Tolkien’s Take On King Arthur

FallOfArthurWhenever I see ‘new Tolkien’ I get a mixture of utter joy tempered with the sour taste of cynicism.  As literary executors for the master of Middle Earth, the Tolkien family have done an extraordinary job over the years: reconstructing JRRs notes; revealing his deeper musings and presenting his scholarly texts to a solid fan base of millions.

The output has been consistent and is generally regarded to be of good quality, though never earning a tenth of the adoration his beloved books garnered him in life.  Here we are now, some 40 years after his death, and a ‘brand new’ Tolkien book is being released.  On the one hand, I can’t help feeling that a literary icon is being milked for all his worth, but on the other hand King Arthur’s story is an absolute cornerstone of British heroic and fantastic fiction – Who wouldn’t want to read Tolkien’s version of it?

J.R.R. Tolkien… wrote The Fall of Arthur in the 1930s before he started work on The Hobbit. Its existence was revealed in the 1970s, and its publication has been rumoured for some years, but it had been overtaken by other new posthumous releases such as The Children of Húrin and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and worked on the translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Fall of Arthur is Tolkien’s own reimagining of a tale that is most-commonly associated with Thomas Mallory and in an alliterative verse format used in Anglo-Saxon epic poetry.

Shaun Gunner, Chairman of the Tolkien Society, said, “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.”

Shaun added, “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.”

So, not just Arthurian legend, but written as an epic poem?  Have we read that right?  Experiencing Sir Gawain And The Green Knight at university I can comfortably say that the form can work brilliantly for legendary stories like Arthur’s.  Epic poetry is the backbone of the oral tradition, and Tolkien was both an expert linguist and a master story-teller.  If anyone could get this right it would be him.  Personally, I’m going to seek out an audio-book version of this, to get the full effect.

What do you think of Tolkien’s posthumous work?  Have you read his takes on Sir Gawain or Beowulf?  How did you find them, and are you excited by this new release?

Reporter: Dion Winton-Polak
Source: The Tolkien Society

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2 comments

  1. pythiasparlour /

    This could be very interesting indeed- personally, I adore the worlds and characters that Tolkien creates, but as he’s really more of a linguist than a writer, I’m not a huge fan of his actual prose. I’m going to check this out regardless though, as it really is an unusual combination!

    • Yeah, I got excited despite myself. Mind you, I still haven’t tracked down the audio version of Heaney’s Beowulf translation that I promised myself about 12 years ago. Dog chasing cars, I tell you!

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