The Fall of Arthur: skim before savouring

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With The Fall of Arthur we have a new Tolkien book in store. At first it seems a decent read, at second, a rip-off. Yet, I don’t regret having bought the book.

The hardcover version has 233 pages of which 40 pages contain the actual, unfinished, poem. The story starts when Arthur goes to the European mainland to fight the heathens and it ends with Arthur, after winning the battle on the English shores from the forces of Mordred. It deviates from the main story with a focus on Lancelot. The rest of the book is concerned with The Fall of Arthur within the Arthur tradition, its effect on The Silmarillion and how the poem evolved.

It depends on what you seek from The Fall of Arthur whether it is worth reading or not. With The Children of Húrin, another posthumously published work from J.R.R. Tolkien, you had a decent story that was set within the setting of The Silmarillion, with The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún you had a complete story in verse. The Fall of Arthur offers neither. The verse is lovely to read, but contrasts sharply with The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún in that it is unfinished and much shorter.

Wolves were howling     on the wood’s border;
the windy trees     wailed and trembled,
and wandering leaves     wild and homeless
drifting dying     in the deep hollows.
Dark lay the road     through dank valleys
among mounting hills     mist-encircled
to the walls of Wales.

(The Fall of Arthur, p. 45)

The book also offers more insight in the Arthur legend in general, but could come across as too academic. I must admit I skipped the final chapter on the evolution of the poem. This is very interesting when you are writing an essay on the development of the writings of Tolkien, but it is a tiresome read to see the minor differences between each version. Even Christopher Tolkien admits “I have provided a full account (fuller than might generally be thought desirable, and inevitably not all points easy to follow)” (The Fall of Arthur, p. 172).

On the other hand, it was interesting to see that elements from The Silmarillion can be traced back to The Fall of Arthur. The theme of the West, for instance, is present in both The Fall of Arthur and the Middle-Earth stories. The extra chapters by Christopher Tolkien offered me a glimpse of what the unfinished poem could have been and let me peek at the creative process of Tolkien. The connection between Avalon and Tol Eressëa, for example, showed me how Tolkien tried to connect his fictional world with other, widely known, legends.

I generally enjoyed reading The Fall of Arthur. Maybe it is because I just like reading Tolkien. Scorned by many literary figures, he inspired me to start reading literature, to enjoy reading in general, and to fire my imagination. The few lines of verse were enough for me to spend €20,00 on 40 pages of unfinished poetry. Readers should, however, skim through the book before they decide buying it, the cover might be misleading in what you actually get.

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