Rippling through the Tolkien studies community this past week has been the announcement that Tolkien’s poem The Fall of Arthur might be published in May 2013. The news has been spreading ever since the announcement was first spotted on the Amazon site in France and reported on the Mythopoeic Society’s discussion list. The listing has now appeared on the American Amazon site, though I still can’t find the edition on the Canadian or British Amazon pages. The publisher, HarperCollins, has not posted any kind of announcement yet, as far as I know.
What do we know about The Fall of Arthur?
Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s biographer, tells us that the poem is an alliterative rendering of “Morte d’Arthur” (171). Which Middle English text does he mean exactly? The Alliterative Morte Arthure or the Stanzaic Morte Arthure? (You’ll also find either title spelled “Morte Arthur” just to add to the confusion.) John Rateliff states that Tolkien’s poem has “clear affinities” with the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Verlyn Flieger mentions both poems as “probable…precursors” and makes the interesting observation that Tolkien titled his poem a “Fall” rather than a “Death/Morte” possibly in an effort to distinguish his work from the other earlier versions (34). Is Tolkien’s poem, then, a close translation of the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure, or is it a freer adaptation of the story drawing on various sources and/or his own invention?
As with other examples of Tolkien’s work, the poem is unfinished, abandoned in the mid 1930s according to Carpenter, though Tolkien still expressed a desire to complete the work many years later (171). Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond reveal that the poem is 954 lines long even in its unfinished state, and that outlines and drafts of further material survive (56). People have been speculating online about who the editor is going to be, and while I have no inside information at all, I’m guessing that this could be another in a series of editions published by Christopher Tolkien, who has previously edited his father’s unfinished texts by incorporating various drafts in editions like Children of Húrin and The Silmarillion. Tolkien’s publisher mentioned to John Rateliff as early as the 1980s that an edition was in the works; obviously, other work took precedence. I wonder if we’ll get an unfinished Fall of Arthur or whether the drafts and outlines are sufficient to enable an editor to produce a completed work?
Guinever as femme fatale?
Humphrey Carpenter gives us a glimpse of the poem in his biography of Tolkien, pointing out that the poem “is one of the few pieces of writing in which Tolkien deals explicitly with sexual passion, describing Mordred’s unsated lust for Guinever” (171). He offers two brief quotations:
His bed was barren; there black phantoms
of desire unsated and savage fury
in his brain had brooded till bleak morning. (qtd. in Carpenter 171)
Guinever (Tolkien’s spelling) is described as
fair as fay-woman and fell-minded,
in the world walking for the woe of men. (qtd. in Carpenter 171)
Before we get too excited about seeing a fully developed illicit love affair in Tolkien’s work, I’ll mention Verlyn Flieger’s comment that the poem does not emphasize Guinever as much as war and the character Gawain (and there is no Grail quest)(34-35). In fact, Carpenter cites the favorable opinion of English professor R.W. Chambers: “great stuff – really heroic, quite apart from its value as showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English” (171). It is possible that Carpenter has drawn a disproportionate amount of attention to the sexual passion in the story.
Some observations and questions
Although as a professional medievalist Tolkien translated and co-edited (with E.V. Gordon) the Middle English alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in his fiction he was not interested in playing explicitly with Arthurian characters and legends. The publication of The Fall of Arthur will give us a better idea of Tolkien’s view and treatment of Arthurian material. Will this new publication contribute to our understanding of Tolkien’s views of heroism vs. chivalry as expressed in the note on “Ofermod” attached to his Homecoming of Beorhtnoth?
As Chambers points out, Tolkien experiments with using Old English metre in modern English. Tolkien wrote quite a few alliterative poems, including some in The Lord of the Rings, the long Lay of the Children of Húrin, and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, varying his models from the rather strict Beowulf metre to the looser alliterative lines of Middle English poetry. He also translated alliterative verse in his renderings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and his unpublished Beowulf. Publication of The Fall of Arthur will contribute to this body of modern English alliterative verse by Tolkien. Will this poetic form find a wide audience among 21st-century readers?
And finally, the question of sexual passion. Readers of Tolkien’s fiction are more familiar with the Lúthien-Beren/Arwen-Aragorn type of romantic relationship, but Tolkien does write about problematic sexual relationships as well. Aldarion and Erendis in Unfinished Tales and Aredhel and Eöl in The Silmarillion provide examples of troubled marriages, while the Númenórean story mentions forced marriage / rape. Túrin’s unwitting incest is tragic, of course. It will be most interesting to see how Tolkien describes lust and adultery in this poem, possibly giving us another view of his handling of sexual relationships.
Let’s hope that more news about this publication emerges soon so that all of our questions can be answered. Is there anything else that we know about Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur?
Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.
Flieger, Verlyn. “Arthurian Romance.” J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Ed. Michael D.C. Drout. New York: Routledge, 2007. 34-35. Print.
Scull, Christina and Wayne Hammond. “Arthur and the Matter of Britain.” The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 56-60. Print.
“The Rumour.” Sacnoth’s Scriptorium. 12 July 2012. Web. 13 July 2012.