24 May 2013

The Fall of Arthur: A Review

I have remarked here on occasion of my love of the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that I first discovered as a young boy.  Still today I take delight in these stories and am always eager for more, particularly as regards the quest to discover the man who lay at the foundation of the legends.

When some weeks back I first learned of the coming release of an alliterative verse poem by J.R.R. Tolkien titled The Fall of the Arthur, excitement grew in my heart because I knew the brilliance of his version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Tolkien was a master at taking ancient metrical patterns and making modern English fit to them.

His The Fall of Arthur is sadly incomplete, despite the urging of R. W. Chambers who, on reading the incomplete poem wrote to Tolkien, urging him, "You simply must finish it."  How I wish he had finished it!

The poem itself consists of but five cantos and covers the betrayal of Mordred, Lancelot and Guinevere, and the circumstances that would lead to the terrible Battle of Camlann, though The Fall of Arthur ends rather abruptly, too abruptly and at a moment where it lifts the heart ever more into its tale.

It seems to me that the poem is best read aloud, but even when read quietly one cannot help but feel as though he were in the presence of a great hall, sitting round a fire with a mug of ale, enraptured at the tale of wandering minstrel telling of the glorious and tragic days of the King whom Tolkien calls the "lord of legions,     light in darkness (I.106-110).

Over the last several days a discussion has begun on the list serve Arthurnet about what it is that still brings such great passion to the Arthurian legends.  The Fall of Arthur continues in this great tradition and presents us with a thoroughly Christian Arthur who carries as his emblem "a white lady in holy arms / a babe bearing born of maiden" (IV.127-128).  But, as in other tales, Arthur is not simply a Christian monarch, but a representation of Christ, another Christ, if you will, a true Christian, who is "a king of peace kingdom wielding / in a holy realm besides Heaven's gateway" (V.10-11).

When King Arthur returns to confront Mordred and set right his treachery, "he would pass in peace pardon granting / the hurt healing and the whole guiding, / to Britain the blessed bliss recalling" (V.44-45).    Here I cannot help but recall Aragorn, in whose hands are healing.  What is more, Tolkien speaks of those who "their king betraying, Christ forsaking" (V.16).

It is, I think, this hope of a kingdom restored, of mercy given and justice done, that elicits such passion even these many centuries later, centered on the person of Arthur who is betrayed by those dearest to him but who does not betray them in return.

Hope is a common theme in the writings of Tolkien and it is not absent in this text.  In the middle of the poem we find these moving lines:
Ever times would change and tides alter,
and o'er hills of morning hope come striding
to awake the weary, while the world lasted (III.218-220).
Are not we weary who awaken each day to look for the coming of hope, for the coming of Christ?

Before I am called out on this interpretation, I know that Tolkien great dislike allegory in all of its manifestations where he could detect it, but he did allow for, and even encourage, what he termed applicability.  Consideration my interpretation here not as allegory, but as applicability, spurred on by a famous mosaic of Rex Arturus in the Cathedral of Otranto, in which Arthur is shown riding on a goat in the scenes of the Fall of Man:

I have yet to find an adequate explanation for the curious placing of this mosaic, though I do have my own thoughts (that Arthur is here depicted as a Christ-figure), which I first began to put down on paper when I was in the seminary.  It is a topic to which I shall have to return when I am soon in Italy, after visiting this Cathedral and seeing the mosaic with my own eyes.  And while I'm at it, I must also see St. Galgano's sword in the stone.

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