Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.
Thus begins a new work by J.R.R. Tolkien. Yes, Tolkien’s works keep coming — from beyond the grave.
A hitherto unknown poem that Tolkien worked on was released by Tolkien’s publisher yesterday. Called The Fall of Arthur, the poem is a “new Arthurian epic” retold by Tolkien. He appears to have begun writing the poem in the 1930s, but the exact date is not known. It was never finished.
In published form, the poem itself runs some 40 pages. To the 233 page book have been added notes and essays by Tolkien’s longstanding literary executor, compiler, number one fan, and devoted son Christopher Tolkien, now 89 years of age. Christopher also edited and published The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and other posthumously released works of his father’s.
According to The Tolkien Society, the existence of The Fall of Arthur “was revealed in the 1970s, and its publication has been rumoured for some years.” Recent posthumous releases such as The Children of Húrin and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún seemed to be occupying Christopher’s time. With The Fall of Arthur now published, one wonders what other unfinished manuscripts and random scraps of paper might someday see the light of day.
Readers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit might remember that, first and foremost, Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. He worked on translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. So the The Fall of Arthur is, you might say, closer to the heart of Tolkien’s expertise as a literary critic and scholar than his fictional works about hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs and wizards.
“We are all used to seeing Tolkien’s stories set in Middle-earth, but this is the first time we’ve ever seen Tolkien write about legendary Britain,” said Shaun Gunner, Chairman of the Tolkien Society, in a statement. “We know Tolkien loved the powerful alliterative verse of Anglo-Saxon epics so Tolkien’s own re-imagining of Arthur’s downfall in this format will make for an interesting read. This is fundamentally important in terms of considering Tolkien’s academic career and his wider creative process, but it will also be fascinating to see how The Fall of Arthur — written before The Hobbit — may have parallels in Tolkien’s other stories.”
According to the website of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Tolkien’s American publisher, The Fall of Arthur is “the only venture by J.R.R. Tolkien into the legends of Arthur, king of Britain” and “may well be regarded as his finest and most skillful achievement in the use of Old English alliterative meter.” In the book, we learn of “Arthur’s expedition overseas into distant heathen lands, of Guinevere’s flight from Camelot, of the great sea battle on Arthur’s return to Britain, in the portrait of the traitor Mordred, in the tormented doubts of Lancelot in his French castle.”
Why Tolkien never finished the poem isn’t known, but one imagines he just got busy (although he was notorious for not finishing things). A friend of Tolkien’s read The Fall of Arthur at the end of 1934 and urged him to keep going: “You simply must finish it!” he admonished. But the poem was never completed and, according to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Tolkien had a good reason to be distracted enough not to go back to it. The year he last touched the poem may have been 1937, the year The Hobbit hit bookstores and Tolkien’s commercial literary career began to take off.
According to Christopher Tolkien, “I have been able to discover no more than a single reference of any kind by my father to this poem,” he writes in the introduction, which suggests that The Fall of Arthur may not have been a high priority for Tolkien. Still, years later, he wanted to go back to it; in a letter he wrote in 1955, Tolkien said he “hoped to finish a long poem on The Fall of Arthur.” That never happened.
In this new book, after the poem come essays and “Notes on the Text” written by Christopher. These include “The Poem in the Arthurian Tradition,” “The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion” and “The Evolution of the Poem,” as well as an appendix on old English verse and what forms and properties it took.