Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur

The Guardian reports that HarperCollins will be releasing Tolkien’s latest posthumous work, The Fall of Arthur, this coming May. The opening lines:

Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.
Thus the tides of time to turn backward
and the heathen to humble, his hope urged him,
that with harrying ships they should hunt no more
on the shining shores and shallow waters
of South Britain, booty seeking.1

1 J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted in “‘New’ JRR Tolkien epic due out next year,” 2012–10–09

This form of verse should look familiar to readers of The Lord of the Rings:

Forth rode Théoden. Five nights and days
east and onward rode the Eorlingas
through Folde and Fenmarch and the Firienwood,
six thousand spears to Sunlending,
Mundburg the mighty under Mindolluin,
Sea-kings’ city in the South-kingdom
foe-beleaguered, fire-encircled.
Doom drove them on. Darkness took them,
horse and horseman; hoofbeats afar
sank into silence: so the songs tell us.2

2 The Lord of the Rings, LRC §5.03.097; 50th Anniversary Ed., 803

Tolkien calls this meter “the ancestral measure of England” in his essay on “The Verse-forms of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl.” He continues:

This kind of line falls into two parts. … There is nearly always a breath-pause between them, corresponding to some degree of pause in the sense. But the line was welded into a metrical unit by alliteration; one or more (usually two) of the chief words in the first part were linked by alliteration with the first important word in the second part.3

3Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, 155.

I love this essay; it’s a short read, yet it easily explains this native English verse form, displaced over the centuries by the (first) French and (later) Italian forms that we now tend to think of as “standard.”

The Guardian article quotes Christopher Tolkien:

It is well known that a prominent strain in my father’s poetry was his abiding love for the old Northern alliterative verse. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he displayed his skill in his rendering of the alliterative verse of the 14th century into the same metre in modern English. To these is now added his unfinished and unpublished poem The Fall of Arthur.

Not knowing about The Fall of Arthur, I just had to do a little more research. I found that Pieter Collier at The Tolkien Library wrote that Tolkien

made a single reference to [his poem] in a 1955 letter and kept a 1934 letter from his friend, R.W. Chambers, professor of English at University College London, who wrote: “It is very great indeed … really heroic …. You really must finish it.”4

Turning to Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, I found that Tolkien began the work in the early 1930s, but that he abandoned it

after 954 lines, though various outlines and drafts survive in addition to the final unfinished text.5

5 J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide vol. II, p. 56

They devote several excellent pages to “Arthur and the Matter of Britain,” as well as one page to Raymond Wilson Chambers, whose letter Collier quotes. Tolkien respected Chambers, describing his “Beowulf and the Heroic Age” “the most significant single essay on the poem that I know.”6

6 “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, quoted in J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide vol. II, p. 152.

HarperCollins’ press release:

The world 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 has lain 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.

To be quite clear, the “Mirkwood” mentioned in the press release is not the Mirkwood we know from Middle-earth. In a letter Tolkien wrote to his grandson Michael George Tolkien on 1966-07-29, Tolkien explained:

Mirkwood is not an invention of mine, but a very ancient name, weighted with legendary associations. It was probably the Primitive Germanic name for the great mountainous forest regions that anciently formed a barrier to the south of the lands of Germanic expansion. In some traditions it became used especially of the boundary between Goths and Huns. I speak now from memory: its ancientness seems indicated by its appearance in very early Germanic (11th c. ?) as mirkiwidu although the *merkw- stem ‘dark’ is not otherwise found in German at all (only in O.E., O.S., and On.N.), and the stem *widu- > *witu was in German (I think) limited to the sense ‘timber’, not very common, and did not survive into mod. G. In O.E. mirce only survives in poetry, and in the sense ‘dark’, or rather ‘gloomy’. Only in Beowulf 1405 ofer myrcan mor: elsewhere only with the sense ‘murky’ > wicked, hellish. It was never, I think, a mere ‘colour’ word: ‘black’, and was from the beginning weighted with the sense of ‘gloom’.…

It seemed to me too good a fortune that Mirkwood remained intelligible (with exactly the right tone) in modern English to pass over: whether mirk is a Norse loan or a freshment of the obsolescent O.E. word.7

7 The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #289, 369–70

We wouldn’t want anyone to be misled! Back to The Fall of Arthur now. The Times Literary Supplement writes:

“This is the most unexpected of Tolkien’s many posthumous publications; his son’s ‘Commentary’ is a model of informed accessibility; the poems stand comparison with their Eddic models, and there is little poetry in the world like those.”

May 23rd can’t come soon enough!

Pre-order The Fall of Arthur at or The Book Depository.