The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, with edits by his son Christopher Tolkien, is a venture into Arthurian legend by way of an unfinished poem, written in Modern English in the Old English metre. First of all, before I dive into what I thought, there is one major thing you need to know about the book.
The pome itself only spans a little under 50 pages. The rest of the book is the foreword, as well as material Christopher Tolkien wrote. There is a lot of analysis of the poem and how it fits into Arthurian tradition, as well as a short “crash course” on Old English alliterative verse.
Thus, if your interest is mainly towards the actual poem, you probably do not want to spend the money on the book. If this is the case, I would probably still recommend reading the book, however I would consider borrowing a copy from your local library.
However, I want to move on to what I really thought about the book.
First of all, I think that the poem itself was really, well, amazing. I took a course regarding Writing in the Middle Ages back in university, so I have some kind of history with this. Funnily enough though, that course was not what I was expecting and it was my least favourite course throughout university. I did, however, manage to work in Tolkien into the course through his last foray into Arthurian tradition and alliterative verse—Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I love the way the words flow and yes, I tried to say them to myself as I think they would have been performed. For the record, my poem reading voice is from a British actor. Take that as you will.
I think that most people tend to forget that Tolkien did more than write Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. If they know more than those works, I think they hit their knowledge limit to his work in Middle Earth. But Tolkien, as we see in this book, is also a phenomenal poet. He has a unique way with words that simultaneously seem comforting and familiar. For die-hard Tolkien fans like myself, this book is so worth the read. Beyond reading Tolkien’s words, you get a nice background and insight to his writing and just how he thought. Or, at least, how his son can theorize about it given their relationship and looking through Tolkien’s notes and letters.
This book would also appeal to those who are fans of Arthurian legend and other subjects such as Old English alliterative verse. If however, you are one whose interest in Arthurian legend and Tolkien spans the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies and watching the BBC show Merlin, you are probably not suited to this book.
One of the other things I enjoyed about this read was looking at the edits Christopher mentioned from the notes and earlier manuscripts for this poem. It gives an interesting insight into the way Tolkien worked. It is a deeper look into that sort of thing than we get with any of his finished works as far as I have read so far. I think that there is some other insight into this in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, but I have not read that juts yet. I do, however, own a copy and will be reading that at some point this year.
I cannot do his words justice, and do not feel I am skilled enough to heavily analyze alliterative verse. But I will conclude by saying again that this was a fantastic read, and if you are thinking about giving it a try as a Tolkien or Arthurian legend fan…do it. You would be missing out if you did not.
In closing, I want to share a quote from a New York Times article about this book that I whole-heartedly agree with and could not put it any better.
“With Christopher Tolkien now in his late 80s, this could be nearly the final work to emerge from his father’s posthumous archives. One feels a note of personal 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.”
Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
Publisher: Harper (Imprint of HarperCollins)