Get Ready To Read Tolkien’s “The Fall of Arthur”

British readers are reminded by Tolkien Society chairman Shaun Gunner that a brand new J.R.R. Tolkien epic, The Fall of Arthur, will be released in that country on May 23. (The book was released in the U.S. yesterday.)

Gunner comments:

We are all used to seeing Tolkien’s stories set in Middle-earth, but this is the first time we’ve ever seen Tolkien write about legendary Britain. We know Tolkien loved the powerful alliterative verse of Anglo-Saxon epics so Tolkien’s own re-imagining of Arthur’s downfall in this format will make for an interesting read. This is fundamentally important in terms of considering Tolkien’s academic career and his wider creative process, but it will also be fascinating to see how The Fall of Arthur – written before The Hobbit – may have parallels in Tolkien’s other stories.

It is always important when a new book is published by such a well-known and much-loved author, but this is particularly special due to the poetic format and subject matter. I am in no doubt that we will see the same skill and creativity on display in The Fall of Arthur as in Tolkien’s other works – this book will be a permanent feature of the Arthurian canon for centuries to come and will add to Tolkien’s own reputation as one of the most brilliant writers this country has ever produced.

HarperCollins says Tolkien set aside this work to write The Hobbit. It was left untouched for 80 years:

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.

Christopher Tolkien edited the manuscript and wrote three essays for the book, (1) about the literary world of King Arthur, (2) the deeper meaning of the verses, and (3) his father’s work to bring it to a finished form.

7 thoughts on “Get Ready To Read Tolkien’s “The Fall of Arthur”

  1. Back in the late 1970s, when reading Tolkien swept college campuses and All Known Fandom, I thought I knew something about Tolien’s writing. Yet, this is a new one on me. How do they keep discovering “new” huge undertakings by a man who was, by all accounts, a busy professor of phlogistrology (or whatever)? I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t a factory somewhere that turns out “new” Tolkien manuscripts the way the the Secret Scientologist Base kept turning up new turkeys by L. Ron Hubbard. Will the new MS end up as a three-part film by Peter Jackson … just as soon as he finishes with The Green Knight, and Farmer Giles of Ham?

  2. @Taral: In JRR Tolkien’s case people know where it’s coming from. Tolkien created a huge volume of material and deemed only a fraction of it finished and suitable for publication while he was alive. Christopher Tolkien selected and polished other major fragments as The Silmarillion. Many of JRR Tolkien’s evolutionary drafts were described or published in Christopher’s 12-volume History of Middle Earth. And the existence of several more interesting relics were known to a few scholars who were not allowed to discuss them without being threatened by the Estate (“You’ll never do lunch in the Bodleian again!”) Christopher has brought a couple of these to publishable form. As someone said, J.R.R. Tolkien’s output has had the benefit of two lifetimes’ work.

  3. Oh, come on, Taral. The existence of “The Fall of Arthur” has been well known for 35 years. It is not only described, but quoted from, in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, not exactly an obscure source.

  4. In my case every book published after Tolkien’s death with his name on it has caused extreme yawning at the attempt of reading any volume. I note I see I ignore. Took a while.

    Humphrey Carpenter’s biography: people have lived drier lives, but thankfully no one has bothered to write 300 pages to detail them for us. I prefered the Spike Millgan biography by the same author.

  5. RWS: You don’t have to read anything you don’t want to, but in that case I wonder why you are taking the bother to conspicuously declare your lack of interest. We already get that by now. The person who ought to know what’s in Carpenter’s biography is not you, but the one who wrote, “I thought I knew something about Tolkien’s writing.” I wouldn’t count as knowing much about Tolkien anyone who hadn’t read that book and know it pretty well, and I know – either in personal interaction or by reading their work – literally hundreds of people who pass that test. Again, =you= don’t have to be one of them. But there’s no excuse for a person knowledgeable about Tolkien to be surprised by the existence of “The Fall of Arthur”, even if they hadn’t been keeping up on the publication plans.

  6. “Edited by Christopher Tolkein” is the kiss of death for a new Tolkein work. The smartest thing that Chris could have down is bequeath all daddy’s notes to Guy Gavriel Kay back in the 1980s and let him crank out one novel based on JRR Tolkein’s notes every couple of years. Chris would be happy, the fans would be happy, GGK would be happy, everyone would be happy. But no, Christopher has to get personally involved, based on his ideas about “serious scholarly Tolkeinesque writing”, by which we mean Christopher’s own leaden, stillborn prose.

  7. Christopher’s prose is indeed leaden, unfortunately, but except for the 1977 Silmarillion – which was put together, by him and Guy Kay in collaboration, pretty much as Jason suggests – it’s limited to the introductions and notes. The actual texts are pure JRRT, and not only does that keep a reviser’s grubby hands off of it, it’s useful for scholarship – of which there’s been quite a lot, and for which, rather than a general audience, these books are really intended. But a general reader can read them: just skip the notes if you don’t want them.

    The “crank out a novel based on Daddy’s notes” approach has been taken by the heirs of Frank Herbert, and the results have generally not been considered very successful.

    Lastly, if Jason wants his criticisms of Tolkien to be taken seriously, he might learn how to spell the man’s name.

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