Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

J.R.R. Tolkien Refashions an English Legend

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

J.R.R. Tolkien Refashions an English Legend

Article excerpt

An unfinished poem explores the tale of King Arthur.

The Fall of Arthur. By J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. 233 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25; HarperCollins. Pounds 14.

Even in its fragmentary and unfinished form -- about 40 pages of text, a bit more than four cantos of what was evidently intended to be a much longer narrative poem -- "The Fall of Arthur" is recognizably the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, veteran of the Great War and future author of "The Lord of the Rings."

This is an incomplete but highly compelling retelling of perhaps the most famous and familiar legend in the British tradition, a retelling the author's son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, believes was begun in the early 1930s and abandoned by 1937. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the year "The Hobbit" was published, offering readers their first glimpse of a fantasy universe that would shape the imaginative life of the 20th century and beyond.

With Christopher Tolkien now in his late 80s, this could be nearly the final work to emerge from his father's archives. One feels a note of regret and disappointment in Christopher's copious notes to "The Fall of Arthur" that is not always present in his editorship of many other incomplete Tolkien works. Christopher is always disapproving about his father's famously illegible handwriting, but he goes much further here, describing this poem as "one of the most grievous of his many abandonments." Read it and you'll see why.

In reinterpreting and synthesizing a wide range of medieval and modern sources, "The Fall of Arthur" begins to reimagine the Arthurian world in startling fashion, prefiguring many of the themes and images that recur throughout Tolkien's later work, as well as its language. It also contains a few intriguing hints that Tolkien saw his own created universe, the "Lord of the Rings" legendarium, as explicitly connected to the mythology of other places and times; as Christopher puts it, "with the stories and the dreams of peoples who dwelt by the coasts of the great Western Sea."

This long poem is also experimental in a different way -- one that may pose significant obstacles for modern readers and creates, I think, an internal dissonance or instability within the work that may help explain why Tolkien never finished it. The poem is about a mythological or pseudo-historical Celtic British king who would have lived around the sixth century A.D. But it is written in modern English and in the "alliterative verse" style of the later Middle Ages familiar to readers of "Beowulf" or "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."

Occasionally the deliberate archaism and backward grammar of "The Fall of Arthur" gets in the way of intimacy and understanding and casts a scrim of phony antiquity over the whole enterprise. But this is an action-packed, doom-haunted saga, full of vivid natural description, plunging us right into the middle of an apocalyptic war with almost no exposition. …

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