- Mar 27, 2016
I thought this was truly marvellous. I really enjoyed it.
The book is made up of:
(1) Five Cantos of Tolkien’s poem “The Fall of Arthur” (about 40 pages)
(2) Brief notes on the poem (about 10 pages)
(3) Three essays by Christopher Tolkien
(i) The poem in Arthurian Tradition
(ii) The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to the Silmarillion
(iii) The Evolution of the Poem
(4) Appendix: Old English Verse (about 10 pages).
As you probably already know, this is essentially a fragment that was begun by Tolkien in the early 1930s and abandoned unfinished (as with so much of his work) around 1937 (the year of publication of the Hobbit). It is just a fragment but a lengthy fragment, and of course it doesn’t tell us anything new about Arthur, but I think the verse is magnificent. What I love is the use of “Old English Alliterative Verse” of which of course I know nothing about, but I find it so epic and atmospheric and It is also very interesting to get a sense of something that will emerge later in the Lord of the Rings.
For example, doesn’t this convey something of Mirkwood?
Cold touched the hearts of the host encamped
on Mirkwood’s margin at the mountain-roots.
They felt the forest though the fogs veiled it;
their fires fainted. Fear clutched their souls,
waiting watchful in a world of shadow
for woe they knew not, no word speaking.
And how about this for Mordor and the Nazgul?
The Endless East in anger woke,
and black thunder born in dungeons
under mountains of menace moved above them.
Halting doubtful there on high saw they
wan horsemen wild in windy clouds
grey and monstrous grimly riding
shadow-helmed to war, shapes disastrous.
NB: annoyingly in transcribing these verses I don't seem able to include the important gap in the middle of each line.
And then of course there is Tolkien’s take on the figure of Guinever, but I will say no more...
I also found the essay “The poem in Arthurian Tradition” very interesting in that it tracks the evolution of and the variations in Arthurian writing from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, through the “Roman de Brut” of the Norman poet Wace, then the “alliterative Morte Arthure”, and on to Sir Thomas Malory. I realised in reading this that the writer can take whatever he likes from the Arthurian mythos, that there are no tablets of stone. This made me enjoy the more and appreciate the variations introduced by Tolkien in his own poem. The Appendix is helpful in that it conveys something of the context of Old English Alliterative verse.
All in all, I would not buy an expensive edition for a first encounter, but there are plenty of second-hand copies to be had, and it’s so worth a look!