Book Review: The Fall Of Arthur

The Fall Of Arthur, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

I must admit that while I liked this book a great deal, reading this book made me ponder something about the way that the fragmentary writings of the dead are treated.  The Fall of Arthur is a narrative poem of considerable interest that concerns the mythos about the death of Arthur in Celtic and Norman poetry, and it is fragmentary.  The poem was never completed because Tolkien was a busy writer who kept many irons in the fire and because the poem was a particularly demanding one to work on that he could not do while working on creating the complex universe of Middle Earth.  Writers who have day jobs are busy people, and writing ambitious versions of ancient poems are probably not the way most would choose to spend their time.  Even so, as a fragmentary piece that sheds light on the melancholy and gloomy thinking process of Tolkien when it came to the Middle Ages and to his own writings, this book is definitely something to appreciate, and coming as it does with a great deal of critical apparatus written by his son, this is the sort of book that is likely to help the family keep eating and living well for generations, and I will not begrudge someone that.

The contents of the book are, for the most part, pretty straightforward.  After a short foreword that describes the work briefly, the editor provides the text of the poem, which is written in Old English poetic style, containing a poetic scheme that focuses on stressed syllables and alliteration in the manner of Beowulf.  It is something ironic that a Celtic poem popularized by Norman poets should be written in an Old English fashion, but Tolkien apparently had a taste for that sort of irony.  After the poem, which ends with some hastily written lines in the middle of the fifth canto, there is enough notes and other material from the editor to pad out the 200+ page length of a book.  First there are notes on the text.  After this there is a discussion of the unwritten poem and its relation to the Silmarillion, and there is a discussion about the evolution of the poem through various draft papers, after which there is a fascinating appendix about Old English verse from the author, which is well worth reading.

To what extent is a book like this a shameless cash grab and to what extent does it give fans of Tolkien something new to read, even if it is fragmentary.  When someone’s creative output reaches the level of fame that Tolkien’s did, everything they wrote, even what they did not finish, takes on an entirely more lucrative perspective.  When the same thing happens in music, music critics are often quick to jump on those who release such material as “grave robbers” or other equally unpleasant terms.  But is that really fair when we are looking at a work like this?  The author’s work is certainly worthwhile, even if not complete, and do we give fragmentary texts a pass that we do not give for the fragmentary music of a Michael Jackson that is repurposed by musicians like Drake and Justin Timberlake or an XXXTentacion who was not a very good human being?  I’m not sure.  I do know that this poem would have been a great one as a complete one, and even as a fragment it tantalizes the reader with what might have been, but for what it is, it is merely a missed opportunity, or part of the opportunity cost of having Tolkien be such a great creator of a worthwhile fictional universe enjoyed by many millions of fans to this day.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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