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« The Fall of Arthur »

A brief presentation by Christopher Tolkien

This presentation of the work is taken, with some omissions, from the Foreword to The Fall of Arthur published on the 23rd of May 2012 by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd and Houghton Mifflin (USA).

All other works referenced are also published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd as part of The History of Middle-earth , or else as stand-alone volumes.

You will also find in the body of this presentation a few links leading you elsewhere on the web to some of the actual mediaeval texts cited in the book.

It is well known that a prominent strain in my father's poetry was his abiding love for the old 'Northern' alliterative verse, which extended from the world of Middle-earth (notably in the long but unfinished Lay of the Children of Húrin) to the dramatic dialogue The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth (arising from the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon) and to his 'Old Norse' poems The New Lay of the Völsungs and The New Lay of Gudrún (to which he referred in a letter of 1967 as 'a thing I did many years ago when trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry'). In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he displayed his skill in his rendering of the alliterative verse of the fourteenth century into the same metre in modern English. To these is now added his unfinished and unpublished poem The Fall of Arthur.

I have been able to discover no more than a single reference of any kind by my father to this poem, and that is in a letter of 1955, in which he said: 'I write alliterative verse with pleasure, though I have published little beyond the fragments in The Lord of the Rings, except 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth' ... I still hope to finish a long poem on The Fall of Arthur in the same measure' (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no.165).

Nowhere among his papers is there any indication of when it was begun or when it was abandoned; but fortunately he preserved a letter written to him by R.W. Chambers on 9 December 1934. Chambers (Professor of English at University College, London), eighteen years his senior, was an old friend and strong supporter of my father, and in that letter he described how he had read Arthur on a train journey to Cambridge, and on the way back 'took advantage of an empty compartment to declaim him as he deserves'. He praised the poem with high praise: 'It is very great indeed ... really heroic, quite apart from its value in showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English.' And he ended the letter 'You simply must finish it.'

But that my father did not do; and yet another of his long narrative poems was abandoned. 


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