In the TLS , Tom Shippey reviews Christopher Tolkien’s recent edition of his father’s The Fall of Arthur . The poem was the product of Tolkien’s early excursions into alliterative poetry, a project he shared with CS Lewis: “The later success of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis as writers of prose fiction has overlaid the fact that, up to the 1920s and 30s at least, both men had focused most of their creative ambition on poetry. Lewis had brought out two volumes of verse, Spirits in Bondage (1919) and Dymer (1926), with little success. Tolkien had sent a collection of poems titled ‘The Trumpets of Faërie’ to Sidgwick and Jackson, but had it rejected. By 1936 the only visible results of his activity were some two dozen poems published separately, often pseudonymously, in journals or collections of very limited circulation. We now know, however, that he was working meanwhile on several long poems connected with his developing ‘Silmarillion’ mythology, notably ‘The Lay of the Children of Húrin,’ in alliterative metre, and the rhymed ‘Lay of Leithian,’ and during the same pre- Hobbit period had set himself two further poetic exercises. One was to harmonize and complete the differing ancient versions of the story of the Volsungs and the Nibelungs, in two long poems composed in English but in the Old Norse variety of alliterative metre. These were eventually published in 2009 as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún , edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher. The other project now appears, also edited by Christopher Tolkien, as The Fall of Arthur . Once again one sees J. R. R. Tolkien trying to reconcile differing medieval legendary versions and to make them readable, this time in the Old English variety of alliterative metre.”

Shippey claims that Tolkien’s poem was an effort to unify the diverse legends concerning Arthur, and to smooth out some of the problems he saw with the legend:

“What seems to have motivated Tolkien’s Arthurian project was a series of discontents. In the first place the story of Arthur was not by origin an English story, but an anti-English story, with Arthur as the hero of the Britons resisting the Anglo-Saxon invasions. Geoffrey’s chronicle, moreover, echoed by the Alliterative Morte , declared that Arthur’s European conquests were motivated by an insulting challenge from the Roman ‘procurator,’ Lucius Hiberius, so that Arthur’s real target, after the Saxon invaders of Britain, became the Roman Empire itself. Geoffrey thus perpetuated the Welsh legends’ animosity against both the people who displaced them and the people who had betrayed them, but Tolkien, patriotic Englishman as well as devout Roman Catholic, agreed with neither. There were then, for him, issues of national and religious feeling to be settled.”

Tolkien was also concerned with the depiction of Gawain, the hero of a poem that Tolkien had translated, and the lenient regard for Lancelot’s adultery: “Tolkien had spent much time on editing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , in collaboration with E. V. Gordon, and in that poem Gawain is a paragon not only of chivalry and courtesy, but also of chastity. In the French tradition, by contrast, he had become a roué, and his fame had further been eclipsed by Lancelot, while Guinevere’s adultery with Lancelot – not Mordred, as in Geoffrey – was treated increasingly leniently, romantically, even admiringly, despite the disastrous results for the Round Table as a whole.”

The result was a decisive modification of the story: In Tolkien’s version, “Arthur’s enemies were indeed the Saxons, not the Romans, but the hostility was religious, not racial: they are presented as pagans above all. Arthur’s foray into Europe was accordingly directed at their homelands, and at the barbarian East behind them, not the civilized remnants of Rome. As for Lancelot, the story of his affair with Guinevere is known to Arthur as Tolkien’s poem opens, and Guinevere is back at court – where she will be tempted by Mordred in Arthur’s absence – while Lancelot is in exile, waiting and hoping for forgiveness and a recall. Gawain has taken his proper place as Arthur’s leading paladin, and while he and Lancelot are still estranged, this is no longer (as in Malory) the result of Gawain’s implacable anger, only his justified suspicions.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart