Book Review: The Fall of Arthur

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Fall of Arthur
by J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (Editor)

4 out of 5 stars

In the 1930s, Tolkien began work on an epic alliterative poem about King Arthur’s downfall. It was never finished, but Christopher Tolkien provides notes and explanations about the lines that we do have.

The actual poem only takes up about 45 pages in this book. It is beautiful and haunting and wild. The patterns in the alliteration are woven together in this tapestry of words that powerfully tell the story of Arthur and his knights, of Mordred and Lancelot and Guinevere, and the last days of the Round Table. I read most of it out loud to myself, because the words drip like honey, rich and resonant. It is meant to be read out loud!

The next chapter of the book explores old versions of the Arthur tale from Sir Thomas Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth. We get to learn about the traditions of the legend of King Arthur and his knights, and how the legend changed throughout the centuries. There are some details from old poems that Tolkien chose to include in his own rendition of Arthur’s story, but there were also a lot of plot points that he ignored in favor of focusing more on specific characters like Lancelot or Gawain. He also adds a more clear portrait of Guinevere than the older poems did, adding more of her perspective and her feelings.

The next chapter dives into Tolkien’s imagination and how his work on the Silmarillion was connected with Arthur’s last journey to Avalon. Avalon is mirrored in Tolkien’s Lonely Isle of Tol Eressea at the edge of Valinor. There are a lot of parallels between Arthurian legends, legends about Atlantis, and Tolkien’s islands of Numenor and Tol Eressea in the Silmarillion. We get to learn some of the little details in these stories that show the way Tolkien’s imagination was connecting different threads of ideas.

There is a whole section devoted to explaining the various drafts of Tolkien’s unfinished poem and small changes that were added in each draft. There are a few notes outlining the direction the story would have taken if Tolkien could have finished it, with Arthur sailing into the West to find healing in Avalon, and Lancelot following him in despair seeking forgiveness, with neither of them to ever return.

There is also a small appendix talking about the alliterative poetic style and how it developed in the early days of Britain around and before 1066. I found this very interesting, because he analyzes the patterns and meter of the style and gives some examples from ancient poems and then compares those patterns to Tolkien’s epic poem here. It was really cool to dive into the poetic structure and realize just how brilliant Tolkien was to construct these complex and beautiful lines, and make it seem so effortless and natural because it flows along so gracefully.

I enjoyed reading this book! It’s such a pity that the poem was never finished.

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