Review: The Fall of Arthur

Posted 8 July, 2013 by Lianne in Books / 6 Comments

The Fall of Arthur
By: J.R.R. Tolkien
Format/Source: Hardback; my copy

The world’s first publication of a previously unknown work by J.R.R. Tolkien, which tells the extraordinary story of the final days of England’s legendary hero, King Arthur.

The Fall of Arthur recounts in verse the last campaign of King Arthur who, even as he stands at the threshold of Mirkwood, is summoned back to Britain by news of the treachery of Mordred. Already weakened in spirit by Guinevere’s infidelity with the now-exiled Lancelot, Arthur must rouse his knights to battle one last time against Mordred’s rebels and foreign mercenaries.

Powerful, passionate and filled with vivid imagery, The Fall of Arthur reveals Tolkien’s gift for storytelling at its brilliant best. Originally composed by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s, this work was set aside for The Hobbit and lay untouched for 80 years.

Now it has been edited for publication by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who contributes three illuminating essays that explore the literary world of King Arthur, reveal the deeper meaning of the verses and the painstaking work that his father applied to bring it to a finished form, and the intriguing links between The Fall of Arthur and his greatest creation, Middle-earth.

This book was one of my most highly-anticipated novels for 2013. Unlike The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (review), I had a good idea of what to expect from a book like this one this time around. So imagine my glee when my pre-ordered copy finally arrived in the post ^_~

The poem itself, while short (only 5 cantos long, some 30 – 40 pages?), is absolutely vivid in imagery. I’m not quite comfortable with the stylistics and set-up of this type of poem (I found The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, despite being different altogether, to be far smoother) but there are some really gorgeous lines in this poem. The images they evoke are powerful and very epic; if you’ve read LOTR or The Silmarillion, you can probably pick up some similarities in sentences and declarations between characters.

I can see why some people would be disappointed with this book. Not only is the poem incomplete but the rest of the book contains a few essays by Christopher Tolkien breaking down the poem segment by segment, connecting it to other Arthurian traditions and tying it with his father’s work on The Silmarillion. Even I found myself wondering at a few junctions whether it was worth bounding it up in hardback like this or whether it would have been better to publish it as an essay booklet or some other medium.

If you’re not remotely interested in epic poetry and history from the Dark Ages, you will likely find the exercise tedious and boring. I personally found it fascinating because the history and evolution of the Arthurian legends is not only rich but also complex. I had no idea that the early versions of the Arthurian tales were so strongly associated with the late Roman period; I’ve read fiction alluding to this early version of the tale and there is of course the 2002 movie with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley but nonetheless the early versions of the familiar tale are very different from the ones we learn from Mallory and later poets and writers (such as the Lancelot and Guenevere tale). The essay concerning the Arthurian tale’s influence on Tolkien’s work on The Silmarillion and the history of Middle Earth was especially interesting and is worth reading for Tolkien fans.

As an aside, it’s too bad that Tolkien never went through with his time travel tale, I would’ve loved to read that!

The Fall of Arthur was an interesting read; like The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, it was interesting to read Tolkien’s attempt at re-imagining and handling old epics. I share his son’s (and his friends’) sentiments that it was a pity that Tolkien never finished this project because not only was it fascinating but also from what was drafted was a very beautiful conception and presentation of the tale that is both epic but feels historic. Again, the casual Tolkien reader might not enjoy this piece as it definitely delves into the more academic and technical aspects of writing epic poetry of this type but it’s worth checking out for more serious Tolkien fans because of the analysis between the Arthurian tale and his First Age works.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Visit the official website of the Tolkien estate || Order this book from the Book Depository

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6 Responses to “Review: The Fall of Arthur”

  1. Krysta and I were discussing some of the same things (though she hasn’t read the book yet). She suggested that perhaps Christopher didn’t pick a clear audience for his book. Is it for people who like Tolkien to introduce them to Arthur or is it for scholars who like Arthur? In the first case, the commentaries might be a little dry. In the second, they’re often unnecessary. For instance, I’ve read the end of Malory, the Alliterative Morte Arthur, and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, so the entirety of the first chapter was unhelpful to me; it just summarizes poems that I’ve actually read. The second chapter was interesting, but Christopher seemed to be throwing out a little of facts and observations and saying “I don’t know what to conclude from this.” The third chapter is fine, except that I have never been particularly interested in the evolution of texts. I basically suggested Krysta just read the poem and stop there. She, like you, pondered whether just the poem could have been released as a booklet or e-book or something.

    • I can’t remember if I mentioned this on your blog, but I totally agree re: the target audience. If it was aimed for scholars and more serious fans of the Arthurian works, the essays were left wanting.

      They could’ve at least included some coloured images or something if it was going to start as a hardback xP

  2. This book was also among my most anticipated for the summer, though I haven’t gotten hold of a copy yet. I’m a little disappointed to hear that the poem itself is so short; I knew it was unfinished but expected it to take up more of the book. Nonetheless, as a Tolkien fan and long-time Arthurian buff, I’m looking forward to reading it. Thank you for an excellent review which lets me know what to expect.

    • Did you read The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun? The set up was similar to The Fall of Arthur but I guess Tolkien had completed more material from that work to make up a good chunk of the book

      Hope you enjoy it when you get your hands on it! 🙂

    • Hope you enjoy it when you do get your hands on it! Yeah, I was thinking they could’ve either released this directly as a paperback or included some high quality, in-depth essays from scholars in the field

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