J.R.R. Tolkien is one of those authors who tends to inspire either love or hatred, and even those who love him hate him every so often. The man was brilliant—and hardly finished anything he started. Thus the loving hatred. Christopher Tolkien has done wonders in editing his father’s unfinished projects, but sometimes even his efforts fall short in the face of half-done manuscripts and illegible writing.
The Fall of Arthur, published last year, is one of those manuscripts with which Christopher Tolkien could only do so much. J.R.R. Tolkien launched the poem intending to describe Arthur’s final conflict with Mordred in alliterative verse. Unfortunately, he became distracted by The Lord of the Rings. Christopher Tolkien writes, “At the victorious end of the sea-battle…my father ceased to work on The Fall of Arthur: in my view, one of the most grievous of his many abandonments.”
Grievous, indeed—at least for those of us who love epic poetry. Very few poets have been interested in writing epics for the last hundred years or so. C. S. Lewis dreamed of doing it, but he eventually realized that poetry was not his calling. Tolkien’s narrative poetry was brilliant, but it was his hobby, and his most famous poems are the shorter ones in The Lord of the Rings. Fortunately his son’s work has left us with some of them, not least The Lay of Sigurd and Gudrún published in 2012, which (fortunately) is a complete story, unlike The Fall of Arthur.
Don’t pick up The Fall of Arthur because you like The Lord of the Rings; it has only a tenuous connection with Tolkien’s mythology. Don’t pick it up because you like Arthurian stories, because it isn’t a complete story. The poetry, however, is worth reading, even if it isn’t complete. Tolkien’s word choices, as always, are exquisite.
Some have criticized the manuscript for its negative portrayal of Guinevere: “As fair and fell as fay-woman/ in the world walking for the woe of men/ no tear shedding.” Of course, with the manuscript unfinished, we have no way of knowing how nuanced Tolkien’s final portrayal of Guinevere might have been. Beyond that, however, we do know that Tolkien goes beyond his source material in describing Guinevere’s feelings at all.
Unless you’re a hard-core Tolkien fan, you probably don’t need to own The Fall of Arthur. Try badgering your interlibrary loan librarian instead. It will save you money, especially since the book is a hardback.
My final opinion on The Fall of Arthur? If Tolkien were alive, I would kill him for not finishing the poem. Sadly, he’s dead.
That is the source of this problem—along with many others.