The Fall of Arthur

The Fall of Arthur, by J. R. R. Tolkien

(Question for you at the end, so be sure to read it!)

J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have had a penchant for unfinished projects, and this is one of them, newly edited and annotated by the untiring pen of Christopher Tolkien.  Looking at the number of amazing unfinished stories and poems he wrote, I think we should all be grateful to C. S. Lewis for pressuring him to finish the Lord of the Rings.

This  is an incredible thing--Tolkien was writing the story of King Arthur's doom, the final tale of Mordred's treachery and the battle at Camlann--and he was doing it in the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form that Beowulf was written in,, only of course in (somewhat) modern English.  I'm sure he could have written it IN Old English, but luckily he didn't go quite that far.  The whole thing  really does read (to my untrained eye) about as much like the real thing as modern English can be.  It's got all the atmosphere and flavor.  It's pretty stunning really.

There are five cantos.  In I,  Arthur and Gawain to go war in Europe, and then start home when they hear of Mordred's treachery.  The second canto has Mordred preparing for war and pressuring Guinever to marry him, but she escapes.   Canto III is rather long and tells Lancelot's story.  IV and V show Arthur's return and preparations for war.   Tolkien's choices of the details of the Arthur legend to use are very interesting--his portrayal of Guinever's character, for example, and other elements of the story.

Christopher Tolkien adds some essays to the poem: one about the story of Arthur and how various writers treated it, another about the many notes on the poem Tolkien left behind and how it connects to other poetry he wrote. I will confess to skimming these--the Arthurian information was familiar and I'm not enough of a Tolkien devotee to want to know every detail--but they are there for those who do want them.

If  you are a Tolkien fan, or have an interest in Arthurian legend, I think this is a must-read.  It's very short--disappointingly so--so it's not difficult, though close attention  is necessary.

Reading the poem made me want to re-read some of the other Arthurian material I have around the house, which is actually something I keep thinking about and yet not getting to.  In college, I audited a  medieval literature course that mostly focused on these stories  (it was taught by my favorite professor!), and I really enjoyed it.   Anyway, I was sort of thinking that maybe if I did a reading challenge, it would serve as motivation for me and maybe be fun for other people too.  So, I'm taking a poll: is anyone interested in an Arthurian literature reading challenge?  I would make it pretty small and laidback, but I would want the main focus to be on the old stories, Malory or Chretien de Troyes and so on.  I would allow for modern retellings, too, but they would be limited.  Please tell me what you think!


  1. I have been meaning to read more Chr├ętien for years. That would be nice if you would provide the excuse.

  2. I have Malory on the radar for the beginning of the year so a challenge would work perfectly! I also have some Howard Pyle and T.H. White I'm looking at but they might not qualify as old enough. In any case, great idea!

  3. 1) I didn't know there was a new Christopher-edited work around! Although I always feel suspicious about his ways of making more and more money on stuff his dad probably didn't want to publish, I'll definitely read it, so thanks for writing about it!
    2) I'm sooooo in for the challenge if you decide to do it! The Mists of Avalon was my favourite childhood version of Arthur stories, and I've tried The Once and Future King, but was not so impressed. This year I read Mabinogion, which may be the oldest source of Arthurian tales, and I liked it a lot! I'd love to dig into different retellings of the legends, and I have been meaning to read some of them (Malory, for example) for a long time!

  4. I would probably do this if Howard Pyle would suffice. Otherwise, I may be open to suggestion.

  5. Excellent! I'll start putting it together.

    Ekaterina, I don't know about all of TOFK, but I'm reading the Sword in the Stone to my kids right now, and I think it's so much a product of its time and place that it can be hard to get for us non-Edwardian-English people. I keep having to stop and explain the jokes.

    Ruth, I will allow Howard Pyle as long as you also read at least one Chretien tale. You would like some of his stuff, I bet. Or you could get ambitious and read The Quest for the Holy Grail, which is chock-full of oddball pseudo-Biblical stories, and I'll tell you the story of how I read it in college and was the only person in class who knew which bits weren't actually in the Bible, and was thus primed to get hooked on WTM when I read it 10 years later...

  6. Also, Chretien is pretty easy and the stories aren't that long--what we would call novella-length.

  7. I will write up a list of sources and suggestions, of course. :)

  8. Jean, I haven't read much of the original sources. Do you think they are easy enough to keep Sujin's interest? AFAIK she doesn't know anything about Arthurian legend, so it might be fun for both of us to do it together. Or read out loud...

  9. I would recommend that you read Roger Lancelyn Green's "King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table," which is a wonderful book and based on Malory's version. If you want something a little more difficult, Andrew Lang's "King Arthur" is also very good and chock-full of varlets and suchlike language that makes it harder to follow. Both would be great read-alouds that Yuna would probably like too.

    You should read a modern translation of Malory, which is easy enough for you but very long and not quite G-rated. (Sir Thomas Malory was in jail when he wrote his compilation of all the Arthur stories he could think of, and it's called the Morte D'Arthur.) None of the really old stories are easy enough for a kid under 13.

  10. I've just checked here ( and what I read was not The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, but The Merlin series by Mary Stewart. I guess I was just confused by Marion / Mary, ooops. So, sorry, Mary Stuart is the one I totally loved. But I guess now I have to read Marion Bradley for justice's sake!

  11. IMO Mary Stewart is better! I think you can skip MZB, unless you really want to read it. Mists of Avalon kind of annoys me, so I am biased. It's very much a "Christianity = Evil Patriarchy Bad and Paganism = Benevolent Matriarchy Good" kind of a book, and I'm just not convinced.

  12. I had no idea there was another (unfinished) Tolkien out! I'll have to add this to my list; I really enjoyed the selections from Malory I read in college.


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