This is, to steal a line from elsewhere, a book of two halves. There is the poem itself, running to no more than a few hundred lines, and comprising a very slim section of the book. Secondly there is an "Introduction" and (for want of a better phrase) and "After" section written by Christopher Tolkien.
The poem itself, is interesting enough, and in fact begs to be read aloud. It adds another string to the already tightly woven threat of things Arthurian, and is of course interesting because of the style in which it was written - Alliterative Verse.
The second section contains the microanalysis of JRRT's ideas, motifs and motivations in writing the poem. This reads like the similar sections in the posthumous publications - ie serious, meticulous and soporific for all but the most dedicated of fans.
So, I think the poem itself is worthwhile, but at this price it may be better to wait for the paperback version. If the second section - the analysis - appeals to you, then this is the version to purchase.
JRR Tolkien had a passion for ancient myths and legends. But for some reason, he never wrote much about the stories of King Arthur.
That isn't to say he didn't write anything about the Once and Future King. In the 1930s, he wrote "The Fall of Arthur," an epic poem that he abandoned in favor of his more famous Middle-Earth books. This is not the genteel, courtly Arthur of Thomas Malory -- this is a rough, ancient-feeling poem that follows the rhythm and flow of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
"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..." The malevolent Mordred convinces Arthur and Gawain to set out to war, during which he will take care of Arthur's kingdom. The two battle their foes to the east, and are wildly successful...
... until "from the West came word, winged and urgent,/of war assailing the walls of Britain." Mordred has treacherously turned against Arthur, and is even pursuing his beautiful queen Guinever, who flees the castle to avoid him. So Arthur heads back home to reclaim his throne, even as the exiled Sir Lancelot is drawn back to help the man he wronged.
Sadly, the poem was never finished, and it ends after a rousing little speech by Gawain. So to pad out the book, Christopher Tolkien wrote a multi-part essay about the poem and its depiction of Arthur -- the Saxon overtones, the presence of Rome and other countries, Tolkien's use of language, and comparisons to other works of medieval Arthuriana.
He also expounds on its connection to Tolkien's "Silmarillion" (aka the Elf Bible), the various notes that Tolkien left behind that indicate his intentions for the remainder of the poem, and the evolution of the poem, based on Tolkien's multiple drafts. These parts are not particularly interesting except from a scholarly standpoint -- the real draw is the poem itself.
Though Tolkien wrote "The Fall of Arthur," it feels as though he uncovered a forgotten piece of parchment and simply translated the story. This is a very Anglo-Saxon Arthur, with none of the polished medieval flavor that most stories have -- he's depicted as an Invasion-era Briton who bravely fights back against the eastern invaders.
And anyone who has studied "Beowulf" will recognize the way this was written -- short lines, strong alliteration, caesura (mid-line pauses) and kennings (two words connected to form another one: "the wind-wreckage in the wide heavens"). The entire poem has a strong oral flavor, with the swaying rhythms of old Saxon poetry.
And Tolkien's use of language is as exquisite as ever ("Grey her eyes were as a glittering sea;/glass-clear and chill"), evoking feelings of a wild but civilized world, of banners with ravens, ships ablaze on the sea and castles overlooking the sea.
"The Fall of Arthur" is not a work for the casual Tolkien reader -- instead, it's a beautiful, sadly incomplete epic poem that makes you wish he had been immortal, so he could have one day completed it.
"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.