Friday, October 25, 2013

The Fall of Arthur / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Christopher Tolkien, ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

When most of us think of Britain's mythopoeic tradition, the legends of King Arthur and his knights come quickly to mind.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien found them "too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive," but Tolkien did enjoy them as a child.  His appreciation for them as an adult was great enough to move him to edit (with E.V. Gordon) a Middle English version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and later to translate the poem into modern English, retaining its alliterative verse form.  It is not clear exactly when, but roughly around this stage of his career, Tolkien also began writing an alliterative poem "in the Beowulf meter" (according to his friend R.W. Chambers)  entitled The Fall of Arthur.

The poem was never completed by Tolkien, but numerous manuscripts survived.  Much to our benefit, Tolkien's son Christopher has assembled the best of these verses into a striking version of the story of the death of Arthur.  Tolkien is a master of Britain's traditional poetic meter and "Norther" alliterative verse, having composed numerous works in this style, so it is a pleasure to read Christopher's edition of his father's work, and to see how Tolkien chose to tell a story often told, but often told out of the context of the time.  Tolkien's knowledge of the literature and history of medieval England makes him especially equipped to give us what seems to be an authentic version of legend.

Along with the poem itself, Christopher Tolkien provides us with three essays of his own.  The first is the most interesting.  It recounts various tellings of the events that are included in Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur, including those by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Mallory.  Christopher Tolkien ably puts his father's imaginative treatment of the story into the context of this tradition, allowing us to see what Tolkien retained from that tradition and what is new in his narrative.  Perhaps the most interesting addition that Tolkien brings to the legend is his treatment of Guinevere (or "Guinever" as Tolkien chooses to spell her name.)  While modern treatments of her character make her out to be a beautiful, but star-crossed, heroine, Tolkien's Guinever seems more akin to Lady MacBeth.  Possibly less sympathetic, Guinever seems a good deal more autonomous and powerful than the more popular Guinevere.

Christopher Tolkien's second essay seeks to draw connections between The Fall of Arthur and Tolkien's larger legendarium, The Silmarillion.  While this essay includes a good deal of interesting paragraphs and valuable insights, it is largely disconnected and confused.  One is never sure if there are any broader points to be made by the essay.  The third essay amounts to little more than a record of various alternative drafts of the version that Christopher Tolkien chose to make "canonical" as The Fall of Arthur.  We are provided with page upon page of alternate passages that serve little purpose than to let the reader know that Christopher Tolkien needed to make numerous editorial decision in creating the canonical version.  Given these alternate passages, one could, in principle, re-do the work of the editor and create a number of very different versions of Tolkien's work, but it is hard to imagine who would want to bother.

In all, The Fall of Arthur is a welcome addition to the compiled work of J.R.R. Tolkien, it illustrates Tolkien's poetic genius, and tempts one to further explore both Tolkien's other alliterative poems and the treatments by other authors of the Arthurian legends.    

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