Book Review: The Fall of Arthur, J.R.R. Tolkien

I recommended this latest volume from Tolkien’s unpublished material a while ago. Now that I’ve finished it, I want to recommend it again for several reasons.

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The fact that it contains an unfinished poem may turn some readers off. But even unfinished, Tolkien’s poem is very good. Tolkien was a master of alliterative verse as this single poem demonstrates. In constructing the poem, Tolkien drew on several threads of Arthurian legend, and as we might expect from a master myth-maker, he added several of his own. Christopher Tolkien’s essays, which follow the poem in this volume, explain these threads in detail, but here are the best bits.

Lancelot’s Long Journey

Tolkien connects the traditional Isle of Avalon with his own Eressëa, the Lonely Isle that lies far out in the western sea—so far that few mortals can make the journey. In Tolkien’s poem after Arthur’s last battle, Guinevere loses her hold on Lancelot, who bids her farewell and goes in search of Arthur. Learning from a hermit that Arthur was taken to Avalon, Lancelot sets sail in a small boat to search for his lord.

Driven by a single-minded love and a yearning for forgiveness, Lancelot sails into the west and is never heard from again. Tolkien fans will recognize similarities to his tale of Ëarendel, who also sailed into the west and became an important legend in middle-earth. Though Tolkien probably didn’t like it, Lewis repeats this same journey with Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

The Grief of Guinevere

As for Guinevere, Tolkien deals effectively with her. Many of the Arthurian legends show Guinevere too much pity, allowing her to return to Arthur, while Lancelot is banished despite his penitence. Tolkien apparently disliked this treatment of Guinevere, and so he ends her story as it deserves. Guinevere never comes to repentance, but does end her days in “grievous loneliness and self-pity…but though grief was her lot it is not said that she mourned for others more than for herself” (Fall, 168).

Tolkien never finished Guinevere’s story, but he did pen her epigrammatic epitaph:

“Guinevere grew grey in the grey shadow
all things losing who at all things grasped.”

Once again, I highly recommend The Fall of Arthur to any fan of Tolkien, of the Inklings, or of the stories of Arthur. Tolkien’s poem shines a bright light on the myth of Arthur—a story we desperately need to hear and heed. (Amazon: Kindle, Paper)