A circuitous review of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur, ed. by Christopher Tolkien (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2013).
For those of us who have had a life-long passion for and of all things Tolkien, his unpublished poem “The Fall of Arthur” has always been a loving mystery for us. What could it be? How epic? Does he follow the Celtic versions, the Germanic versions, or the French versions of the story? Does his Arthur pull the sword from the stone or receive it from the Lady of the Lake? Is his Arthur more historic or more heroic? Is he Catholic or pagan?
Indeed, we knew next to nothing about any of this. Only the title, really. In his published letters, Tolkien admits that he found too much explicit Christianity in the Arthurian legends, therefore negating its mythic and artistic depths. Of course, he also published his own translation of Sir Gawain complete with a commentary he had offered the BBC. Obviously, Tolkien knew all about the legends—what didn’t the man know when it came to language and myth—but most of us just assumed that he had decided to follow the path of Anglo-Saxon-Nordic myths—such as Beowulf, the Volsunga, and the Kalavala—for his own legendarium, ignoring the Celtic.
This was a man, after all, who held such patriotism toward the Anglo-Saxon traditions that he spent a goodly part of his academic career demonstrating that the Scandinavian language (and even laws) held more sway over the English people than any other tradition. When it came to history and culture, if not politics, he was a Whig to the extreme.
Again, it should be noted, he knew Welsh as a language and Celtic culture well. Extremely so. Those of us who study Tolkien just assumed he had chosen not to embrace either to the extent he had the Germanic.
Then, of course, a few years later in his published letters, Tolkien admitted that he had begun but never finished an epic poem, “The Fall of Arthur.” And, a few decades later, when working on the final assemblage of The Silmarillion (published in September 1977), Canadian fantasy writer, Guy Kavriel Kay, noted in passing just how much material Tolkien had left unfinished, including an epic poem on Arthur.
Holy Moses! Just how much had Tolkien written? A few lines? A few pages? A book? When it comes to what Tolkien started but never finished, the answer to length was anyone’s guess.
Since 1999, an entire slew of books have come out on Tolkien. It all began with Joseph Pearce’s excellent book of that year, Tolkien: Man and Myth. Pearce began it all. He is the grandfather of modern Tolkien studies. As a matter of history (not bragging), my Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth—clearly inspired by Pearce and his work—came out at the very end of 2002.
Lots and lots of books have come onto the market over the last thirteen years. Way too many to count, frankly. As you would expect, some of are excellent and many are…well…not.
For those of us who want to study Tolkien as seriously as possible, though, the most important books to come out over the last decade are those written but not finished by Tolkien. Instead, his son, Christopher Tolkien, has continued his father’s work well after his death in 1973. Christopher has worked so hard on his father’s publications over the last forty-two years, that it is becoming increasingly impossible to know when it is J.R.R. writing and when it is the son. From a broad perspective, this means that Tolkien’s legendarium is so vast and so deep that it has taken the lives of not one but two men to bring to it completion.
The books begun by the father but completed by the son are:
The Children of Hurin (2007)
The Fall of Arthur (2013)
While I cannot speak for Mr. Pearce (though I presume he would agree with me), neither of us could have written the books we did in 1999 and 2002 now, as the four books edited and completed by Christopher Tolkien would demand a rethinking of much of what we wrote about the greatest of twentieth-century fabulists. Let me clarify. These four books do not negate what we wrote as much as they greatly, greatly, greatly (add a few more of these “greatlys”) deepen our understanding of Tolkien. If anything, these four books edited by Christopher reveal just how much better, how much more intelligent, how much better read, and how much more imagination Tolkien actually possessed than we first guessed. My love of Tolkien only increases as I realize just how much he knew and how vast his own legendarium was. While deeply rooted in his own imagination, Tolkien’s mythology incorporated and co-opted the histories, the languages, the stories, and the characters of so many disparate peoples.
Ever since I published my Tolkien book in 2002, I have wanted to return to the subject, sometimes gut-wrenchingly so. My own understanding of myth and culture has, I presume, developed between the ages of thirty-four and forty-seven. And, over the past thirteen-years, I have written a few articles on Tolkien—some academic and some not—and I even have a 110-page outline completed, ready to write a full-blown literary biography of the Inklings. My own essay at The Imaginative Conservative—“The White City”—was a preliminary introduction to that Inklings book.
My reluctance to finish the book, however, stems from three things.
First, I have been working on other folks: Christopher Dawson; Charles Carroll of Carrollton; Neil Peart; and Russell Kirk.
Second, the Tolkien estate is very powerful and very aggressive. They do not look kindly upon quoting anything from what the Tolkiens have written.
And, third, when it comes to Tolkien, almost no new personal papers have come to light since I published Sanctifying Myth in 2002. A few things, but not many. In particular, the letters of Tolkien available to the public—though there must be thousands out there—have not increased since 1981. Due to the profoundly important work of the brilliant and tenacious Carl Hostettler, a number of Tolkien’s pieces dealing with linguistics have appeared. But, again, no personal papers.
As things would have it, just two weeks ago, I completed my year at Colorado as well as the final corrections and edits to the Russell Kirk biography (which has taken up all of my scholarly time for the past six years), and I immediately delved into the works of two of my favorite men of all time: Tolkien and T.S. Eliot.
So, back to the beginning of this piece. What does Camelot have to do with Gondor? Quite a bit, it seems.
As I began to read, finally, The Fall of Arthur (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2013), I found myself immediately pulled back into the lovely world of Tolkien’s mind and soul. This was not merely a read of academic curiosity, though it certainly played to my intellect. No, The Fall of Arthur is about the very essence of all that was best in the twentieth-century imagination. It is a full and glorious colliding of fifth-century Celtic England with twentieth century Christian humanism. The reader gently falls into the realm of Faerie in all of its terror and beauty.
The book is roughly divided between Tolkien’s poem and thoughts on the poem with Christopher’s masterly editing. One might complain that Christopher’s voice is becoming indistinguishable from his father’s, but I find this compelling and fascinating. If, as we believe, he created the first inklings of his mythology in the trenches of World War I, ca. 1915, why shouldn’t it continue into 2015, a full century later? Yes, the legendarium is that deep. Additionally, Tolkien very clearly meant for his Middle-earth legendarium to serve as a basis of all English mythology, and he welcomed contributors to play in his world. If not Tolkien’s talented and loyal son, Christopher, then who?
Tolkien’s poem of ‘The Fall of Arthur” takes place, as the title suggests, at Arthur’s end. I certainly don’t want to spoil Tolkien’s version of the story, but, suffice it to state, it’s not uplifting. In this sense, we know how very tragically northern Tolkien’s poem is. In an early medieval Celtic world that has only recently and reluctantly accepted the possibility of resurrection and eternal life, a real man still distinguished himself by dying nobly for what he most treasures. Not surprisingly, Tolkien handles the subject not only expertly, but movingly.
What is most fascinating, however, is that Tolkien most certainly incorporated the Arthurian legend—especially as told in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the King of Britain (1136)—into his legendarium. In particular, Tol Eressea, also known as the Lonely Island and the Blessed Isle. The island stood geographically so that it could see but not touch Valinor, the land of the gods. The capitol city was Avallone.
How on God’s Green Earth did I miss the connection to Avalon? Sigh. Well, for whatever reason, I did. In part, I think, Tolkien’s own dismissal of the King Arthur legend as too explicitly Christian to be interesting simply made me look elsewhere.
Having read The Fall of Arthur I’ll never be able to make this mistake again. As editor and commentator, Christopher makes it quite clear that his father not only used the Arthurian legends, but he made them his own. Of course, this shouldn’t totally surprise any Tolkien lover.
Think of Gandalf. He is part Odin, part Job, part St. Michael, and fully Tolkienian. Why wouldn’t Tolkien do the same with Arthur?
Immense kudos to Christopher Tolkien for continuing to publish his father’s incomplete works. Even Tolkien’s unfinished work is far more satisfying and far deeper than almost anything the publishing world is offering today. And, Christopher sheds a light upon it all that adds intellect, soul, and beauty.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.