Monday, May 27, 2013

“The Fall of Arthur”

AN EXCERPT from an unfinished poem The Fall of Arthur, by J.R.R. Tolkien:
Foes before them, / flames behind them,
ever east and onward / eager rode they,
and folk fled them / as the face of God,
til earth was empty, / and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them / in the endless hills,
save bird and beast / baleful haunting
the lonely lands. / Thus at last came they
to Mirkwood's margin / under mountain-shadows:
waste was behind them, / walls before them;
on the houseless hills / ever higher mounting
vast, unvanquished, / lay the veiled forest.
Professor Tolkien, in the 1930s, attempted to write a grand narrative poem about Arthur, King of the Britons, hoping to give the English a mythic national epic, in the manner of the Illiad, the Aeneas, el Cid, the Nibelungenlied, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. He attempted to write a poem, using sparse Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, which stripped the legends of Arthur of much of their Continental baggage, while focusing on the Englishness of his hero.

It ought to be noted that interest in such national epics was common during the Romantic era. While Romanticism offered a refreshing, heart-felt point of view against the slavery and industrial ugliness of the Enlightenment, this one-sided ideology ultimately proved itself to also be poison, with the Fascist regimes which developed out of that era. Perhaps for this reason, despite its worthiness, Tolkien abandoned The Fall of Arthur, and concentrated his work on The Lord of the Rings, which has a rather different tone, although we can see many parallels in the works.

Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis, wrote in First and Second Things about how the National Socialists sucked the joy out of the old myths, by turning a minor villain into a national hero. It would be like a Postmodernist Arthur which makes Mordred the hero, and which teaches the wrong lesson of hatred of the good.

Like the old German epics, The Fall of Arthur is a tale that ends in inevitable tragedy for its hero, who though is on the side of right, is ultimately defeated, as the title of the work tells us.

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