Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur

It’s not often we get a new work by the Midlands author J.R.R. Tolkien. But one is to be published in hardcover and Kindle ebook today, presumably with an audio-book to follow soon after. Written in the early 1930s, The Fall of Arthur was Tolkien’s last try at working up the fabric of British legend into the sort of bleakly beautiful native verse epic he wanted it to be.

Tolkien’s Arthur is a Romano-British military leader fighting in “Saxon lands” in order to stem an invasion of the island at its root, he eventually finds himself at the edge of a great eastern Mirkwood when he and Gawain are called back to Britain to deal with the treachery of Mordred. Tolkien appears to have assumed a King Arthur drawn along the Romano-British historical lines proposed by R.G. Collingwood (the excellent Director’s Cut of the recent movie King Arthur did much the same). This character developed over time into a legendary one, but much later descends to touch history again — when Arthur was re-shaped by the bards to parallel Alfred and his defence of Mercia against the Vikings. What will be interesting will be the extent to which Tolkien blends this plain historical approach with a mythic one, and the extent to which he sets the pursuit of Mordred in the nexus of the Welsh Marches and the English Midlands. One has to hope that, from a Midlands man, we might have a Midlands epic.


Anyway the result was a 1000-line epic poem, much admired by his colleagues, but which was left unfinished. Here’s a taste of his dark Mordred…

   His bed was barren / there black phantoms
   of desire unsated / and savage fury
   in his brain had brooded / till bleak morning

And his scheming Guinevere…

   lady ruthless
   fair as fay-woman and fell-minded
   in the world walking for the woe of men.

Tolkien left the work unfinished and instead turned to the realms of Middle-Earth where his world-building talent had a free rein, namely The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

Once The Fall of Arthur is published, and despite our culture’s general modern disdain for poetry, doubtless there will be numerous unofficial fan attempts to finish the work. The new publication is also perfectly timed to feed into interest in the vivid poetry contemporaneous with the iconography of the Staffordshire Hoard.


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