The Fall of ArthurJ. R. R. Tolkien
Lines 61-94 from Canto I of the latest version of the text of The Fall of Arthur
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
The Fall of Arthur
Notes on the Text of The Fall of Arthur
The Poem in Arthurian Tradition
The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion
The Evolution of the Poem
Appendix: Old English Verse
Works by J.R.R. Tolkien
About the Publisher
It is well known that a prominent strain in my father’s poetry was his abiding love for the old ‘Northern’ alliterative verse, which extended from the world of Middle-earth (notably in the long but unfinished Lay of the Children of Húrin) to the dramatic dialogue The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth (arising from the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon) and to his ‘Old Norse’ poems The New Lay of the Völsungs and The New Lay of Gudrún (to which he referred in a letter of 1967 as ‘a thing I did many years ago when trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry’). In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he displayed his skill in his rendering of the alliterative verse of the fourteenth century into the same metre in modern English. To these is now added his unfinished and unpublished poem The Fall of Arthur.
I have been able to discover no more than a single reference of any kind by my father to this poem, and that is in a letter of 1955, in which he said: ‘I write alliterative verse with pleasure, though I have published little beyond the fragments in The Lord of the Rings, except ‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth’ … I still hope to finish a long poem on The Fall of Arthur in the same measure’ (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no.165). Nowhere among his papers is there any indication of when it was begun or when it was abandoned; but fortunately he preserved a letter written to him by R.W. Chambers on 9 December 1934. Chambers (Professor of English at University College, London), eighteen years his senior, was an old friend and strong supporter of my father, and in that letter he described how he had read Arthur on a train journey to Cambridge, and on the way back ‘took advantage of an empty compartment to declaim him as he deserves’. He praised the poem with high praise: ‘It is very great indeed … really heroic, quite apart from its value in showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English.’ And he ended the letter ‘You simply must finish it.’
But that my father did not do; and yet another of his long narrative poems was abandoned. It seems all but certain that he had ceased to work on the Lay of the Children of Húrin before he left the University of Leeds for Oxford in 1925, and he recorded that he began the Lay of Leithian (the legend of Beren and Lúthien), not in alliterative verse but in rhyming couplets, in the summer of that year (The Lays of Beleriand, p.3). In addition, while at Leeds he began an alliterative poem on The Flight of the Noldoli from Valinor, and another even briefer that was clearly the beginning of a Lay of Eärendel (The Lays of Beleriand, §II, Poems Early Abandoned).
I have suggested in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (p.5) ‘as a mere guess, since there is no evidence whatsoever to confirm it, that my father turned to the Norse poems as a new poetic enterprise [and a return to alliterative verse] after he abandoned the Lay of Leithian near the end of 1931.’ If this were so, he must have begun work on The Fall of Arthur, which was still far from completion at the end of 1934, when the Norse poems had been brought to a conclusion.
In seeking some explanation of his abandonment of these ambitious poems when each was already far advanced, one might look to the circumstances of his life after his election to the Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925: the demands of his position and his scholarship and the needs and concerns and expenses of his family. As through so much of his life, he never had enough time; and it may be, as I incline to believe, that the breath of inspiration, endlessly impeded, could wither away; yet it would emerge again, when an opening appeared amid his duties and obligations – and his other interests, but now with a changed narrative impulse.
No doubt there were in fact specific reasons in each case, not now to be with any certainty discerned; but in that of The Fall of Arthur I have suggested (see here) that it was driven into the shallows by the great sea-changes that were taking place in my father’s conceptions at that time, arising from his work on The Lost Road and the publication of The Hobbit: the emergence of Númenor, the myth of the World Made Round and the Straight Path, and the approach of The Lord of the Rings.
One might surmise also that the very nature of this last, elaborate poem made it peculiarly vulnerable to interruption or disturbance. The astonishing amount of surviving draft material for The Fall of Arthur reveals the difficulties inherent in such use of the metrical form that my father found so profoundly congenial, and his exacting and perfectionist concern to find, in an intricate and subtle narrative, fitting expression within the patterns of rhythm and alliteration of the Old English verse-form. To change the metaphor, The Fall of Arthur was a work of art to be built slowly: it could not withstand the rising of new imaginative horizons.
Whatever may be thought of these speculations, The Fall of Arthur necessarily entailed problems of presentation to the editor. It may be that some who take up this book would have been content with no more than the text of the poem as printed here, and perhaps a brief statement of the stages of its development, as attested by the abundant draft manuscripts. On the other hand, there may well be many others who, drawn to the poem by the attraction of its author but with little knowledge of ‘the Arthurian legend’, would wish, and expect, to find some indications of how this ‘version’ stands in relation to the mediaeval tradition from which it arose.
As I have said, my father left no indication even of the briefest kind, as he did of the ‘Norse’ poems published as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, of his thought or intention that lay behind his very original treatment of ‘The Legend of Lancelot and Guinevere’. But in the present case there is clearly no reason to enter the labyrinth in an editorial attempt to write a wide-ranging account of ‘Arthurian’ legend, which would very likely appear a forbidding rampart raised up as if it were a necessary preliminary to the reading of The Fall of Arthur.
I have therefore dispensed with any ‘Introduction’ properly so-called, but following the text of the poem I have contributed several commentaries, of a decidedly optional nature. The brief notes that follow the poem are largely confined to very concise explanations of names and words, and to references to the commentaries.
Each of these, for those who want such explorations, is concerned with a fairly distinct aspect of The Fall of Arthur and its special interest. The first of these, ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’, simple in intent, avoiding speculative interpretation, and very limited in range, if somewhat lengthy, is an account of the derivation of my father’s poem from particular narrative traditions and its divergences from them. For this purpose I have chiefly drawn upon two works in English, the mediaeval poem known as ‘The Alliterative Morte Arthure’, and the relevant tales of Sir Thomas Malory, with some reference to his sources. Not wishing to provide a mere dry précis, I have cited verbatim a number of passages from these works, as exemplifying those traditions in manner and mode that differ profoundly from this ‘Alliterative Fall of Arthur’ of another day.
After much deliberation I have thought it best, because much less confusing, to write this account as if the latest form of the poem (as printed in this book) were all that we could know of it, and the strange evolution of that form reveal
ed by the analysis of the draft texts had therefore been lost. I have seen no need to enter into the shadowy origins of the Arthurian legend and the early centuries of its history, and I will only say here that it is essential to the understanding of The Fall of Arthur to recognize that the roots of the legend derive from the fifth century, after the final end of the Roman rule in Britain with the withdrawal of the legions in 410, and from memories of battles fought by Britons in resistance to the ruinous raids and encroachments of the barbarian invaders, Angles and Saxons, spreading from the eastern regions of their land. It is to be borne in mind that throughout this book the names Britons and British refer specifically and exclusively to the Celtic inhabitants and their language.
Following ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’ is a discussion of ‘The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion’, an account of the various writings that give some indication of my father’s thoughts for the continuation of the poem; and then an account of ‘The Evolution of the Poem’, primarily an attempt to show as clearly as I could, granting the extremely complex textual history, the major changes of structure that I have referred to, together with much exemplification of his mode of composition.
Note. Throughout this book references to the text of the poem are given in the form canto number (Roman numeral) + line number, e.g. II.7.
THE FALL OF ARTHUR
How Arthur and Gawain went to war and rode into the East.
Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.
Thus the tides of time to turn backward 5
and the heathen to humble, his hope urged him,
that with harrying ships they should hunt no more
on the shining shores and shallow waters
of South Britain, booty seeking.
As when the earth dwindles in autumn days 10
and soon to its setting the sun is waning
under mournful mist, then a man will lust
for work and wandering, while yet warm floweth
blood sun-kindled, so burned his soul
after long glory for a last assay 15
of pride and prowess, to the proof setting
will unyielding in war with fate.
So fate fell-woven forward drave him,
and with malice Mordred his mind hardened,
saying that war was wisdom and waiting folly. 20
‘Let their fanes be felled and their fast places
bare and broken, burned their havens,
and isles immune from march of arms
or Roman reign now reek to heaven
in fires of vengeance! Fell thy hand is, 25
fortune follows thee – fare and conquer!
And Britain the blessed, thy broad kingdom,
I will hold unharmed till thy home-coming.
Faithful hast thou found me. But what foe dareth
war here to wake or the walls assail 30
of this island-realm while Arthur liveth,
if the Eastern wolf in his own forest
at last embayed must for life battle?’
So Mordred spake, and men praised him,
Gawain guessed not guile or treason 35
in this bold counsel; he was for battle eager,
in idle ease the evil seeing
that had rent asunder the Round Table.
Thus Arthur in arms eastward journeyed,
and war awoke in the wild regions. 40
Halls and temples of the heathen kings
his might assailed marching in conquest
from the mouths of the Rhine o’er many kingdoms.
Lancelot he missed; Lionel and Ector,
Bors and Blamore to battle came not; 45
yet mighty lords remained by him:
Bediver and Baldwin, Brian of Ireland,
Marrac and Meneduc from their mountain-towers;
Errac, and Iwain of Urien’s line
that was king in Reged; Cedivor the strong 50
and the queen’s kinsman Cador the hasty.
Greatest was Gawain, whose glory waxed
as times darkened, true and dauntless,
among knights peerless ever anew proven,
defence and fortress of a falling world. 55
As in last sortie from leaguered city
so Gawain led them. As a glad trumpet
his voice was ringing in the van of Arthur;
as a burning brand his blade wielded
before the foremost flashed as lightning. 60
Foes before them, flames behind them,
ever east and onward eager rode they,
and folk fled them as the face of God,
till earth was empty, and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them in the endless hills, 65
save bird and beast baleful haunting
the lonely lands. Thus at last came they
to Mirkwood’s margin under mountain-shadows:
waste was behind them, walls before them;
on the houseless hills ever higher mounting 70
vast, unvanquished, lay the veiled forest.
Dark and dreary were the deep valleys,
where limbs gigantic of lowering trees
in endless aisles were arched o’er rivers
flowing down afar from fells of ice. 75
Among ruinous rocks ravens croaking
eagles answered in the air wheeling;
wolves were howling on the wood’s border.
Cold blew the wind, keen and wintry,
in rising wrath from the rolling forest 80
among roaring leaves. Rain came darkly,
and the sun was swallowed in sudden tempest.
The endless East in anger woke,
and black thunder born in dungeons
under mountains of menace moved above them. 85
Halting doubtful there on high saw they
wan horsemen wild in windy clouds
grey and monstrous grimly riding
shadow-helmed to war, shapes disastrous.
Fierce grew the blast. Their fair banners 90
from their staves were stripped. Steel no longer,
gold nor silver nor gleaming shield
light reflected lost in darkness,
while phantom foes with fell voices
in the gloom gathered. Gawain loudly 95
cried as a clarion. Clear went his voice
in the rocks ringing above roaring wind
and rolling thunder: ‘Ride, forth to war,
ye hosts of ruin, hate proclaiming!
Foes we fear not, nor fell shadows 100
of the dark mountains demon-haunted!
Hear now ye hills and hoar forest,
ye awful thrones of olden gods
huge and hopeless, hear and tremble!
From the West comes war that no wind daunteth, 105
might and purpose that no mist stayeth;
lord of legions, light in darkness,
east rides Arthur!’ Echoes were wakened.
The wind was stilled. The walls of rock
There evening came 110
with misty moon moving slowly
through the wind-wreckage in the wide heavens,
where strands of storm among the stars wandered.
Fires were flickering, frail tongues of gold
under hoary hills. In the huge twilight 115
gleamed ghostly-pale, on the ground rising
like elvish growths in autumn grass
in some hollow of the hills hid from mortals,
the tents of Arthur.
Time wore onward.
Day came darkly, dusky twilight 120
over gloomy heights glimmering sunless;
in the weeping air the wind perished.
Dead silence fell
. Out of deep valleys
fogs unfurling floated upward;
dim vapours drowned, dank and formless, 125
the hills under heaven, the hollow places
in a fathomless sea foundered sunken.
Trees looming forth with twisted arms,
like weeds under water where no wave moveth,
out of mist menaced man forwandered. 130
Cold touched the hearts of the host encamped
on Mirkwood’s margin at the mountain-roots.
They felt the forest though the fogs veiled it;
their fires fainted. Fear clutched their souls,
waiting watchful in a world of shadow 135
for woe they knew not, no word speaking.
Far and faintly ere the fall of eve
they heard a horn in the hills trembling,
forlorn and lonely, like lost voices
out of night at sea. Nearer it sounded. 140
Now hoofs they heard, a horse neighing,
watchmen calling. Woe had found them.
From the West came word, winged and urgent,
of war assailing the walls of Britain.
Lo! Cradoc was come the king seeking 145
down perilous ways their path trailing
from the mouths of the Rhine o’er many kingdoms
grimly riding. Neither grey shadows
nor mist stayed him mighty-hearted.
Haggard and hungry by his horse standing 150
to Arthur told he evil tidings:
‘Too long my lord from your land ye tarry!
While war ye wage on the wild peoples
in the homeless East, a hundred chiefs
their seahorses swift and deadly 155
have harnessed in havens of the hidden islands.
Dragon-prowed they drive over dark billows;
on shores unguarded shields are gleaming
and black banners borne amid trumpets.
Wild blow the winds of war in Britain! 160
York is leaguered, yielded Lincoln;