The Last Tolkien?

Trampled underfoot: The Saxons are overcome by Arthur and his forces.
Trampled underfoot: The Saxons are overcome by Arthur and his forces. (From “Cassell’s Illustrated History of England”)

No, the above title doesn’t refer to the bloodline of J.R.R. Tolkien’s family — it has to do with the most recent addition to the collection of Tolkien’s writings, “The Fall of Arthur” edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

It’s probably not a good idea to say “last” when it comes to a writer like Tolkien. There are too many fragmentary pieces lying around, and his son Christopher is far too skillful as a weaver and interpreter to deprive his father’s hungry audience of more.

But “The Fall of Arthur” is hardly a minor fragment even if it’s far from complete. Tolkien the Son provides us with not only the thrilling manuscript of Arthur’s final wars against Mordred and Germanic invaders, rendered in alliterative half-lines

As wary as wolves     through the wood stalking
to the marches rode there      Mordred’s hunters,
huge and hungry      hounds beside them
the fewte followed      fiercely baying…

but also with several context-setting essays about the poem’s relationship to Tolkien’s evolving ideas about The Lord of the Rings. This is the kind of rich, fascinating material that will send you to eBay in search of a broadsword and shield (if Game of Thrones hasn’t made you already).

225px-The_Fall_of_ArthurChristopher Tolkien is an ideal guide, poring over his father’s notes and scribbles  — Tolkien abandoned the poem in the 1930s — and showing us his father’s earliest ideas for The Silmarillion and how, for instance, that epic’s “Lonely Isle” of the elves was first associated with Arthur’s Avalon, or “Fortunate Isle.”

Several times, in my reading, something odd happened to me. I forgot that Tolkien belonged to the 20th century. His alliterative style, meter, and word choice are thoroughly convincing. And I forgot that his son was an editor and I started treating him like a translator — like the poet Simon Armitage, who recently gave us a version of the 15th century poem, The Death of King Arthur.

This isn’t dry, academic reading, my friends. Not only is the poem convincing, it’s frequently moving. There’s an especially powerful moment near the fragment’s end, as Arthur contemplates the wars ahead of him before he can restore his beloved country:

With woe and weariness    and war sated,
kingship owning     crowned and righteous
he would pass in peace     pardon granting,
the hurt healing    and the whole guiding,
to Britain the blessed     bliss recalling.
Death lay between     dark before him
ere the way were won     or the world conquered.

Such a sentiment could be Tolkien’s own yearning for peace in his time. Or ours for that matter.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has done readers an immense service–with the Tolkien Estate and son Christopher–to bring this work to the public. Here you’ll find one of those rare chances to closely examine the creative process — all the selections, all the choices and changes, all the omissions — of a great storyteller.

8 thoughts on “The Last Tolkien?

  1. Why am I reminded of the Iliad? Hmmmmmm

    I think I’m going to get this for my husband for Father’s Day. :o)

    On another note, how should we organize the bookshelf exhibition?

  2. Funny thing is, I’ve never read Tolkien, so I don’t know if I’m a fan or not. My husband has read the Hobbit and Rings books. I’ve been meaning to read the Hobbit aloud to my son, but he hasn’t been interested, so it’s still on the “to read” list.

    Yes, I think we should organize a massive “show us your shelves” post party. Sound good? It might take a little longer to organize, but it might be worth it.

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