The Fall of Arthur by JRR Tolkien
Enjoy the beautiful style of writing employed to tell what is a captivating story
As someone who has read and studied the work and life of J.R.R. Tolkien for nearly two decades, one of the most important things I wish people knew about the authors of The Lord of the Rings was that he was so much more than just the author of The Lord of the Rings.
If you open up Wikipedia, you’ll find that J.R.R. Tolkien “was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor” and “served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1945 and Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, from 1945 to 1959.”
To clarify, these positions mean that his academic expertise and responsibilities were tremendous and that his published work extends well beyond the realm of his fictional prose.
So when you look at the title The Fall of Arthur and see that it was written by J.R.R. Tolkien I don’t want you to be in any way surprised; the Arthurian legend and its many literary antecedents were smack-bang in the middle of Tolkien’s wheelhouse.
In short, this book is the first publication of an unfinished alliterative poem that Tolkien wrote likely during the 1930s that tells the story of King Arthur, Mordred, and Lancelot. Gawain makes a strong appearance as well, as does of course Guinever. It bears similarities to the likely-sources Tolkien would have worked from dating back centuries but also diverts occasionally, adding Tolkien’s own take to the legendary story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
The Fall of Arthur is not a long poem – though certainly longer than many – and is very easy to read, even for those who are not used to reading in verse. The story itself is very easily extracted from the text regardless of the arguably unusual method of presenting it (ie, verse over prose) and shows again Tolkien’s mastery of writing in verse.
Edited by his son Christopher Tolkien, this book also comes with three editorial essays. First of all, Christopher writes a suitably lengthy treatment on how his father’s poem fits into the greater Arthurian Tradition – how it compares and differs from the primary centuries-old texts – the alliterative Morte Arthure and prose romance Mort Artu. It is a truly fascinating read, and for those of us who aren’t fully up on their Arthurian history, it helps place Tolkien’s work in its proper and splendid place.
The second essay deals with the unfinished poem’s relationship to Tolkien’s own Silmarillion – the catch-all term for his created world in which The Lord of the Rings takes place. This is a tremendous essay for those of us who are fans of Tolkien’s Silmarillion and all its attendant works, and also opens up a little window into the way that literature sometimes bends and intertwines with one another.
The final essay tackles the job of showing how Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur evolved over many and varied drafts, in which Christopher essentially takes us on a necessarily brief (considering the sheer wealth of drafts available to him) tour of how the final text presented to us today was reached.
For fans of Tolkien, for fans of literature, for fans of Arthurian Tradition, and for those just wanting to get an idea of alliterative verse and historical narratives, The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien is a tremendous book. The primary story presented in the alliterative poem is itself worth the price of entry – to enjoy the beautiful style of writing employed to tell what is a captivating story. Even if you don’t read the accompanying essays, The Fall of Arthur is absolutely worth your time and money.
Review by Joshua S Hill
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