Tolkien's new book on King Arthur

J. R. R. Tolkien has a new book coming out next year, a 200-page narrative poem about King Arthur.  From the British newspaper The Guardian:

It’s the story of a dark world, of knights and princesses, swords and sorcery, quests and betrayals, and it’s from the pen of JRR Tolkien. But this is not Middle-earth, it’s ancient Britain, and this previously unpublished work from the Lord of the Rings author stars not Aragorn, Gandalf and Frodo, but King Arthur.

HarperCollins has announced the acquisition of Tolkien’s never-before-published poem The Fall of Arthur, which will be released for the first time next May. Running to more than 200 pages, Tolkien’s story was inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory’s tales of King Arthur, and is told in narrative verse. Set in the last days of Arthur’s reign, the poem sees Tolkien tackling the old king’s battle to save his country from Mordred the usurper, opening as Arthur and Gawain go to war.

“It is well known that a prominent strain in my father’s poetry was his abiding love for the old ‘Northern’ alliterative verse,” said Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, who has edited the book and provided commentary. “In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he displayed his skill in his rendering of the alliterative verse of the 14th century into the same metre in modern English. To these is now added his unfinished and unpublished poem The Fall of Arthur.”

Tolkien began writing The Fall of Arthur a few years before he wrote The Hobbit. Its publication is the latest in a series of “new” releases from the author, including The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún in 2009 and the unfinished Middle-Earth story The Children of Húrin in 2007.

For the book’s editor at HarperCollins, Chris Smith, the news that Tolkien had finished work on The Fall of Arthur was an unexpected surprise. “Though its title had been known from Humphrey Carpenter’s Biography and JRR Tolkien’s own letters, we never supposed that it would see the light of day,” he said.

He described the previously unpublished work as “extraordinary”, saying that it “breathes new life into one of our greatest heroes, liberating him from the clutches of Malory’s romantic treatment, and revealing Arthur as a complex, all-too human individual who must rise above the greatest of betrayals to liberate his beloved kingdom”.

He added that, “though Tolkien’s use of alliterative verse will mean the poem is of more specialised interest than his other work, we would like to think that the subject of King Arthur is one that will resonate with readers of his more celebrated works.”

“In The Fall of Arthur we find themes of lost identity, betrayal, and sacrifice for greater glory, which have their echoes in other works, such as The Lord of the Rings, but anyone looking for closer connections will find no wizards or magic swords. In this respect The Fall of Arthur is closer to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.” . . .

John Garth, author of Tolkien and the Great War, said that from the fragments he had seen, the omens looked good. “In The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien depicts Arthur going off to fight the Saxons in Mirkwood – not the Mirkwood of Middle-earth, but the great German forests. Whether it’s as good as the best by Tolkien will have to wait on the full publication, but snippets published so far are encouraging, showing him in darkly evocative mode writing about one of the great English villains, Mordred: ‘His bed was barren; there black phantoms/ of desire unsated and savage fury/ in his brain brooded till bleak morning.’

“Any addition to the Arthurian tradition by a major author is welcome; this one is also exciting because of what it adds to our picture of a great modern imagination.”

via ‘New’ JRR Tolkien epic due out next year | Books | guardian.co.uk.

I’m excited about this.  I’m even excited about the narrative verse, which uses the alliterative patterns of very early English poetry, as in Beowulf.  Here are the opening lines of The Fall of Arthur, as quoted in the Guardian:

“Arthur eastward in arms purposed

his war to wage on the wild marches,

over seas sailing to Saxon lands,

from the Roman realm ruin defending.

Thus the tides of time to turn backward

and the heathen to humble, his hope urged him,

that with harrying ships they should hunt no more

on the shining shores and shallow waters

of South Britain, booty seeking.”

Can you handle a story told in this kind of poetry?

Whatever happened to narrative verse?  Other cultures and other times have loved stories told in poetry (think Chaucer, Milton, Longfellow).  Have we just become too prosaic?  Do you think Tolkien can bring back the form?

HT:  Jackie

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    Prosaic? We’ve become too electronic.

  • Pete

    Prosaic? We’ve become too electronic.

  • Eric Brown

    I think this sounds incredibly interesting. Also, as a side note, think how prolific Christopher Tolkien has been in editing and producing his father’s works. His tasks have been monumental as well.

  • Eric Brown

    I think this sounds incredibly interesting. Also, as a side note, think how prolific Christopher Tolkien has been in editing and producing his father’s works. His tasks have been monumental as well.

  • Orianna Laun

    I have taught English at the middle- and high-school levels and have often heard, “I don’t like poetry.” There are many factors for this– it’s esoteric nature, some of the poem choices in the textbooks, the fact that it takes a little more effort to digest. In that sense, it would be hard for the narrative poem to make a comeback.
    As to could I handle it, I would be interested in reading this one. I have made it through John Niehardt’s Cycle of the West (I highly recommend this along with his other poems and short stories), so I think I could handle this. Although I may be talking and thinking in iambic pentameter dor a couple days afterward!

  • Orianna Laun

    I have taught English at the middle- and high-school levels and have often heard, “I don’t like poetry.” There are many factors for this– it’s esoteric nature, some of the poem choices in the textbooks, the fact that it takes a little more effort to digest. In that sense, it would be hard for the narrative poem to make a comeback.
    As to could I handle it, I would be interested in reading this one. I have made it through John Niehardt’s Cycle of the West (I highly recommend this along with his other poems and short stories), so I think I could handle this. Although I may be talking and thinking in iambic pentameter dor a couple days afterward!

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    It was a sorrow of C.S. Lewis’ life that narrative poetry went out of fashion just about the time he was achieving his full powers as a writer. His lifelong dream had been, not to be a great apologist or novelist, but a great narrative poet. He laid a lot of the blame at the feet of T.S. Eliot.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    It was a sorrow of C.S. Lewis’ life that narrative poetry went out of fashion just about the time he was achieving his full powers as a writer. His lifelong dream had been, not to be a great apologist or novelist, but a great narrative poet. He laid a lot of the blame at the feet of T.S. Eliot.

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    It saddened me that I was required to teach the Illiad in the form of a novel. :(

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    It saddened me that I was required to teach the Illiad in the form of a novel. :(

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I would ask Tolkien about this, but he’s a bit on the dead side for that. :D

    That being said, this topic makes me want to dig out Dante, Chaucer, and Beowulf again, take a fresh look at their work.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I would ask Tolkien about this, but he’s a bit on the dead side for that. :D

    That being said, this topic makes me want to dig out Dante, Chaucer, and Beowulf again, take a fresh look at their work.

  • Kimberly

    This sounds very interesting! I made it through Spencer’s “The Fairy Queene”, so Tolkien should be manageable. And who knows…maybe it will finally get me to read TLOTR novels.

  • Kimberly

    This sounds very interesting! I made it through Spencer’s “The Fairy Queene”, so Tolkien should be manageable. And who knows…maybe it will finally get me to read TLOTR novels.

  • http://www.princetonlutherans.com longhorn

    Excited! One of my favorite reading experiences EVER was William Morris’ long narrative poem “Sigurd the Volsung,” read on the bus going to and from junior college my freshman year.

  • http://www.princetonlutherans.com longhorn

    Excited! One of my favorite reading experiences EVER was William Morris’ long narrative poem “Sigurd the Volsung,” read on the bus going to and from junior college my freshman year.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m not sure we’ve really given up on poetry as such as a culture. I just think our preference now is for poetry set to music.

    Of course, there are tighter limits on the length of such poems/lyrics than there were on your narrative verses of yore. Very few people will sit down and listen to a 30-minute song.

    Still, especially in the world of hip-hop, songs are quite literally nothing but poetry set to music.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m not sure we’ve really given up on poetry as such as a culture. I just think our preference now is for poetry set to music.

    Of course, there are tighter limits on the length of such poems/lyrics than there were on your narrative verses of yore. Very few people will sit down and listen to a 30-minute song.

    Still, especially in the world of hip-hop, songs are quite literally nothing but poetry set to music.

  • http://www.grailquestbooks.com Josh Radke

    I am equally elated and concerned. Poetry is a form I have always struggled with. It has taken Lewis’s “A Preface to Paradise Lost” to help me take another look at some of our most important literature in epic verse. But that doesn’t mean I wholly embrace the form. So often I feel like I’m only getting half the story because the poet is as much (or more) caught up in metre–which requires specific word choice and order–than being concerned the story is being delivered.

    But at the same time… it’s Arthur… it’s Arthur and Tolkien. Thus the quest must be endured.

  • http://www.grailquestbooks.com Josh Radke

    I am equally elated and concerned. Poetry is a form I have always struggled with. It has taken Lewis’s “A Preface to Paradise Lost” to help me take another look at some of our most important literature in epic verse. But that doesn’t mean I wholly embrace the form. So often I feel like I’m only getting half the story because the poet is as much (or more) caught up in metre–which requires specific word choice and order–than being concerned the story is being delivered.

    But at the same time… it’s Arthur… it’s Arthur and Tolkien. Thus the quest must be endured.

  • Tom Hering

    I dunno. I seem to have noticed an explosion of poetry festivals, as well as of local poetry groups and readings, in the last decade or two. So I suspect poetry is pretty big in our culture. But as no one is gaining fame or making a lot of money from it, it’s a phenomenon that’s off the daily news / pop culture radar.

  • Tom Hering

    I dunno. I seem to have noticed an explosion of poetry festivals, as well as of local poetry groups and readings, in the last decade or two. So I suspect poetry is pretty big in our culture. But as no one is gaining fame or making a lot of money from it, it’s a phenomenon that’s off the daily news / pop culture radar.

  • http://mikeerich.blogspot.com Mike Erich The Mad Theologian

    I look forward to seeing this and frankly would welcome the return of the narrative poem. But I doubt that will happen unless the entire atmosphere and approach of modern poetry changes. But I love both Tolkien and the Arthurian legend and I am eager to see how he treated it.

  • http://mikeerich.blogspot.com Mike Erich The Mad Theologian

    I look forward to seeing this and frankly would welcome the return of the narrative poem. But I doubt that will happen unless the entire atmosphere and approach of modern poetry changes. But I love both Tolkien and the Arthurian legend and I am eager to see how he treated it.

  • helen

    Various magazines supposedly containing poetry cross my desk.
    They seldom contain much that I was taught to recognize as poetry.

    Tolkien, I think, will be different.
    He already is, in that there is a lot of poetry in TLOTR series, essential to the narrative.
    Oh, yes, you can skip the poetry to get to the action, but you lose the “whys” of things.

  • helen

    Various magazines supposedly containing poetry cross my desk.
    They seldom contain much that I was taught to recognize as poetry.

    Tolkien, I think, will be different.
    He already is, in that there is a lot of poetry in TLOTR series, essential to the narrative.
    Oh, yes, you can skip the poetry to get to the action, but you lose the “whys” of things.

  • PinonCoffee

    Ahem. “liberating [Arthur] from the clutches of Malory’s romantic treatment”? Malory was deeply chivalrous, but he fought through the END of Hundred Years War, for goodness sake, so unrealistic romanticism is hardly his problem.

    Tolkien’s version also looks delightful, though. We’re really looking forward to it.

  • PinonCoffee

    Ahem. “liberating [Arthur] from the clutches of Malory’s romantic treatment”? Malory was deeply chivalrous, but he fought through the END of Hundred Years War, for goodness sake, so unrealistic romanticism is hardly his problem.

    Tolkien’s version also looks delightful, though. We’re really looking forward to it.

  • Pingback: The Tolkiens « Stories in 5 Minutes

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  • James Hageman

    In a world of too much information, good poetry and literature stand out, like pure music above the din.

  • James Hageman

    In a world of too much information, good poetry and literature stand out, like pure music above the din.

  • http://www.princetonlutherans.com longhorn

    James Hageman @#15:

    I wholeheartedly agree!

  • http://www.princetonlutherans.com longhorn

    James Hageman @#15:

    I wholeheartedly agree!


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