[Can there be spoilers in an Arthurian tale? I don’t know if my review would count as a spoiler, but if you’re worried about such things, you might want to proceed with caution.]
In a darkening world, tides are flowing fast and winds sweeping into the west while ghostly apparitions ride through the skies. Tolkien’s long-awaited poem, The Fall of Arthur, presents a world veering towards the end of an age – after Lancelot and Guinever’s affair, after the breaking of Round Table allegiances – as Arthur and his loyal Gawain journey to make war in a mission clearly doomed from the start, “a last assay / of pride and prowess” (I. 15-16).
As John Garth points out, the story alternates between big scenes and close-ups. We see large battle vistas – “In the foaming sea flashed a thousand / swift oars sweeping” (IV. 172-3) – as well as striking individual moments: Mordred rushing up the stairs to the queen’s bower and taking in the sight of her while she, proud and fearful, pretends not to see him; or the exiled Lancelot, looking out to sea and half hoping that Arthur will call for his aid – and half hoping that he won’t.
Do not look for romantic courtly love in this tempestuous world. The affair between Lancelot and Guinever is in the past, and their last parting, seen in flashback, is strained with pain, sorrow, anger, and regret as Lancelot restores the queen to Arthur in the hopes of regaining his honour and his king’s love, and Guinever departs “With searing words” (III. 102) leaving Lancelot feeling hopeless. Their alienation from each other is deftly suggested as each seems strangely altered to the other.
Meanwhile, Mordred is consumed with lust, not only for the queen but also for the chance to wrest power and glory for himself. Gawain, ever loyal to Arthur, is contrasted with the conflicted Lancelot who is much like the exile in the Old English poem “The Wanderer”: “On that knee no more, knight in fealty/ might he hilt handle, nor his head there lay” (III. 116-17). And consider Guinever, rescued from burning at the stake, handed over to Arthur by her lover Lancelot, forgiven and restored as queen if only to avoid further national conflict, and in immediate peril of being seized by Mordred in his bid for power. In her we see a woman who is greedy for love and glory, dissatisfied with her present lot, and extremely clever in negotiating her precarious situation. There is much more that can and will be said about these characters by Tolkien readers and scholars.
Throughout, Tolkien’s descriptions evoke painterly images depicted with a few strokes of light and colour and shape. Take, for instance, this description of morning: “Beams fell slanting through the boughs of trees/ glancing and glimmering in the grey forest;/ rain drops running from rustling leaves/ like drops of glass dripped and glistened” (IV. 21-24). And here, a description of the seashore: “Fair wind came foaming over flecked water,/ on gleaming shingle green and silver/ the waves were washing on walls of chalk” (IV. 47-49).
All of this comes to us in an alliterative poem composed in the meter of Old English verse (and similar to Old Norse and some later Middle English poetry). In my recent presentation in Kalamazoo, I spoke about “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” as an alliterative tour de force in which Tolkien demonstrates how alliterative meter can achieve various effects and styles in Modern English. When Tolkien writes a Modern English alliterative poem, he does not merely sprinkle into his lines a few alliterating words (that is, words beginning with the same sound) in order to gesture towards the older style. Instead, he carefully composes in the rhythmical verse types and alliterating patterns that were thought to constitute the choices of early medieval English poets. Like “The Homecoming,” the Fall of Arthur does not disappoint as a modern alliterative poem. (Curious fact: both poems contain the words “Wild blow the winds of war in Britain” – I feel another conference paper coming on!).
An appendix in The Fall of Arthur includes an excerpt from one of Tolkien’s lectures on the features of Old English verse, such as inverted syntax and parallelisms, which can sometimes be difficult for readers who are unfamiliar with the style. For best effect, read the verse aloud (or listen to it with your inner ear) and let the natural rhythms of the words be your guide. This alliterative verse style does not require the same number of syllables per line, in the same rhythmical pattern line after line, as in later English verse. Tolkien does write long segments of enjambed lines, piled high with parallel phrases, but he also knows how to punctuate such sections with short, forceful statements: “Strong oaths they broke” (III.62). And while alliterative lines can often seem slow and convoluted, Tolkien also knows how to change the pace: “Beacons were blazing, banners were lifted,/ shaft rang on shield, and the shores echoed./ War was awakened and woe in Britain” (IV. 161-3).
Readers familiar with medieval literature will recognize the dangers of putting one’s faith in Fortune, who will turn her wheel when you least expect it, and they will know that the traditional medieval beasts of battle – eagle, raven, wolf – who circle the action from the very beginning only presage war and slaughter. How Tolkien’s content and style relate in more detail to the medieval texts that were his inspiration is a larger question. In the extensive commentary provided in this volume, Christopher Tolkien discusses the poem’s relation to the Arthurian tradition and to the Silmarillion material, as well as the evolution of the poem. There is much to digest here that will take more time.
What I can say for now is that the line “Here ends The Fall of Arthur in its latest form” came as a shock followed by an immediate wish, if only Tolkien would have given us more.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2013.