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A Golden Summer in the Grey Winter
on 30 May 2013
"The Fall of Arthur" is J.R.R. Tolkien's unfinished contribution to the already considerable body of literature about the legendary British king. Composed as it is in imitation of Old English 'alliterative' verse, an often-used term Tolkien himself had reservations about, it is quite a challenge to read. At his best, Tolkien was capable of producing some truly great poetry, and he expended much thought and labour on "The Fall of Arthur", having, as his son describes in the Foreword, an "exact and perfectionist concern to find, in an intricate and subtle narrative, fitting expression within the patterns and rhythm and alliteration of the Old English verse-form." The result, while happily composed in modern English, is language so charged with meaning (and language charged with meaning is as good a definition of poetry as I can come up with) that I was only able to read it in short increments to have any hope of being able to take it in. While it may at first glance be of negligible appeal to any but Tolkien completists and those indiscriminately enamoured of Old English poetry, "The Fall of Arthur" may be found to have much to recommend it by those who make the effort to actually read it. Particularly striking in what is after all an archaizing work, and highly unusual in any work by Tolkien, is the treatment of the traitor Mordred's tormenting sexual desire for Queen Guinevere, as is his characterization of the famous queen herself, in very modern terms, as a woman of flesh and blood with her own needs, hopes and desires, caught between, and on unequal footing with, three men of power (Arthur, Mordred and Lancelot) in a story that can only end badly no matter what the outcome. Consider for example how Tolkien describes her during her flight from Camelot as a "hind hardly from hiding driven/her foe had fled, fear-bewildered,/cowed and hunted, once queen of herds/for whom harts majestic in horned combat/had fought fiercely"; yet despite her status as an unwilling trophy in a world (whether historical or legendary) ruled by men, she trusts to her own resolute nature:
Guinevere the fair,
not Mordred only, should master chance
and the tides of time turn to her purpose.
In its final, i.e. posthumously edited and published, form (editor Christopher Tolkien wryly comments that "no manuscript of my father's could be regarded as 'final' until it had safely left his hands") "The Fall of Arthur" is 40 pages (or 954 lines) long. The remaining 176 pages of editorial apparatus can appeal only to Tolkien completists and those indiscriminately enamoured of all things Arthurian, and I must confess that I was unable to read it all, though the inclusion of C.S. Lewis's scathing criticism of Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain" was an incisive gem well worth persevering for. Be all that as it may, I'll end this attempt at a review by letting the poem speak for itself:
never and nowhere knights more puissant,
nobler chivalry of renown fairer,
mightier manhood under moon or sun
shall be gathered again till graves open.
Here free unfaded is the flower of time
that men shall remember through the mist of years
as a golden summer in the grey winter.