Christopher Tolkien, ‘The Fall of Arthur’
‘Sun shone on swords silver-pointed
The spears sparkled as they sprang upward,
White as wheatfield. Wheeling above them
The crows were crying with cold voices.’
This article is abridged from Christopher Tolkien’s foreword to The Fall of Arthur (2013).
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 To these is now added his unfinished and unpublished poem The Fall of Arthur.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’ (Letters, no.165).
Nowhere among his papers is there any indication of when the poem 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. In seeking some explanation of his abandonment of these ambitious poems when each was already far advanced, one might look to the circumstances of his life after his election to the Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925: the demands of his position and his scholarship and the needs and concerns and expenses of his family. As through so much of his life, he never had enough time; and it may be, as I incline to believe, that the breath of inspiration, endlessly impeded, could wither away; yet it would emerge again, when an opening appeared amid his duties and obligations – and his other interests, but now with a changed narrative impulse.
No doubt there were in fact specific reasons in each case, not now to be with any certainty discerned; but in that of The Fall of Arthur I have suggested that it was driven into the shallows by the great sea-changes that were taking place in my father’s conceptions at that time, arising from his work on The Lost Road and the publication of The Hobbit: the emergence of Númenor, the myth of the World Made Round and the Straight Path, and the approach of The Lord of the Rings.
One might surmise also that the very nature of this last, elaborate poem made it peculiarly vulnerable to interruption or disturbance. The astonishing amount of surviving draft material for The Fall of Arthur reveals the difficulties inherent in such use of the metrical form that my father found so profoundly congenial, and his exacting and perfectionist concern to find, in an intricate and subtle narrative, fitting expression within the patterns of rhythm and alliteration of the Old English verse-form. To change the metaphor, The Fall of Arthur was a work of art to be built slowly: it could not withstand the rising of new imaginative horizons.
Whatever may be thought of these speculations, The Fall of Arthur necessarily entailed problems of presentation to the editor. It may be that some who take up this book would have been content with no more than the text of the poem as printed here, and perhaps a brief statement of the stages of its development, as attested by the abundant draft manuscripts. On the other hand, there may well be many others who, drawn to the poem by the attraction of its author but with little knowledge of ‘the Arthurian legend’, would wish, and expect, to find some indications of how this ‘version’ stands in relation to the mediaeval tradition from which it arose.
As I have said, my father left no indication even of the briefest kind, as he did of the ‘Norse’ poems published in 2009 as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, of his thought or intention that lay behind his very original treatment of ‘The Legend of Lancelot and Guinevere’. But in the present case there is clearly no reason to enter the labyrinth in an editorial attempt to write a wide-ranging account of ‘Arthurian’ legend, which would very likely appear a forbidding rampart raised up as if it were a necessary preliminary to the reading of The Fall of Arthur.
I have therefore dispensed with any ‘Introduction’ properly so-called, but following the text of the poem I have contributed several commentaries. Each of these, for those who want such explorations, is concerned with a fairly distinct aspect of The Fall of Arthur and its special interest.
The first of these, ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’, simple in intent, avoiding speculative interpretation, and very limited in range, if somewhat lengthy, is an account of the derivation of my father’s poem from particular narrative traditions and its divergences from them. For this purpose I have chiefly drawn upon two works in English, the mediaeval poem known as ‘The Alliterative Morte Arthure’, and the relevant tales of Sir Thomas Malory, (in ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’) with some reference to his sources. Not wishing to provide a mere dry précis, I have cited verbatim a number of passages from these works, as exemplifying those traditions in manner and mode that differ profoundly from this ‘Alliterative Fall of Arthur’ of another day.
I have seen no need to enter into the shadowy origins of the Arthurian legend and the early centuries of its history, and I will only say here that it is essential to the understanding of The Fall of Arthur to recognize that the roots of the legend derive from the fifth century, after the final end of the Roman rule in Britain with the withdrawal of the legions in 410, and from memories of battles fought by Britons in resistance to the ruinous raids and encroachments of the barbarian invaders, Angles and Saxons, spreading from the eastern regions of their land. It is to be borne in mind that throughout this book the names Britons and British refer specifically and exclusively to the Celtic inhabitants and their language.
Following ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’ is a discussion of ‘The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion’, an account of the various writings that give some indication of my father’s thoughts for the continuation of the poem; and then an account of ‘The Evolution of the Poem’, primarily an attempt to show as clearly as I could, granting the extremely complex textual history, the major changes of structure that I have referred to, together with much exemplification of his mode of composition.
Finally, a short ‘Appendix’ explains, in the author’s own words, something of the essential nature of his use of Old English ‘alliterative verse’ for this poem in particular, his sole ‘Arthurian’ poem.