Tolkien’s Reworking of Arthurian Legend

J. R. R. Tolkien. The Fall of Arthur. 2013. Alliterative heroic verse.

The_Fall_of_ArthurTolkien’s latest posthumous publication is yet another masterpiece of alliterative heroic verse from the master of medieval-themed epic fantasy. Tolkien Germanizes a Roman-inspired Brittonic legend long co-opted by French poets such as Chrétien de Troyes. Even the Englishman Thomas Malory wrote of Le Morte d’Arthur.

However, Tolkien modeled his poem on the alliterative Morte Arthure, a forgotten but marvelous fourteenth-century Middle English poem. In this medieval poem, similar to Chester’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in its provincial dialect and elegant craftsmanship, King Arthur defies Emperor Lucius’s command to pay homage to Rome, instead marching on Rome, slaying Lucius, and having himself confirmed in his North Sea empire by the pope. Quite a twist on the Arthurian chivalric tradition!

With rolling syllables and ringing consonants, Tolkien’s reworking of the anonymous alliterative Fall of Arthur tells of how Arthur, retaliating against sea raiders, invaded and ravaged Gothland unto Mirkwood’s borders, only to be recalled to England by Cradoc’s grim tidings that Mordred, the king’s regent, had hired Viking mercenaries to seize the crown for himself. Lancelot du Lake, meanwhile, sits in exile overseas, ruling Benwick (France) with his kin, and Guinevere has fled Mordred’s lustful eye to her native Leodegrance. With Gawain’s griffin banner leading the vanguard, Arthur’s fleet shatters Mordred’s Viking sea wolves and lands his army on the coast. Alas, at this exciting juncture the poem cuts off—Tolkien never finished it.

I skimmed most of Christopher Tolkien’s commentaries, of interest only to Tolkien obsessives. Definitely read the section on the alliterative Fall of Arthur, but otherwise, Tolkien’s devoted scion mostly just annotates his father’s notes. “The Fall of Arthur” itself fills only forty pages.

But the poem rings true. The fall of Arthur is no happy tale of chivalry; it is a heroic tragedy, pervaded with fruitless victories and doomed warriors. ‘Tis fitting that the legend’s end be composed in an alliterative Germanic style that reflects its Wagnerian quality. Read it, good friends. Or better yet, chant it aloud—and be sure to give Gawain’s voice a Scottish brogue!

One thought on “Tolkien’s Reworking of Arthurian Legend

  1. I picked up The Death of King Arthur (written by the prolific Anon.) years ago, being impressed that it was a different one to Le Morte d’Arthur from what I remember I ploughed through it in a day or so, loved it.

    I hadn’t heard of this, so appreciate the heads up and now I will have to add it to the list of books i cannot afford, ah the double edged sword of blogging hehe.

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