The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien
Considering that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was, by far, the best-selling writer of the 20th century, it is puzzling that his poetry is not usually given a more serious look. Perhaps the reason Tolkien’s poetic works are very often skipped over when considering the modernist and postmodernist movements is that he doesn’t altogether fit in with them, despite being of that era. In fact, Tolkien went very much into the opposite direction of most of the poets who wrote during his time. Despite being influenced directly by the same horrors as his contemporaries, both the form and content of Tolkien’s poetry were profoundly different from what is considered modern or postmodern. At a time when Ezra Pound was saying, “Make it new!” by throwing away the old conventions of traditional poetry, and folks like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs were being sold to the public as the poetic voice of the era, Tolkien was working in a completely different school of art. On the other side of things, some traditionalist poets truly were stuck in old conventions of strict meter and were far too obsessed by self-imposed poetic rules. Tolkien, however, built upon these devices and conventions, revitalizing poetry and tying his work, in a very new way, into the beautiful tradition dating all the way back to Beowulf and the ancient origins of poetry itself, and this is especially evident in his alliterative poem, The Fall of Arthur.
The modernist/postmodernist idea of breaking with artistic traditions is usually explained, at least in good part, with reference to the horrors of the World Wars. World War 1 alone was called “the war to end all wars” and the 20th century was certainly stained very early on by such a horrible tragedy. “For artists and many others in Europe, it was a time of profound disillusion with the values on which a whole civilization had been founded” and this disillusionment is typically what is given as the reason for why so many poets and artists of the post the World-Wars era turned away from artistic traditions so fervently (“Brief Guide to Modernism”).
However, Tolkein was born January 3rd, 1892, and was 22 years old when World War 1 began. He enlisted in the British Army and was an officer during the war, taking part “in two major offensives against the Germans. On his first day in the trenches, his battalion was part of an unsuccessful attack on Orvillers, a village held by the Germans. The barbed wire had not been cut and many men in his battalion were killed by machine gun fire. His battalion also took part in the attack on the Schwaben Redoubt (a strongly fortified German position) at the end of September, 1916.” (“JRR Tolkien and World War I”). Tolkien experienced the horror of war first hand. While folks like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs did drugs and travelled comfortably everywhere from Morocco to the Amazon, Tolkien was writing poems and inventing languages under fire in the trenches (“William S. Burroughs”).
That doesn’t mean that Tolkien was completely unaffected by his time in the war. He wrote in the preface to Lord of the Rings, “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.” Could you imagine all of your close friends being dead by the time you were 26? And yet, it was the hip, privileged self-promoters like Ginsberg and Burroughs, rich boys from Columbia and Harvard, who posed as the “Beat” poets, worn down and disillusioned by the horrors of society. Perhaps Tolkien was just made of tougher stuff, but at the same time as being profoundly disturbed and horrified by the War, it also “gave him an appreciation for the virtues of ordinary people, for friendships, and for what beauty he could find amidst ugliness” (“JRR Tolkien and World War I”).
In his search for those ordinary virtues and beauty amidst ugliness, Tolkien delved back into the past where he found refuge in legends of Beowulf, King Arthur, and the like. He did not believe, as many others did, that “the values on which a whole civilization had been founded” were flawed. Tolkien believed that they had been lost, or strayed away from, and he wanted to revive them through the creation of his own legends, but also with the revitalization of old ones. The Fall of Arthur is a perfect example of this creative impulse. According to biographer Humphrey Carpenter, “Arthurian stories were unsatisfactory to him as myth in that they explicitly contained the Christian religion. In his own Arthurian poem he did not touch on the Grail but began an individual rendering of the Morte d’Arthur, in which the king and Gawain go to war in ‘Saxon lands’ but are summoned home by news of Mordred’s treachery” (Carpenter, 1977). This was the essence of Tolkien’s philosophy of writing: he did not want to create symbolic works or allegories, but stories that stood on their own. He wanted fantasy with the richness and depth of reality, so that the story could pull you in and get you to relate to the characters as if they were real people undergoing real challenges.
Tolkien explicitly spelled out this distinction between narrative and allegory by saying, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Almost in anticipation of later movements, such as conceptual poetry, which is “self-described by its practitioners as an act of ‘uncreative writing.’ In conceptual poetry, appropriation is often used as a means to create new work, focused more on the initial concept rather than the final product of the poem,” Tolkien was, conversely, entirely focused on the final product of his poem or story (“Guide to Conceptual Poetry”). Because many of his characters and stories “ring true” to many readers, much can be learned from, say, the strength and courage of Arthur, or the loyalty and wits of Guinevere, but Tolkien never sought out to write with the purpose of conveying some specific concept or allegorical worldview to an audience. All he wanted was a great story or poem, and the construction of such a thing takes marvellous skill.
That skill and mastery of language shows through especially in The Fall of Arthur. In its musical, alliterative meter, we can see an appreciation for history that dates all the way back to Beowulf, and yet is innovated and reinvented for modern English. As R. W. Chambers, Professor of English at London University and mentor of Tolkien said about the poem, “great stuff — really heroic, quite apart from its value as showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English” (Carpenter, 1977). Carpenter puts it best when he says, “In adapting and modernising this ancient poetic style for his own purposes, Tolkien was achieving something quite unusual and remarkably powerful. It is a pity that he wrote — or at least published — so little alliterative verse, for it suited his imagination far more than did modern rhyme schemes” (Carpenter, 1977). It suited Tolkien’s imagination particularly well because Tolkien was in the business of creating stories that could be valued in and of themselves, which took some significant exposition. Alliterative verse, more so than traditional forms, allowed for Tolkien to move away from strict repetitive meter, and branch into freely shifting rhythmic musicality. “In alliterative, accentual verse, the rhythm is much freer, for what really matters is the number of strong beats per line: in Beowulf, four beats per line. The weak syllables can be arranged as sense and art dictate” (“Tolkien and Alliterative Poetry”). Tolkien was more true to the spirit of Ezra Pound’s “Make it new!” statement than any other poet of his time. Instead of throwing away the old devices, he innovated them for his own purposes. Apart from rhythm, Tolkien also utilized an expanded vocabulary with words such as “plenilune” and “argent” because, according to Tolkien, “they are beautiful words before they are understood [. . .] and how is one to know them till one does meet them?” He didn’t just throw away everything we knew about poetry — he actually made it new by improving and expanding it.
Many first-time or undiscerning readers of accentual alliterative verse have a hard time finding the rhythm. However, that is because this sort of poetry, in keeping with the ancient Muse’s tradition, is meant “to be read aloud, and it is best appreciated when its interwoven sounds resonate in the ear. Instead of using rhymes, it uses ‘alliteration’ – repetition of the initial consonants of words – as one of its most basic building blocks. The repeated consonants tie the poetic lines together, and create an effect which can seem majestic, inevitable, savage – many different things” (“Tolkien and Alliterative Poetry”). This repetition of consonants and vowel sounds creates a strong beat for each line, despite the beats being set in different places and the unaccented syllables being variable. This can be seen from the very start of The Fall of Arthur:
Arthur eastward in arms proposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.
Tolkien’s son, Christopher, notes in the foreward of The Fall of Arthur, “The astonishing amount of surviving draft material for The Fall of Arthur reveals the difficulties inherent in such use of the metrical form that my father found so profoundly congenial, and his exacting and perfectionist concern to find, in an intricate and subtle narrative, fitting expression within the patterns of rhythm and alliteration of the Old English verse-form.” Christopher goes on later to say, “The amount of time and thought that my father expended on this work is astounding.” Like the narratives themselves, Tolkien wanted the poems to be enjoyable to read. Ursula Le Guin puts it this way, “His verse often shows extraordinary intricacy of meter, alliteration, and rhyme, yet is easy and fluent [to read]” (“Lord of the Rings Meditations on Middle-earth Exerpt”). Tolkien took great care in constructing stories that were enjoyable to read, realistic, meaningful without interpretation, and emotionally compelling because, according to Tolkien, this provided an artistic escape for readers which was, perhaps, what readers needed most after the horrors of the World Wars that Tolkien and his generation lived through.
Escapism is often used as a dirty word to criticize authors of fantasy like Tolkien. It’s seen as child-like or irresponsible for a writer to pander to their audience and provide them escapes from the horrors of the world. Tolkien would reply to those critics by saying, “the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.” Tolkien believed that his fantasy narratives could provide crucial spiritual sustenance for people who needed it, and that they were not primarily for children because “fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”). Tolkien and his generation needed these more than ever, and while the privileged poets of America like Burroughs and Ginsberg waxed neurotic and wallowed in their rapidly disintegrating sense of identity and values, Tolkien was grounded in the virtues of a legendary past, partly of his own creation, and was willing to forge forward with offerings of “Recovery, Escape, Consolation,” and I would add above all things: Hope. Not only did he do this through timeless narratives like The Fall of Arthur, but he did it with unmatched skill in his diction and the arrangement of his words, which has sealed his place in history as a poet and a writer who will be read again and again for centuries to come, long after posers like Ginsberg have been forgotten.
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