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 But this is not Middle-earth, it’s ancient Britain, and this previously unpublished work from the Lord of the Rings author stars not Aragorn, Gandalf and Frodo, but King Arthur.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 To these is now added his unfinished and unpublished poem The Fall of Arthur.”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He described the previously unpublished work as “extraordinary”, saying that it “breathes new life into one of our greatest heroes, liberating him from the clutches of Malory’s romantic treatment,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

Machiavellian reformer

British author Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies.  This is the second time she won this top award for British fiction.  The first time was for Wolf Hall.  Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell, the consigliere to Henry VIII.   And they are both spellbinding.

Cromwell is typically presented as a Machiavellian villain who made it possible for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn and then cynically framed her and engineered her execution.  Mantel, though, in her thoroughly-researched imagining of those tumultuous times, presents him sympathetically.  Her Cromwell is a man of high ideals who wants a more just society and will do what it takes to make those ideals reality.  Specifically, he is a man of the Reformation, someone with a brilliant intellect who has memorized the Bible, possesses books by Luther that would earn him the death penalty, and who does what he can to rescue Protestants from the torture chambers of Sir Thomas More.  But his effectiveness depends on how well he can work with the volatile, passionate egotist who is the King of England.

Mantel’s books capture the texture and nuances of a complicated time, and her characters are complex, historically-grounded, and utterly believable.  And her handling of the religious issues of 16th century England is especially illuminating.  King Henry breaks from the Pope and makes himself head of the English church because of his marital intrigues, but he retains the medieval Catholic dogmas, inquisitorial spirit, and  hatred of the Lutheran Reformation.  (Did you realize that it wasn’t the Catholics but King Henry after his break with Rome who had Tyndale burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English?)

Anyway, if you like historical fiction written at the very highest, most sophisticated level, and if you enjoy tales of intrigue, you will love Hilary Mantel’s books.  You need to read them in order, so start with Wolf Hall.  Then you will want to read Bring Up the Bodies (which deserves another prize just for its title).  She is reportedly working on another volume to round out the Cromwell trilogy, which may well earn her a third Booker prize.

 

Fired for signing a gay marriage petition

The Maryland state legislature has legalized gay marriage.  Some citizens, though, as is their right, have circulated a petition calling for a referendum on the issue.  So the D.C. area gay newspaper, The Washington Blade, published the names of the people who signed the petition, opening them up to harrassment, intimidation, and punishment.

T. Alan Hurwitz, the president of Gallaudet University, the federally-funded college for the deaf, learned from a Lesbian couple on his faculty that one of his employees, Angela McCaskill, the college’s diversity officer for 24 years, signed the petition.  So he suspended her from her job.

McCaskill, a deaf African-American, insisted she was not anti-gay; rather, she is pro-democracy, thinking that a question like gay marriage needs to be decided by the people as a whole.  She said she signed the petition at her church.

She said, via signing, “I am dismayed that Gallaudet University is still a university of intolerance, a university that manages by intimidation, a university that allows bullying among faculty, staff and students.”

See  Gallaudet worker: ‘Pro-democracy,’ not anti-gay – The Washington Post.

Should citizens be in jeopardy for their employment for exercising their political rights?

What does this case suggest about how opponents of gay marriage will be treated?  Do you believe those who oppose gay marriage, including pastors and churches, will be tolerated once gay marriage becomes the law of the land?

Billy Graham's site removes reference to Mormons as a cult

Evangelicals and Mormons together:

Shortly after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney enjoyed cookies and soft drinks with the Rev. Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham on Thursday at the elder Graham’s mountaintop retreat, a reference to Mormonism as a cult was scrubbed from the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

In a section of the website called Billy Graham’s My Answer there had been the question “What is a cult?”

Answer: “A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith.”

“Some of these groups are Jehovah’s Witnesess, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spritualists, Scientologists, and others,” the site continued.

No longer. On Tuesday, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association confirmed that page has recently been removed from the site.

“Our primary focus at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has always been promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Ken Barun, chief of staff for the association, told CNN in a statement. “We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.”

via Billy Graham site removes Mormon ‘cult’ reference after Romney meeting – CNN Belief Blog – CNN.com Blogs.

What will happen if Romney gets elected president?  Will politically-oriented evangelicals wanting to cozy up to the president welcome Mormons into their big ecumenical tent?

(Note:  Billy Graham is nearly 95 years old.  I doubt that he is supervising his website.  I’m not blaming him for this.  He did, however, seem to endorse Romney after their meeting.  I suspect his organization just scrubbed the website accordingly.)

UPDATE:  Todd points to more considerations here.

So who won this debate?

Thanks for the live blog from last night.  So who won this debate?

Do you think the more aggressive stance from Obama, with the two candidates getting into each other’s space and into each other’s face, paid off?

How will this debate play with undecided voters and the general public?

How Bonhoeffer, his wife, and brother-in-law opposed the Nazis

The New York Review of Books has published a rather remarkable article by Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, a  detailed account of  the ways Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his family opposed the Nazi regime.  You might be familiar with Bonhoeffer’s activities–though I learned a lot I didn’t realize–but the actions of his wife Christine and, especially, his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, who was a major mastermind of the German opposition to Hitler, are not known nearly as well as they deserve to be.  It is a moving story of courage and of faith.

via The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi by Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern | The New York Review of Books.


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