Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Fall of Arthur: Unfinished Masterpiece

Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Date of Publication: 2013
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

What I have to say:

I have never read another book in which the words themselves were such a source of delight.

We always talk about how Tolkien was a linguist - and sure, he invented a pretty awesome language for the elves, and the writing in Lord of the Rings is wonderful, but - holy cow!!! The Fall of Arthur is amazing!!!

Listen to this:
"Guinever hiding   in the grey shadow 
watched and waited,   while the world faltered" (III.181-82).

And this:

Wolves were howling   on the wood's border;
the windy trees   wailed and trembled,
and wandering leaves   wild and homeless
drifted dying   in the deep hollows.
Dark lay the road   through dank valleys
among mounting hills   mist-encircled
to the walls of Wales   in the west frowning
brownfaced and bare.   To the black mountains
horsemen hastened,   on the houseless stones
no track leaving.   Tumbling waters
from the fells falling,   foaming in darkness,
they heard as they passed   to the hidden kingdom.
Night fell behind.   The noise of hooves
was lost in silence   in a land of shadow. (IV.1-14)  

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. And that is just a sample from Tolkien's narrative poem on the downfall of Camelot - his only venture into Arthurian legend according to the dust jacket, though, as someone pointed out on Goodreads, he also wrote this thing called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem is thoughtful, masterful, breathtaking, and, catastrophically, unfinished. Despite the comment from one of his friends that, "You simply must finish it!" this is another work that Tolkien never finished. The upside of that is that it's a quick read - only 57 pages, 70 if you count the notes on the text. And commentary by Christopher Tolkien on the larger context of the poem, both in Arthurian tradition and in Tolkien's writings in general, as well as on the evolution of the poem, follows the authorial text (I'm sure it's very interesting, but I didn't read it).

Here's what Goodreads has to say:

The world's first publication of a previously unknown work by J.R.R. Tolkien, which tells the extraordinary story of the final days of England’s legendary hero, King Arthur.

The Fall of Arthur recounts in verse the last campaign of King Arthur who, even as he stands at the threshold of Mirkwood, is summoned back to Britain by news of the treachery of Mordred. Already weakened in spirit by Guinevere's infidelity with the now-exiled Lancelot, Arthur must rouse his knights to battle one last time against Mordred's rebels and foreign mercenaries.

Powerful, passionate and filled with vivid imagery, The Fall of Arthur reveals Tolkien's gift for storytelling at its brilliant best. Originally composed by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s, this work was set aside for The Hobbit and lay untouched for 80 years.

Now it has been edited for publication by Tolkien's son, Christopher, who contributes three illuminating essays that explore the literary world of King Arthur, reveal the deeper meaning of the verses and the painstaking work that his father applied to bring it to a finished form, and the intriguing links between The Fall of Arthur and his greatest creation, Middle-earth.

[Also, this book was a goodreads choice winner for poetry in 2013, because Tolkien is just so good that he can still win awards for his literature after being dead for 41 years.]

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