The Fall of Arthur, the only venture by J.R.R. Tolkien into the legends of Arthur King of Britain, may well be regarded as his finest and most skillful achievement in the use of the Old English alliterative metre, in which he brought to his transforming perceptions of the old narratives a pervasive sense of the grave and fateful nature of all that is told: of Arthur’s expedition overseas into distant heathen lands, of Guinevere’s flight from Camelot, of the great sea-battle on Arthur’s return to Britain, in the portrait of the traitor Mordred, in the tormented doubts of Lancelot in his French castle.
Unhappily, The Fall of Arthur was one of several long narrative poems that he abandoned in that period. Associated with the text of the poem, however, are many manuscript pages: a great quantity of drafting and experimentation in verse, in which the strange evolution of the poem’s structure is revealed, together with narrative synopses and very significant if tantalising notes. In these latter can be discerned clear if mysterious associations of the Arthurian conclusion with The Silmarillion, and the bitter ending of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, which was never written.
*****Tolkien was actually a pretty decent poet, and I enjoyed another of his forays into alliterative verse: The Lays of Beleriand presents his treatment in that format of one of his own Great Tales, the Song of the Children of Hurin. I'm also a fan of most things Arthurian, and the closer they stick to early stories the better I generally like it. On the other hand, I bounced off The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, so I'm not positive I'll love this one! But I'll definitely give it a shot.