J R R Tolkien – The Fall of Arthur – book review by Mark Ulyseas
Published by HarperCollins
Amidst the ruins of Hampi. Amidst the fallen rocks and mangled sculptured torsos of gods and goddesses rests a fragment of history woven with myths and legends of an enchanted era of chivalry and betrayal, of valour and cowardice, of victory and defeat…what better place than this to read the poem…The Fall of Arthur…an unfinished masterpiece set aside eighty years ago by a pensive poet just before he embarked upon The Hobbit.
The Fall of Arthur is written in the language of old English…words sewn together with a synergy that stretches the imagination beyond the horizon of hedonism into the realms of free fall fantasy festooned with striking imagery blanched by the foreboding imagery of Arthur returning home to confront the traitor, Mordred.
Lurking between the lines, the words, the legend, lies nestled in the spirit of a time long gone when knights in shining armour rode forth to fight injustice, when word was honour and faithfulness meant everything.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s mastery over the Old English alliterative metre is the canvas on which he has deftly drawn and coloured with passion pinioned to the senses, The Fall of Arthur. This is why I find the poem so embracing, so complete in form.
How Arthur returned at morn and by Sir Gwain’s hand won the passage of the sea. Excerpt p.45-46
Wolves were howling on the wood’s border;
the windy trees wailed and trembled,
and wandering leaves wild and homeless
drifted dying in the deep hollows
Dark lay the road through dank valleys
among the mounting hills mist-encircled
to the walls of Wales in the west frowning
brownfaced and bare. To the black mountains
horsemen hastened, on the houseless stones
no track leaving. Tumbling waters
from the fells falling, foaming in darkness,
they heard as they passed to the hidden kingdom.
Night fell behind. The noise of hooves
was lost in silence in a land of shadow.
This reminds me of my days in school when learning poems by heart was the only way to survive the gruelling encounters with the English teacher who insisted elocution was the key to unlocking the beauty of poetry. Looking back, he was right. The art of recitation has been lost to our hand held electronic devices…a disconnection from this wonderful art form. However, in this latest publication of Tolkien one is drawn, once again, into the captivating world of poetry with its embroidered words winding their way through stanzas and pausing at commas.
I have read a number of reviews of The Fall of Arthur and they have struck me as too clinical, too explanatory…dry…attempting to correlate its lyricism to other literary works of Tolkien. What a pity. Why can’t readers simply move with the metre, embrace the narration and rejoice in the imagery. For this is what poetry and poetry reading is all about. One doesn’t need to explain the words, to dissect and bisect the poet’s thoughts. One has only to feel it through a process of osmosis, thereby joining in the journey that the poet takes, becoming a fellow traveller.
Unfortunately in this day and age spoon feeding is essential in conveying the lyricism of life. Poems now appear in the electronic media accompanied by photographs. The photographs speak for the words and thus the message being conveyed by the poet is crippled without them. Memorising and reciting poems have all but disappeared into the labyrinth of bytes and megabytes. Many among us are at loss for verse when reminded of a poem we once knew and therefore we seek refuge in the hand held electronic device for an answer to what is elementary wisdom.
And so dear readers get your copy of The Fall of Arthur and hit the road. Stop where a river flows or mountains reach out to the sky, sit down under a tree and read the poem. Read it aloud and feel the rhythm of the ages rise from the font. Read about an era of truth twisted by fate and valour vanquished in vain. You don’t need photographs or films to tell you where you’re at or how to feel, for the words will be your guide down winding pathways strewn with events that led to the fall of Arthur.
Christopher Tolkien is his father’s son, a son who, with a missionary zeal, has faithfully edited and published many of Tolkien’s works, posthumously. Though The Fall of Arthur is presumably the last of unpublished manuscripts of Tolkien one hopes that there is, tucked away, somewhere between the sheets of scribbled notes, another poem waiting with bated breath to see the light of day.
Photograph of carvings at Hampi, Karnataka, India/text © Mark Ulyseas