the standard alliterative pattern aa ax (where x is the stressed word which does not alliterate). Tolkien is remarkably consistent with this form, varying it only occasionally according to the ‘rules’ of Old English poetry: so, for example, line 9, “of South Britain, booty seeking,” has the alliteration ab ba while line 23, “isles immune from march of arms,” has the alliteration aa xa – all perfectly acceptable lines in alliterative poetry.
Just as he is the only modern writer to have written a poem in the long-dead language Gothic, so Tolkien must be, if not the only, then the most prolific modern writer in the long-dead form of alliterative poetry. He has experimented with alliterative poetry elsewhere, in some of the inset poems in Lord of the Rings (Legolas’ and Aragorn’s lament for Boromir, for example, and most of the songs of the Rohirrim), in his lays (Lay of the Children of Húrin, The New Lay of the Völsungs, The New Lay of Gudrún), and in his play The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth. This experience and skill comes through in his mastery of the form: although it takes some getting used to, the alliterative poetry of The Fall of Arthur is hauntingly beautiful. As in The Lord of the Rings, some of Tolkien’s most evocative passages are descriptions of scenery:
In the South from sleep to swift fury
a storm was stirred, striding northward
over leagues of water loud with thunder
and roaring rain it rushed onward.
Their hoary heads hills and mountains
tossed in tumult on the towering seas.
On Benwick’s beaches breakers pounding
ground gigantic grumbling boulders
with ogre anger. The air was salt
with spume and spindrift splashed to vapour.
This is alliterative poetry at its best, as it should be written, and it’s hard to imagine how any other form of verse could capture the crashing waves and grinding rocks as well. But it’s not just in the scenes of violent nature that the alliterative form is effective; the alliteration works to serene effect elsewhere:
Dawn came dimly. On the dun beaches
the foam glimmered faint and ghostly;
the tide was turning, tempest waning.
Light leapt upward from the long shadow,
and walking on the water waves kindled,
as glass glittering green and silver.
Tolkien’s skill at description goes beyond landscape: just as the first description of Strider in The Fellowship of the Ring manages to be at once ominous and reassuring, so too Mordred’s daydream of Guinever manages to be simultaneously beautiful and vaguely creepy:
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,
Here Tolkien’s often-unrecognized skill as a poet comes through: the seeming ‘mistake’ of the extra (non-alliterating) stress on “hair” in line three of the quotation actually works to poetic effect, as the word hair jumps out and becomes noticeable, just as it is Guinever’s dominant feature in the description itself. If The Fall of Arthur will disappoint those who come to it looking for the narrative of the Lord of the Rings, those who appreciate the poems woven into the novels will savour The Fall of Arthur.
My reaction to The Fall of Arthur as a contribution to Arthurian Literature is mixed. As with any version of the story, part of my disappointment comes from the fact that he didn’t update the story in the way that I would have done it, or pick my favourite parts of the original story to focus on – a criticism which isn’t exactly fair! Likewise, I can hardly fault Tolkien for not having read Guy Gavriel Kay’s powerful re-visioning of the story in The Fionavar Tapestry, or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist take on the tale in The Mists of Avalon, or Jack Whyte or Rosemary Sutcliff or any of the other versions which have so strongly and permanently shaped my understanding of the Arthur stories – since they were all written, of course, long after Tolkien wrote his version. It’s perhaps unfortunate that The Fall of Arthur should be published now, inviting and almost requiring a comparison with modern fantasy rewritings of the tale, rather than being published as a predecessor to these retellings, as it was written. (It’s also hard to judge based on so incomplete a manuscript.)
I don’t think Guinever, for example, could have been written today in the way Tolkien writes her – not after the Bradley-provoked shift in writers’ interest to Arthurian women’s points of view (though Bradley was even harder on Guinevere than Tolkien is). Tolkien doesn’t spare much understanding or pity for Guinever. Throughout both the completed section and the fragments of drafts, Guinevere’s love for Lancelot is equated to greed, and Tolkien blames her (not Lancelot) almost entirely for the love affair:
But cold silver
or glowing gold greedy-hearted
in her fingers taken fairer thought she,
more lovely deeming what she alone treasured
darkly hoarded. Dear she loved him
with love unyielding, lady ruthless,
fair as fay-woman and fell-minded
in the world walking for the woe of men.
Fate sent her forth. Fair she deemed him
beyond gold and silver to her grasp lying.
After running away with Lancelot she returns to Arthur because “little liked her lonely exile/ or for love to lose her life’s splendour. . . . Grief bewrayed [betrayed] her and greed thwarted.” Even Tolkien’s final word on Guinever is negative; in his notes for the ending of the poem he writes:
Guinevere [sic] watching afar sees [Lancelot’s] silver banner vanish under the moon. Thus she came utterly to grief. She fled to Wales from the men of the east, but though grief was her lot it is not said that she mourned more for others than for herself.
Christopher Tolkien says that a fragment of verse his father wrote for Guinevere has “the air of an epitaph,” but to me it also rings with judgment and condemnation: “Guinevere grew grey in the grey shadow/ all things losing who at all things grasped.” From the beginning to the end, Guinever is portrayed as “fair” – beautiful – but entirely greedy and selfish. Such a depiction of the heroine of one of the greatest love stories of all time feels shallow, somehow inadequate – you can’t quite imagine Arthur or Lancelot falling in love with her so profoundly that they destroy a civilization. Compared with Eowyn, Galadriel, Luthien, or even Arwen, Guinever feels one-dimensional and stereotyped. This, more than anything, suggests to me that The Fall of Arthur might have been an early effort of Tolkien’s – it would disappoint me if Tolkien went back to misogynist stereotypes after creating the strong women of The Lord of the Rings. The pervasive homosociality of the The Lord of the Rings is here too – it is Lancelot and Arthur who sail off into the sunset, not Lancelot (or Arthur) and Guinevere – but unlike Lord of the Rings it is not tempered by any positive depiction of women.
Lancelot, however, fares hardly better than Guinevere. Of course, we only encounter him after he has been destroyed – after he has betrayed Arthur and lost his honour. And maybe if the poem had been finished we would see him in action, see him redeemed somehow. But as it is, we only ever experience Lancelot as completely passive. Rather than rushing back to regain his honour or rescue Guinever, Lancelot waits to be summoned – like a petulant child sitting sullenly in his room, who won’t apologize first. Even after he hears rumours of Arthur’s return to England to fight Mordred, he stays in France:
Then half he hoped and half wished not,
to receive summons swift commandment,
to king the allegiance loyal recalling
of Lancelot to his lord Arthur.
Of Guinever again grieving thought he:
. . . if she sent him summons, swift and gladly
against tide and tempest trumpet sounding,
he would sail overseas, sword unsheathing
. . . But there came neither from the king summons
nor word from lady.
Although we are told that Lancelot was the “noblest knight of Arthur,/ among sons of kings kingly seeming,/ deemed most daring, in deeds of arms/ all surpassing eagerhearted,” we only ever see him “drooping.”
Tolkein’s most positive contribution to Arthuriana is his depiction of Gawain. Hearkening back to the medieval pre-Malory English tradition, which always – as opposed to the French tradition – preferred Gawain to Lancelot, Tolkien depicts a strong, loyal Gawain. As in The Lord of the Rings, it is the homosocial lord-retainer bonds which are most important to Tolkien: Gawain is praised because “to his lord alone his love giving; / no man nor woman in his mind holding/ dearer than Arthur.” Tolkien sets up a distinct contrast between Lancelot and Gawain, and it is clear that their physical contrast carries over into their personalities:
White [Lancelot’s] hue was; his hair raven,
dark and splendid; dark his eyes were.
Gold was Gawain, gold as sunlight,
but grey his eyes were gleaming keenly;
his mood sterner.
Gawain is the one who sticks with Arthur, and his “glory waxed/ as times darkened.” Gawain, not Lancelot, is the “greatest,” “among knights peerless.” Indeed, it is Gawain who suggests that Lancelot should stop his sulking and come help Arthur: “If Lancelot hath loyal purpose / let him prove repentance, his pride forgoing, / uncalled coming when his king needeth!” While Lancelot sits in France,
Gawain’s glory, golden riding
as the westering sun that the world kindles
ere he red sinketh by the rim of ocean,
before Arthur blazed.
Now [Gawain’s] glory shone
as the star of noon stern and cloudless
o’er the heads of men to its height climbing
ere it fall and fail.
Tolkien is consciously picking up on the tradition, in Malory and elsewhere, of associating Gawain with some sort of sun-god (Malory claims that Gawain’s strength waxes with the sun in the morning and wanes over the course of the afternoon) – but unlike in Malory, Lancelot is not the best knight in the world. That spot is reserved for the golden Gawain. Lancelot, by contrast, comes too late.
This edition of The Fall of Arthur, with its notes and appendices, is a bit of a mish-mash – it’s not quite clear who the audience is. Maybe that is only natural, since the projected audience probably ranges from casual readers of Lord of the Rings to professional medievalists to serious Tolkien scholars; nevertheless, one can’t help feeling that the Tolkien estate is milking its legacy a little in aiming for a two-hundred-page hardback $25 edition. Christopher Tolkien’s notes to the poem itself are generally useful, but the section “The Poem in Arthurian Tradition” is too detailed for a casual reader, yet too basic for an Arthurian scholar. “The Unwritten Poem” section is perhaps the most interesting of the three explanatory chapters, but is bogged down a little by its inclusion of the notes and trivia the senior Tolkien left. The chapter “The Evolution of the Poem” is all but unreadable in its accumulation of detail, and would be of interest only to the small sub-section of professional Tolkien scholars who study J.R.R. Tolkien’s creative process.
Surprisingly – because I would have put down the book long before had I not been writing this review – the final chapter, an Appendix on Old English Verse, was remarkably interesting. I was expecting a discussion of the Old English alliterative form, an expanded version of the brief explanation I’ve given above. Instead, Christopher Tolkien quotes from a lecture on Old English alliteration written by his father but hitherto unpublished. Most of Tolkien’s talk covers fairly common ground for anyone familiar with Old English poetry, but after a discussion of alliteration, stress and Old English metrical lines, Tolkien goes into a description of Old English kennings, “poetic ‘riddling’ expressions.” Most books and lectures would stop there, but Tolkien goes further in suggesting kennings are a kind of metonymy for the entire character of Old English poetic values. I want to quote it in full:
The Old English poet liked pictures, but valued them the more sudden, hard and compact they were. He did not unroll similes. You had to be attentive and quick-witted to catch all that he meant and saw.
In the Chronicle poem of the Battle of Brunanburh the poet speaks of wlance wígsmiþ as overthrowing the Welsh – literally ‘splendid war-smiths’. You can say if you like that ‘war-smith’ is ‘just a kenning in verse’ for ‘warrior’: so it is in mere logic and syntax. But it was coined and used to mean ‘warrior’ and at the same time to give a sound-picture and an eye-picture of battle. We miss it, because none of us have seen or heard a battle of steel or iron weapons hand-wielded, and few now have seen an old-fashioned smith hammering iron on an anvil. The clang of such a battle could be heard a long way off: like a lot of men hammering on metal bars and hacking at iron-cooped barrels, or – very much like, for those who have heard it (as everyone had in those days) a smith beating out a plough-share, or forging chain-links: not one smith, though, but hundreds all in competition. and seen closer too, the rise and fall of swords and axes would remind men of smiths swinging hammers.
Perhaps this passage is only exciting to me because I am a medievalist – I will certainly be using this explanation in the classroom from now on. But I think this understanding of the underlying workings of Old English verse, beyond the surface mechanics of counting stresses and matching up alliterating letters, provides us with a greater appreciation of what Tolkien was attempting with The Fall of Arthur. He uses this very image in his own work, in the ‘set-piece’ battle scene of alliterative poetry that no other poetic form can match in affect:
Beak met bulwark. Burst were timbers.
There was clang of iron and crash of axes;
sparked and splintered spears and helmets;
the smiths of battle on smitten anvils
there dinned and hammered deadly forging
wrath and ruin. Red their hands were.
And although I do not know of a kenning that equates the starry sky with a ship on the ocean, I think a similar kind of image underlies what Christopher Tolkien calls the Eärendel fragment, a scrap of poetry which ties The Fall of Arthur into the world of Middle Earth:
O! wondrous night
when shining like the moon with shrouds of pearl,
with sails of samite and the silver stars
on her blue banner embroidered white
in glittering gems that galleon was thrust
on the shadowy seas under shades of night!
Eärendel goeth on eager quest
to magic islands beyond the miles of the sea,
past the hills of Avalon and the halls of the moon
the dragon’s portals and the dark mountains
of the Bay of Faery on the borders of the world.
Don’t read The Fall of Arthur expecting another Lord of the Rings, then; and don’t read it for its Arthuriana. Read it for its poetry, this bizarre throwback to an archaic, ancient, long-dead form, brought evocatively and stunningly to life by one of the master-shapers of the twentieth century.
Kathy Cawsey is a medievalist at Dalhousie University who has loved J.R.R.Tolkien ever since she stole the copy of The Hobbit her sister received for her eighth birthday.