On The Fall of Arthur: Pre-Publication Speculation By a Longtime Student (20.03.13 by Ruth Lacon) - Comments

Part One; Writing the Poem - Sources and Ideas

It now appears certain that we will see the publication of a version of JRR tolkien's poem, The Fall of Arthur, sometime in the very near future. Why on earth, therefore, am I bothering to write about it before then? Well, both I myself and my frequent co-writer Alex Lewis have been intrigued by The Fall of Arthur for well over ten years now. With publication looming, our ideas have become not mere uncheckable speculation, however informed. Instead they do now stand in the position of a proper hypothesis, a statement or set of statements which can be proved or falsified by events. As such I think it is well worth setting out what we think about The Fall of Arthur, before publication. Did we get it right, or not?

Those of my readers who are old enough to remember similar speculation before the publication of The Silmarillion may well be shaking their heads with a wry smile. After all, practically nobody came anywhere near being right on that one.

However, we have carried a torch for The Fall of Arthur as a major and important work, both for itself and for the rest of JRR tolkien's writings, for a long time, and never quite gotten round to publishing our ideas.

In fact, the news of The Fall of Arthur's imminent apearance has delayed the book we were planning to issue this spring on the links between JRR tolkien's Arthurian writings and The Lord of the Rings. So, in the interests of letting people see what we have been up to in this area – and what some of the possibilities with regard to The Fall of Arthur are – we're willing to risk making a few predictions.
Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien

The existence of The Fall of Arthur has been known since the publication of Humphrey Carpenter's biography of JRR Tolkien. Carpenter devoted a paragraph to the work, and uniquely, he actually quoted from it – five-and-a-half lines of alliterative verse. Given the level of interest in The Silmarillion when Carpenter was writing, and the total concentration on the canonical 'Middle-earth' works in the published Letters, to have that much information about anything else in the biography surely indicates that it was of importance to JRR Tolkien himself. It's well worth quoting here what Carpenter had to say about The Fall of Arthur:

'Another major poem from this period has alliteration but no rhyme. This is 'The Fall of Arthur', tolkien's only imaginative incursion into the Arthurian cycle, whose legends had pleased him since childhood, but which he found 'too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive'. Arthurian stories were also 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. The poem was never finished, but it was read and approved by E.V. Gordon, and by R.W. Chambers, Professor of English at London University, who considered it to be 'great stuff - really heroic, quite apart from its value as showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English'. It is also interesting in that it is one of the few pieces of writing in which Tolkien deals explicitly with sexual passion, describing Mordred's unsated lust for Guinever (which is how Tolkien chooses to spell her name):

   His bed was barren; there black phantoms
   of desire unsated and savage fury
   in his brain had brooded till bleak morning

But tolkien's Guinever is not the tragic heroine beloved by most Arthurian writers; instead she is described as

   lady ruthless
   fair as fay-woman and fell-minded
   in the world walking for the woe of men.

Although 'The Fall of Arthur' was abandoned in the mid nineteen-thirties, Tolkien wrote as late as 1955 that he still hoped to finish it; but in the event it remained unfinished.'
(Carpenter 1977; part IV, ch6)  

Starting work on what even then was meant to be a book on the subject, I wrote almost ten years ago that, 'Slight as the evidence for The Fall of Arthur is, we firmly believe that this poem is of interest for much, much more than just the loves of Guinever and Mordred' – and I still firmly believe that. For a start, The Fall of Arthur is highly likely to be of literary interest in itself. Though the general downturn of interest in poetry across the 20th century means that JRR tolkien's work in this genre has never been looked at seriously even by favourable critics, The Fall of Arthur has an excellent chance of being a good poem, telling a strong story in an interesting way. This is backed up by the approval of both EV Gordon and RW Chambers, both among the most important figures in English studies of their day. Their opinions deserve to be taken seriously. We also know that Rayner Unwin – a noted publisher in his own right and a longtime friend of Tolkien – wanted to see The Fall of Arthur printed. In a speech at the formal dinner at the Tolkien Society's Annual General Meeting in Cambridge in 1990, Rayner Unwin said; '...I hope that will be the year, 1992 in fact, when Christopher [Christopher Tolkien] can have his sabbatical and get on with some of the other things he needs to do – I want him to do rather – like the book of his father's long non-Middle-earth poems, “The Fall of Arthur” and the new Volsungasaga and a few other things. These exist and they need to be brushed up and put into a volume...'
(Armstrong 1998, p.8 – Few after-dinner comments can have been quite so tantalising as that 'a few other things'!)

Unfinished', too, need not imply that this is a mere fragment. Firstly, the size of the equally 'unfinished' poems on 'Silmarillion' subjects would suggest that The Fall of Arthur could be substantial in size. Secondly, if Tolkien was willing to let someone like RW Chambers, who was not it seems a particularly close friend, read The Fall of Arthur, and if Chambers was impressed by it, then the piece must have already had a coherent structure which would be clear to a reader. What we can say for certain is that in the opinion of three people whose judgement deserves respect, The Fall of Arthur is a good poem; and for them to think that, in all probability it has to be a sizable and structurally coherent work, even if technically 'unfinished'.

Secondly, we believe that The Fall of Arthur cannot be considered in isolation from tolkien's work on The Silmarillion-tradition and Middle-earth, but must be looked at alongside and intertwined with the better-known works.

Not only is it a virtual certainty that tolkien's work on the Arthurian legends had an impact on LotR, as we will see. It is also very possible that if he returned to The Fall of Arthur after LotR was completed, tolkien's experience in creating 'Middle-earth' as we know and love it had an effect on his presentation of the Arthurian story.

In just this way, the tale of the Fall of Gondolin (the very first piece created all the way back in 1916/17) had an impact on the way Tolkien wrote about Minas Tirith in LotR; and Minas Tirith in turn went on to affect Gondolin in Of Tuor and His Coming To Gondolin, published in Unfinished Tales. Even The Silmarillion is too often forgotten in discussions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, though such things as tolkien's use of medieval sources cannot be properly understood without it.

Fewer writers still bother to look at tolkien's non-Middle-earth work, even though it too is a vital part of the making of the writer who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. One who has considered this area is Professor Tom Shippey, who in 'JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century', devotes his sixth chapter to tolkien's poetry and short fiction. For some reason Shippey did not look at The Fall of Arthur, though he did talk about another then-unpublished piece, tolkien's work on the story of the Volsungs.
Fall of Gondolin by Roger Garland

More generally, everything which we know about tolkien's complex attitude to the Arthurian stories suggests that they could have been an important influence on his work. Looking at the process of writing from a practical angle, authors typically learn just as much (if not indeed more) by what they consider to be other people's mistakes as by their successes. If Tolkien thought that the various medieval and modern writers of Arthuriana had gotten some things right and others drastically wrong, then that example is likely to have influenced what he did in writing his own stories. This is the 'negative influence' which Diana Glyer wrote percipiently about in her recent book on the Inklings, The Company they Keep. It is a hugely underestimated force in any author's creativity. We can see this happening in tolkien's reactions to Shakespeare, as explained by Tom Shippey in the fourth chapter of 'Author of the Century'. On that evidence, Tolkien was quite capable of appreciating works, even liking them, and yet still seeing what, from his point of view, were important mistakes or missed opportunities on the part of the original author – points and ideas that he could then pick up on in his own work if he so wished. Indeed, Tolkien could have seen exactly this 'negative influence' operating within the central medieval Arthurian tradition, in the work of Chrétien de Troyes himself. Chrétien evidently disliked aspects of the stories of Tristan and Lancelot, material he was asked to work on and had to keep in pretty much its original shape. He went on to write Cliges out of that irritation, taking those problems and turning them into possibilities for something new and quite different.

In writing his own version of the Arthurian legends, Tolkien would also have been able to explore ideas which would be important later – to take only one example, wizards as 'serious' rather than comic characters. Without The Fall of Arthur as part of the background, much of The Lord of the Rings can seem unprecedented in tolkien's work, a sudden and sourceless change. Add in the unpublished Arthurian work to what Tolkien had already written, and things will surely take on a different complexion. The very reasons which have led Alex and myself, among others, to campaign for The Fall of Arthur's publication are the ones which make us await it eagerly now.

One of the major points which may or may not be resolved in the imminent publication of The Fall of Arthur is that of dates and numbers of versions. Carpenter ascribes it loosely to the 1920's and early '30's, though shoehorning anything else of any length into the picture Christopher Tolkien has already given us in the HoMe series of his father's work during this time looks difficult. Furthermore, Carpenter's mention of the point that JRR Tolkien wished to finish and publish the poem in 1955 could well reflect a second phase of work, exactly as was the case as with the versified forms of The Silmarillion–tradition tales of Beren and Lúthien and Túrin Turambar. Beyond even that, we suspect there might well be a prose version, or fragments of such, lurking behind certain passages in LotR. It is more obvious in the early versions presented in the relevant HoMe volumes, but even in the published book, there are things which still, to our minds, suggest 'internal borrowing' from The Fall of Arthur. If I am slightly cagey about saying what, forgive me – we still want to publish that book, and our conclusions are therefore 'under wraps' as work-in-progress! What I am happy to put forward as an hypothesis is that there are at least two verse versions of The Fall of Arthur, one from the 1920's and 30's and one from the 1940's and 50's; and there may well be some prose work too, dating from the 'gaps' in the writing of LotR during the Second World War.

With The Fall of Arthur the question of dates is far from academic, because we already know that JRR tolkien's attitudes to the Arthurian legends were changing radically across the timespan in question. The evidence is in the manuscript versions of his famous essay On fairy-stories, as edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (2008). What that remarkable papertrail shows with absolute clarity is that tolkien's attitude was shifting drastically across the period of the late Thirties and the Second World War. In one of the earliest versions, Manuscript A of 1938-9, on p.184 of the 2008 edition, we find the following:

'For while it seems moderately plain that King Arthur was originally an historical character, around whom in legend both other matters or stray bones of history (such as King Alfred's successful resistance against Danes) and of the higher and lower mythologies gathered; it can hardly be denied that Gawain is higher altogether: a mirror of humanity or human courtesy and true virtue. He is descended (if that is the word) from a figure more mythical, waxing and waning to his strength at noon like a sun hero.'

By the time of publication in the Charles Williams memorial volume, however (1947), the familiar text had appeared: 'It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps as such not of great importance) was also put into the Pot, there he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faërie, and even some other stray bones of history (such as Alfred's defence against the Danes), until he emerged as a King of Faërie.' (Tolkien ed Flieger and Anderson 2008, p.46; emphasis mine).

In a struck-through page from Manuscript B (c.1940-3?) in the same group, Tolkien referred to the Arthurian stories as almost a cheat, as waking the desire to visit past time rather than Faerie:

'I must say I hoped or wished that some of the creatures of fairy-story were true – the hope or wish showing the absence of belief. In particular I had a deep longing to see and speak to a Knight of King Arthur's Court, whom I should have regarded much as Peredur did. But that is a special case; for owing to the accident of the deveopment of the Arthurian legend it was and became thus so presented largely as History. It was not quite fair.'
(Tolkien ed Flieger and Anderson 2008, p.235; underlining original.)

Part of the reason for this change of approach from mythic to historic may well be Charles Williams himself, whose Arthurian poetry is soaked in a highly personalised Christian-occult mythology. In order to differentiate himself, JRR Tolkien could most easily shift to a 'historical' Arthur.
Another reason may be a man whom we can increasingly guess is an unsung yet important factor in the story of the Inklings; the philosopher and archaeologist RG Collingwood, collegiate colleague to first JRR Tolkien and latterly CS Lewis. It was almost certainly Collingwood's connections which resulted in JRR Tolkien being invited to deliver the Andrew Lang lecture which turned into On fairy-stories; TM Knox, the man who asked JRR Tolkien to do so, was Collingwood's former pupil and later, his professional executor.

JRR Tolkien was one of only four people thanked by name in Collingwood's half of the first volume in a new Oxford History of Britain, Roman Britain and the English Settlements of 1936. This is important, because it was Collingwood's presentation of a possible 'historical Arthur' there which went on to have a massive impact on Arthurian fiction after the Second World War.  We know that the Inklings were discussing some of Collingwood's ideas – what is recognisably his attitude to Surrealism crops up in the writings of Lewis, Williams and Tolkien, for instance. So it is reasonable to think that his powerful vision of an historical Arthur, comes Brittaniarum, leader of Late Roman cavalry, could have had an impact on Tolkien, just as it would on many later writers (if, that is, it wasn't the other way round... one of the most important reasons for publication of as much of the 'Fall of Arthur papers' as possible).
King Arthur as depicted in a French Late Medieval manuscript

What might these changes tell us about The Fall of Arthur? Its story is likely to be much the same across whatever number of versions there may have been, as I’ll explain later, but the manner in which that story is treated is just as likely to have changed dramatically. We can, I believe, reasonably guess that an earlier, 1920’s and 30’s version of The Fall of Arthur would include a great deal more ‘mythic’ and fantastic material. It might well bear comparison in this respect to Beowulf, where JRR Tolkien famously argued for keeping the ‘monsters’ at the centre as drivers for a ‘mythic’ (spiritual) rather than ‘historic’ (political) reading of the story. It’s unfortunate that Tolkien’s poem dealing precisely with ‘the folkloric aspects of Beowulf’, Sellic Spell, is also still unpublished; it might be very useful as an indicator of how JRR Tolkien was looking at such material. Any version of The Fall of Arthur from the 1940’s or later, by contrast, is likely to be far more ‘historical’ in its treatment of the Arthurian legends and the world in which they were set. This, it should be noted, is also a directly parallel development to JRR Tolkien’s writings in the Silmarillion–tradition across the same period of time, from the confident mythological synthesis of the 1930’s to his search for some sort of historicist and realist approach in the post-Second World War era.

I have mentioned story, and want to turn to that now. From the very beginnings of looking seriously at The Fall of Arthur, it has been obvious to us that its major ‘source’ in terms of story was likely to be a Middle English poem as good as it is little-known, the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Given Tolkien’s known interest in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the alliterative Morte is the obvious ‘next step’. RW Chambers regarded the alliterative Morte as an ‘English epic’ on a par with Beowulf  and Paradise Lost (ALMA p.524) and if the latter comparison would probably have been uncongenial to JRR Tolkien, the former would certainly have piqued his interest. An essay on the poem by one Angus McIntosh appeared in Davis and Wrenn’s ‘English and Medieval Studies Presented to JRR Tolkien’ in 1962. We also know that Tolkien’s friend and collaborator E.V. Gordon (together with E. Vinaver) wrote an article on the alliterative Morte in 1937. Finally and most importantly, there is evidence for JRR Tolkien’s knowledge of this poem in Tolkien and Gordon’s ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ of 1925. The Notes are sometimes a little unclear about which Morte Arthure they mean, but a number of quotes (as at p.91, n. to l.611) make it certain that the alliterative Morte is the one being referred to. Only direct citation will satisfy some, but for me the balance of probability indicates that Tolkien knew the alliterative Morte and knew it well.

The aliterative Morte tells the tale of Arthur’s invasion of the Continent in response to Roman Imperial attempts to bring him under subjection; how he is victorious against first the Governor of Gaul and then the Emperor himself, despite facing a mighty army assembled from every corner of the Empire; but in the moment just before his final triumph as he marches on Rome itself, Arthur discovers that his nephew Mordred and his queen Guinevere, have betrayed him; returning to try to reclaim his kingdom, Arthur not only meets his death but narrowly avoids moral disaster as well. The Alliterative Morte is long, has been academically contentious, and rejoices in some of the most wonderfully obscure vocabulary. It also has a strong plot, good description and unusual amounts of characterisation, and is an engaging, enjoyable tale to read. I can recommend Simon Armitage’s new translation, The Death of King Arthur, by the way, for those understandably put off by the original. Importantly, the Alliterative Morte comes as close as any single creative work does to exemplifying the English tradition of Arthurian thinking and writing, always more ‘historic’ in nature and centred on the King and Gawain, not Lancelot, Tristan and the Grail

The alliterative Morte itself has unclear yet definite connections with another and earlier Middle English poem, Layamon’s version of the Brut,  or versified version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Layamon was writing in a mode far more like Old English alliterative verse than that of the high-medieval revival of the form. His links backward were early recognised, and his probable influence forward on writers who can’t possibly have used the manuscripts we have is a telling warning of the unpredictability of survival (Hamel 1984; ALMA; etc). It would have been far less easy for JRR Tolkien to get hold of a good text of Layamon than of the alliterative Morte; as the Brut had then been published less often, but not impossible. As with the alliterative Morte, some evidence for Tolkien’s interest in Layamon appears in a volume dedicated to him (an essay on Layamon appears in the posthumous Festschrift volume co-edited by by Mary Salu, ‘JRR Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller’ of 1979) while there is direct evidence of knowledge in the notes to ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (Tolkien and Gordon 1925, n.39, p.81, etc). Layamon’s work is far harder to read in the original than the alliterative Morte, but in this area Tolkien would have definitely had an advantage with his knowledge of both Middle and Old English. At times, Layamon’s Arthur cheerfully mixes Celtic and Germanic attributes. In a set-piece ‘arming of the hero’ scene in the run-up to the Battle of Bath, we find that alongside the ‘Welsh’ shield Pridwen (misnamed from Arthur’s ship), spear Ron and sword Caliburne (which were known both to the author of Culhwch and Olwen and to Geoffrey of Monmouth), Arthur is wearing a hauberk of ‘elvish’ make, possibly forged by Weland’s son, and a helmet named Goosewhite which looks suspiciously like Beowulf’s, another product of the Weland workshop. Between them, we think it very likely that the Arthurian section of Layamon’s Brut and the Alliterative Morte Arthure were the major ‘sources’ for JRR Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur.

However, also from the beginning, it was clear that if JRR Tolkien was using the Alliterative Morte as any kind of pattern or ‘source’, he had made at least one radical change. Carpenter gave us that information with his thumbnail description, ‘the King and Gawain go to war in ‘Saxon lands’’. Not the anti-Roman southern-European adventures of the Alliterative Morte, and every other writer from Geoffrey of Monmouth on through Layamon to Malory, but a northern venture. And one, moreover, which answers the criticism of Arthur and the Arthurian legends by one of the greatest writers in the English language. In his The History of Britain, first published in 1670, John Milton was particularly sceptical about Arthur’s Continental conquests, challenging the usual accounts on the grounds not just of historical plausibility but of military sense, saying thatArthur ‘much better had made War in old Saxony, to repress thir flowing hither, than to have won Kingdoms as far as Russia.’ (quoted in Lupack 2005, p.44) Now, Tolkien’s own knowledge of Milton may be debateable, but that of CS Lewis surely is not. And The Fall of Arthur was probably started at the very time when the two men were closest and collaborating most fruitfully, and when Lewis was either working on his own Arthurian narrative poem, Launcelot, or had very recently been doing so. We do tend to forget that both men were First World War veterans, former Army officers with whom such a practical criticism would weigh heavily and to whom it might provide an imaginative challenge, a ‘what if?’ of considerable interest. Therefore, I would suggest, Milton’s criticism could indeed have been a source of this known plot-thread in The Fall of Arthur.

Nowadays we tend to think of ‘historical Arthurs’ as a post-Second World War phenomenon, the province of the likes of Rosemay Sutcliffe, Alfred Duggan and, most recently, Bernard Cornwell. There were however writers taking an interest in this area between the two wars. The poet John Masefield (who was then important and much-read) used the idea in his Midsummer Night and Other Tales in Verse  of 1928. This group of poems were deeply informed by a knowledge of the Welsh Arthuriana which few at the time could have matched. They included, besides works which attempt to create a realistic historical setting for Arthur, others on the theme of Arthur as ship-king which resonate with some of JRR Tolkien’s most persistent yet elusive ideas. If I may borrow a quote: ‘In ‘Badon Hill’ and ‘The Sailing of Hell Race’, Arthur’s prowess as war-leader and sea-captain is established, and Masefield is in his element. In the second of these poems in particular, realistic details of the voyage combine with the supernatural in a manner reminiscent of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, as Arthur visits the three kingdoms of hell.’
(Taylor and Brewer 1983, ch.7, pp 228-9)

As far as academic attitudes go, a less dramatic version of Collingwood’s ideas was taken up by S. Frere and presented as established fact in the next great survey of Roman Britain, ‘Britannia’, in 1967. By then the ‘Camelot Research Committee’ had been in existence for two years, formed by archaeologists and Arthurian enthusiasts to promote archaeological exploration of the sub-Roman period. The high-water-marks came with the dig at South Cadbury hillfort from 1966-70, (given popular publication by Leslie Alcock in his 1972 book, ‘ ‘By South Cadbury that is Camelot’) and the publication of J. Morris’s ‘The Age of Arthur’ in 1973 (the author was a highly respected historian, but the result was closer in spirit to Geoffrey of Monmouth than anyone else). From the later 1970’s onwards this enthusiasm was replaced with an equal and opposite reaction which eventually led to the virtual disappearance of Arthur from academic studies of Britain between the Romans and Anglo-saxons, which we see today (Dumville 1977 and Hutton 2003).

Choosing a ‘more historical’ setting for Arthur and his knights was therefore an option for JRR Tolkien, even in the 1930’s. At the time, too, mythic accounts of Arthur were quite possible. If Tolkien was doing any work at all on The Fall of Arthur after the Second World War, any personal preference for a fifth-sixth century setting, and any wish to present a more ‘realist’, historically grounded view of the legends, would have been reinforced by the academic and literary attitudes which Tolkien would have seen around him.
The Age of Arthur by JonHoggson

So, we have seen what little we do know about The Fall of Arthur right now, and begun to explore what inferences can be drawn from this. I have explained that The Fall of Arthur is, potentially, an important piece for itself, and also for the links between it and Tolkien’s more familiar works. We can I believe say that the poem has likely sources exactly where we should look for them, in medieval English alliterative verse. I have also explained that how JRR Tolkien used this material would have been an individual response to the Arthurian theories of his own lifetime, changing in step wth the changes in his ideas which we can see in his already-published works. In the next section of this article, I go on to look at what we know about which characters Tolkien used, and what else we can guess from our knowledge.

Part Two; The Cast of Characters

Carpenter’s Biography gives us a basic cast-list for The Fall of Arthur; Gawain, Mordred, Guinever, and Arthur himself. However, these characters may not be the people we’re expecting. ‘What everyone knows’ about the Arthurian legends these days comes almost inevitably from Malory, who was working mainly (though not exclusively) with the French tradition. JRR Tolkien was a lot less Francophobe than he liked to make out, as Verlyn Flieger showed in a lecture of singular verve at The Return of the Ring in August 2012. However, all the signs are that as far as characters rather than methods go, his heart was with the English tradition. As Dimitra Fimi has shown us recently, JRR Tolkien also knew the Welsh Arthuriana very well indeed, and among this material, the oldest tale of all, Culhwch and Olwen is of particular interest as being very little affected by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ideas in that other fiction bestseller from an Oxford scholar, The History of the Kings of Britain. We can say for sure that Tolkien knew Culhwch and Olwen , as he cites it in his lectrue English and Welsh, (Tolkien ed. Tolkien 1983, p.181) Further again, if Tolkien was in any sense looking at Arthur through historical lenses – even the soft-focus ones of the Beowulf-poet – then he had options which most of us might not guess at, despite the recent popularity of historical Arthurs.

Gawain has always been associated with the North, with Scotland in general and Galloway in particular. Clear through to Malory, he retained the peculiarity of increasing in strength until noon, then declining afterward – it’s no wonder an older generation of scholars called him a solar hero, a legendary figure debased from a onetime sungod. Gawain’s great medieval characteristic was his courtesy, not mere politeness but an unfailing sense of how to behave properly in dificult situations. In Culhwch and Olwen, Gwalchmai (our Gawain) is called ‘the best of footmen and the best of knights’, a man who never fails in achieving what he sets out to do. In the alliterative Morte, Gawain is the secondary hero of the piece. Through much of the poem, Gawain is a moderate and moderating influence, an icon of knightly virtue – honourable, valiant yet speaking for peace if war is not justified, a picture matching that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In his main personal adventure, Gawain does not kill his chief opponent; instead the two fight to a draw, become friends, and Gawain persuades the other man to switch allegiances and join Arthur’s forces. Toward the end of the poem, Gawain lets excessive revulsion at his brother Mordred’s treachery unbalance him. This is a reaction again paralleling events in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Gawain cannot quite believe his flaws can be forgiven by God let alone man. It is when his own self-image – as honourable knight, as brother – is thrown into question that Gawain loses his moderation. The Morte-poet’s description of Gawain’s anger, pride and folly in battle, and the dreadful cost to his men, found dead around him in the morning, finds echoes in JRR Tolkien’s commentary on the Battle of Maldon, The Homecoming of Beorthnoth Beorthelm’s son. That makes it very likely that something of this will appear in Tolkien’s depiction of Gawain in The Fall of Arthur.

It must be almost certain that Gawain will be accompanied in Tolkien’s poem by the other two men who are among Arthur’s earliest companions in the Welsh traditions, Kay (Kei son of Kenyr) and Bedivere (Bedwyr son of Bedrawt or Pedrawc), as well as two of the most constantly appearing characters in the later medieval romances and chronicles.

Kei was the leader of Arthur’s men and the not-always-courteous steward of his hall, a mighty hero with magical abilities. In Culhwch and Olwen it is said that; ‘He had this talent: nine days and nine nights his breath would last under water, and nine days and nine nights he could go without sleep. No doctor could cure the wound from Kei’s sword. He could be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest when he pleased, while when the rain was heaviest a hand’s span about what was in his hand would be dry by reason of the heat he generated, and when his companions were coldest that would be kindling for the lighting of a fire’.

During Tolkien’s lifetime Kay’s name was taken straightforwardly as the very Roman one of Caius or Gaius, which in a 5th/6th-century context could be taken as associating him with the more Romanised lands in the east of Britain rather than the west or the north. Kay was never simply one of Arthur’s knights, but often an ambiguous figure not all that securely linked to the king. In Culhwch, Arthur and Kay fall out over a casual insult and Kay leaves Arthur’s court. Later on in the medieval period Kay’s reputation declined to the point that he was said to have murdered a son of Arthur. In a number of respects Kay almost parallels Hagen from the Volsung legends, another ambiguous, dangerous character of possible Roman origins with a marked supernatural aspect.

Bedwyr, who was often Kei’s companion – in Culhwch it is said that he ‘never avoided any errand on which Kei went’ – was according to the Welsh Triads, one of the three fairest men in Britain. Bedwyr was renowned as a skilful warrior, better than Drystan son of Tallwch (our Tristran) or Hueil son of Caw (the writer Gildas’s supposed brother); ‘though he was one-handed no warrior in the same field could draw blood more swiftly or defend himself better’ (an idea reminiscent of Tolkien’s character Maedhros son of Fëanor in the Silmarillion tradition, who ‘lived to wield his sword with left hand more deadly than his right had been.’ – QS ch.13). During Tolkien’s lifetime, there was no satisfactory explanantion for Bedwyr’s name in Welsh, and the presence of non-Welsh heroes from as far afield as Ireland and Greece among Arthur’s champions in Culhwch and Olwen led to suggestions that Bedwyr too was an ‘alien’. The once-notable Danish critic Axel Olrik pointed out that Geoffrey of Monmouth called him ‘Beduerus’, which is close to Anglicised transcriptions of the Norse name Bothvar. Its best-known bearer was Bothvar Biarki, the bear shapeshifter at the court of Hrolf Kraki, otherwise known as Hrothulf the treacherous nephew of Hrothgar of Beowulf fame. Given that the Mabiongion’s other puzzling Arthurian piece, The Dream of Rhonabwy, says that there are ‘many men from Norway and Denmark and Greece besides’ among Arthur’s court, the idea of a ‘Dane’ (a man of peninsular origin and Germanic speech whatever his exact tribe) being one of the great heroes is creatively defensible.

Whichever way Tolkien chose to treat Kay/Gaius, ‘Bedivere’ as a man of ‘Danish’ origin could readily be envisaged as a close companion to someone with such a Roman name, which as I said above suggests not the western half of Britain in Arthur’s time, but rather the east, close to the earliest Anglian and Saxon settlements and bounded by the famous ‘Saxon Shore’ military zone. It is worth suggesting that however much or little Humphrey Carpenter saw of The Fall of Arthur (and it is not unreasonable to assume that to quote passages he must have seen something, not just heard of it), the absence of Kay and Bedivere from his admittedly condensed account of the poem would be neatly accounted for if they appeared under the unfamiliar names of Gaius and Bothvar.

There may well be other ‘heroes of lost legends and gods of forgotten religions’ among the supporting cast of Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur, but too much hinges on the sheer size of the work to be too bold in guessing. In the Silmarillion-tradition, JRR Tolkien adds characters where he has the space, and reduces their numbers where he is condensing stories. So there might well be the likes of Arthur’s son Llacheu, Unwin and Widia, Horsa and Hengist, Waldere and Hama, and even Grendel’s father – but I would not care to bet on anyone in particular. Contrariwise, I think that some characters are unlikely to have appealed to Tolkien, unless either as in the alliterative Morte they receive passing mention in larger catalogues, or they could be altered to suit his purpose. Among the best-known ‘French Tradition’ heroes, Tolkien might have felt that Tristan and Lancelot fell into that latter category. It is quite possible that JRR Tolkien would have known – the matter being at least partly philological – that Tristan was originally a Welsh or even Pictish/Scottish hero, Drustan, with a good ‘British Isles’ pedigree (Bromwich 2006, p.331, s.v. Drystan mab Tallwch). Similarly, there was a good deal of contemporary or earlier speculation about Lancelot’s antecedents, some of it inclining towards ‘Celtic’ origins (Bromwich 2006, p.406, s.v. La6nslot y Lac), and he does have legendary associations with the far north-east of England, an area of early Anglian settlement. Malory (1485 repr. 1996, bk21 ch.12 – Caxton's edition preferred as the one Tolkien could have used) says of Lancelot’s castle of Joyous Gard that ‘Some men say it was Alnwick, and some men say it was Bamborough.’. Of the Grail Knights, I would be very surprised indeed to see Galahad, but not at all surprised to see Perceval, also known as Peredur in Welsh versions, the very name which Tolkien used about his own reaction to seeing Arthur’s knights in a quote I gave above (Bromwich 2006, p.477, s.v. Peredur m.Efra6c Iarll). Peredur is another hero with north-eastern English links, this time to sub-Roman York as well as the Old North of the very earliest Welsh poems, and we have written elsewhere (Lewis and Currie 2009) about the connections between his tale and Tolkien’s writings.

Guinever(e) poses us some interesting problems. The lines Carpenter quotes look as if they’re running straight down the line in the classic English medieval anti-Guinevere and anti-feminine strain. It would be very easy to suppose from all this that just for once, JRR Tolkien was creating a female character who is that classic late-19th/early-20th century stereotype the femme fatale. However, we should be slow to make large assumptions about Tolkien’s attitude to a character from small quotes. There is a considerable wordage from The Lord of the Rings saying similarly misogynistic things about Galadriel, but when it is looked at overall, Tolkien’s depiction of the Lady of Lothlórien is anything but stereotypical. We should therefore be very careful indeed about drawing conclusions on Guinever from scanty evidence which lacks all context.

King Arthur’s famously difficult marriage offers more interesting possibilities for a writer than we may think. Elsewhere, Tolkien prefers to show male-female complementarity as the key to marital and political success, so there is every reason to think that either Guinever and Arthur will form such a pair and hold true to each other, or that they will fail as complements with disastrous results. Some medieval versions do show the positive situation – Malory for one, where Guinevere actually holds London and the Tower for Arthur against Mordred. In other cases, however – the alliterative Morte among them – Guinevere is actively on Mordred’s side; there, she marries him, bears him a child and fosters his other children, and is willing to join him in exile. A Guinever markedly younger than Arthur, who is not listened to by him, not accorded the respect she feels she deserves and/or not given the help she needs, and therefore ends up working against him, would fit well with JRR Tolkien’s other ‘difficult’ female characters.

When the medieval author Gerald of Wales describes the discovery of the supposed bodies of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey he includes a version of the inscription on a cross discovered with the bodies, which names Guinevere and calls her Arthur’s second wife. If Tolkien picked up this idea of Guinevere as second wife and ran with it, then this might well be one case where we could see clear cross-influence from JRR Tolkien’s Arthurian work to the Silmarillion-tradition. Arthur’s marriage problems in such a scenario would be markedly similar to those of Finwë, King of the Noldor, who lost his first wife and married again, creating all manner of personal and political problems for his family and people. These ideas did not appear until the ‘Later Silmarillion’ of 1951-2, around the time when Tolkien seems to have been thinking of taking up The Fall of Arthur again.

Overall, then, we can say that Tolkien’s Guinever is likely to be an active rather than passive character within the bounds of medieval queenship, and that her role in Arthur’s court makes her ambiguous, seen by some as dangerous if not worse. Guinever might be Arthur’s second wife. Whilst Tolkien’s likeliest medieval sources would point to her being actively involved with Mordred in working against Arthur, it is not certain that Tolkien will follow this path. It is equally likely that Guinever will hold true to Arthur in the face of Mordred’s illicit desire, and may even escape the final downfall with Arthur’s children or grandchildren.

Mordred is to all appearances the villain of the piece in The Fall of Arthur. In Carpenter’s summary, it is news of Mordred’s treachery that draws Arthur and Gawain – and presumably the rest of their army – home from war in ‘Saxon lands’. A strong impression is created that the motive for this treachery is Mordered’s lust for Guinever. However, this leaves all sorts of questions begging. What sort of treachery? Is Guinever the only reason? Who is this Mordred fellow anyway? Before my readers say ‘we know that!’ – no, we don’t. Our usual idea, culled from Sir Thomas Malory via Alfred Lord Tennyson and possibly TH White, is only one of a wide range of options for who Mordred might be in the Arthurian legends. Mordred frequently isn’t Arthur’s son, born of incest with Arthur’s (half) sister. He needn’t be Arthur’s nephew. He isn’t always the person who deals Arthur a mortal wound in the last battle between the pair. It isn’t even certain that Mordred has always been Arthur’s implacable enemy. In the oldest Welsh sources, material which we can be practically certain that Tolkien knew and was interested in, Mordred/Medraut appears to have been an honourable and chivalrous character, Arthur’s helper rather than the source of his downfall.

It seems likely to me that JRR Tolkien would keep the uncle-nephew relationship between Arthur and Mordred, but diminish or remove the element of incest. This is what Layamon, and the poet of the alliterative ‘Morte’ – and indeed his sources among the chronicles that mention Arthur – all choose to do. Such an attitude would fit with JRR Tolkien’s choice to greatly diminish the importance of incest in the Tale of Túrin, compared to most of its multifarious analogues in Northern European legend and folklore. A child born of incest is already marked out as weird, whereas a Mordred who is only Arthur’s nephew can be a complex, interesting character. He can be someone in a situation where other people’s plans intersect with his ideas and actions, someone faced with a range of possibilities rather than going down a fixed track – someone who might almost be a tragic hero in the Greek-dramatic sense of the term, making all the wrong choices for what seem to be the right reasons. If we look at characters such as Túrin Túrambar, we can I believe see that that Tolkien could write a Mordred of this sort, following up the ideas of the alliterative Morte’s poet, rather than Layamon’s simpistic depiction.

Last but not least, there is Arthur himself. The title which JRR Tolkien chose, The Fall of Arthur, contains a double meaning; fall can mean physical death or moral decline. To my mind this strongly suggests that Tolkien was following the alliterative Morte in his depiction of the character of Arthur. In that poem, Arthur appears to be a perfect king, meets a series of moral challenges which show him turning into a tyrant, and redeems himself at the last moment. Again, if we look at The Lord of the Rings, the character of Denethor shows that Tolkien could write such a figure, and would find such a story interesting. So we can guess that Tolkien could well follow the line laid down by the poet of the alliterative Morte,. This would have been backed up by Layamon’s version, since he makes Arthur a hard ruler, not afraid of difficult choices or drastic action. There is a less obvious question about Tolkien’s Arthur which is worth askign but hard to answer. In any version of the stories which takes account the historical background of the Arthurian legends, the origin of Arthur himself has to be an important point. It is worth noting that this is the very same period in which most of the specifically Old English and wider Germanic-language legends which Tolkien took such interest in were being shaped. The two centuries from 400 to 600AD span the careers not only of ‘King Arthur’, but of Beowulf the Geat, Attila the Hun and Theoderic the Ostrogoth. This was a time when all across Europe, political, economic, linguistic and cultural changes were happening at a rate and on a scale rarely seen before or since. Even the environment may have been in turmoil, surely affecting the whole situation if it was.

We have two pieces of writing which I think are relevant here. Firstly, Tolkien and Gordon’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight of 1925 gives us something which we can take as being Tolkien’s own account of the name Arthur, and what he was then willing to print in an academic publication about the man:

‘26 Arthur: the name is direct from Welsh, whereas most of the Arthurian names found in middle English are derived from Old French sources, though they may be ultimately of Celtic origin. But Arthur in Old French is called Artu (nom. Artus ) According to some it is a name of Celtic origin, and in a tenth-century gloss on Nennius it is interpreted ‘ursus horribilis’ or ‘malleus ferreus’, as though it were composed of Welsh elements; but it is just as likely that Arthur is a Welsh form of Latin Artorius.’ He is represented by Nennius not as king but as dux bellorum. He may well have belonged to a romanised British family, as did the other successful leader of the Britons against the Saxons, Aurelius Ambrosius, whose name also apears in a Welsh form, Emrys.

If Nennius can be taken as an authority, Arthur won twelve great victories over the English; the ninth named by him, the battle of Mount Badon, is undoubtedly hsitorical, and was fought about A.D. 496. Arthur’s final battle with Modred on the Camlan is dated by the Annales Cambriae 537, but these annals also date Mount Badon 516, which is certainly too late.

Arthur’s activities appear to have been in the north of England, to judge by the battlefields named by Nennius, though they cannot be identified with certainty.’
(Tolkien and Gordon 1925 p.80)

On the basis of names, then, by his own account, Tolkien’s Arthur could be either Latin – for which read Roman – or Welsh – for which read British.

Those may be the commonest takes on King Arthur’s background, but they are not the only possibilities and Tolkien was certainly aware of one of the more radical and interesting alternatives. In his lecture ‘English and Welsh,’ Tolkien mentioned the not-so-small problem that the founder of the royal line of the impeccably English (Saxon) kingdom of Wessex had a Welsh name, Cerdic anglicised from Caradoc (Tolkien ed. Tolkien 1983, p.169 & n.2, p.195). The qualification I made above about academic publication is not mere quibbling, but could be important. As ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’ show with their creative resetting of known English folklore to a distinctive Oxfordshire environment, Tolkien was certainly willing when working as a creative writer to use ideas which he must have felt were ‘right’, yet for which there was too little hard evidence for them to appear in a professional publication. The careers of the dubious Cerdic, very possibly half Romano-British and half Saxon, and the well known Theoderic (whose Italian subjects politely ignored his Gothic origins in favour of referring to him by the impeccably Late Roman name of Flavius Theodorus Maximus) tell us that ‘King Arthur’ may have been the last champion of a recognisably Roman Britain, but that does not necessarily make him either Roman or British. For JRR Tolkien, with his love of the ancient English and conflicted relationship with ‘Celtic’, I think it might well have been an attractive option to make Arthur an ‘English Theoderic’, a man of at least partly Germanic descent who nonetheless wishes to preserve and reinvigorate Romano-British civilisation rather than destroy it.

There is however one last wild card in this discussion. One of the major points which was certainly changing over the timespan when JRR Tolkien was or could have been writing The Fall of Arthur was the weight which he gave to the strictly historical and realistic versus the mythological and fantastic. We know that Tolkien was interested in the weird figure of Scyld Scefing from Beowulf, and there is one version of Arthur which make him too into just such a changeling prince. One of the strangest and most memorable passages in the whole of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King describes the arrival of Arthur as a baby carried to Merlin’s feet on Tintagel sands by a wave straight out of Lady Gregory’s wildest West Irish sea-stories, breaker and babe alike apparently sent by the shining crew of an eldritch ship (Tennyson 1898/2004 pp 11-12). Given the vast importance of Tennyson’s work in general and his Arthuriana in particular to Victorian and Edwardian culture, it is virtually impossible that Tolkien did not know of this, even if we have no direct evidence for it. The abiding importance of the sea and the figure of Scyld in Tolkien’s writing makes the idea of such an Arthur a possibility worth remembering. 

Part Three; Falling Arthurs

In the preceding sections I have described the ideas and the reasoning which Alex Lewis and myself have reached with regard to The Fall of Arthur. More than five years ago now, we drew our research together into an outline reconstruction. I think it’s worth setting this before the public, as that hypothesis which I have mentioned repeatedly. Is this right in any of its parts, and if so, how many? Publication is imminent, scheduled for May this year; even if put back, it is unlikely that we have long to wait to see the real thing. Information is starting to emerge against which some points can already be checked. So here goes...

‘Looking at the background, we think it is practically certain that Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur will have a historical, late-5th/early-6th century setting, in which Arthur’s story will be interwoven with those of other notable heroes of the day.

There will be close links between Arthur and his court, and the events and characters in the Old English poem Beowulf which Tolkien worked on so much and was so attached to. The known setting of The Fall of Arthur, in Britain and in ‘Saxon lands’, backs this up because it puts Arthur into exactly the same North Sea setting as Beowulf, Hygelac, Hrothgar and the others.

There may well be less important connections between Arthur and the other three great centres of legend from this time; the court of the Burgundian kings on the French-Swiss border which became the focus for the Volsung legends; the court of Attila the Hun in Hungary; and the court of Theodoric the Great in Italy. This matches the pattern of late medieval compilations such as the Norse Thidhrek’s Saga af Bern.

Moving on to the poem itself, we think that, based on what we know and on what we can reasonably guess, we can offer a reconstruction of the background and storyline of The Fall of Arthur.
Sir Gawain by John Howe

Tolkien’s poem will almost certainly interlace with Beowulf, featuring many of the same places, characters, and peoples, and having some of the same events mentioned, perhaps in digressions from the main theme which might be similarly structured to those used in Beowulf . Since the kinship and heritage among the Geats and Swedes of the hero Beowulf is clearly set out in the poem that carries his name, he is unlikely to be drawn directly into Arthur’s orbit. The two Bears will almost certainly not meet or be close kinsmen. It is highly probable that there will however be strong links between them. For instance Kay, with his surly, bearish nature and Beowulfian ability to survive under water, might be depicted as a Waymunding and so a cousin of Beowulf; or Bedivere could be connected with the Danish royal family through his near-namesake, the hero Bothvar Biarki who served Hrothulf/Hrolf Kraki, the usurping nephew and successor of that King Hrothgar who suffered Grendel’s attentions. It is possible that Tolkien would use the Wulfings of Scandinavia and East Anglia as a more remote link between Arthur and Beowulf, especially in any post-Sutton Hoo phase of work on The Fall of Arthur . When the discovery was published and discussed after the Second World War, it was suggested that the East Anglian royal house might actually be descended from Geatish nobles who fled to Britain after Beowulf’s death. They could therefore also take over part or all of Arthur’s realm after his demise, especially if they had kinsmen in his service.

The Fall of Arthur itself will most likely start with an incident which causes Arthur to declare war on the continental Saxons, probably either a raid or the sending of an insulting message. This is likely to be followed by scenes of council, of setting up temporary government while Arthur is away and of summoning the army, in the course of which we will be introduced to Arthur, Gawain, Mordred and Guinever, and probably other characters as well; Kay and Bedivere are nearly certain to be present, though very possibly under unfamiliar names. There is a strong probability that the council scene will be set in an old Roman building – both Layamon and the alliterative Morte mention structures that can be read this way. This might be either one of the Late Roman forts of the ‘Saxon Shore’ or a surviving structure in the city of Lincoln. It will be partly refurbished in more ‘Germanic’ style but still betray its origins, not least through its main structure being of stone. A mosaic floor is also a strong possibility, as firstly, in a review of a place-name book Tolkien pounced with glee on the discovery that Anglo-saxon comment on one such floor was the origin of the English placename Fawler (Shippey 1982/1992 p.30); secondly, the great Old English poem Beowulf also contains such a ‘fág flór’ as the mark of one of the mightiest of all possible halls, Heorot, home of a court which Tolkien himself compared in On fairy-stories to that of Arthur; and thirdly, similar mosaics occur in significant places in Tolkien’s published writings.

Tolkien’s Arthur is likely to be getting on in years but not actually old, with a strongly ambivalent character, at once authoritative and benevolent, ruthless and generous. This Arthur is almost certain to be a man of both Anglian and Romano-British descent, ruling from somewhere on the east coast of Britain. Lindsey is a likely candidate for a location for Arthur from the start, because its king-lists do not go so far back in time as those of either Kent or York (Deira). That creates a historical hole into which Arthur can fit. It also allows for him to have connections with Kent and with Hengist. In this case Arthur’s base might be at Lincoln, the Roman Lindum Colonia, which has some of the best evidence for continuity from Roman to Anglo-Saxon times of any city in Britain. That would place Arthur in between two later kingdoms, the realm of the East Angles and the British enclave of Elmet. A breakup of Arthur’s own kingdom, followed by the near-total loss of records from both of its successors, would again help to explain Arthur’s disappearance from history. It is rather less likely in our view that Tolkien would base his Arthur in Yorkshire. This has been a popular option, as firstly, the Late Roman title of the commander at York, Dux Britanniae, has often been compared to the title which the Welsh writer ‘Nennius’ gives to Arthur, Dux Bellorum; secondly,York itself was one of the ‘Cities of the Legion’, the name which is associated with Arthur’s capital in the earliest versions; thirdly, York is where a Roman inscription naming one Artorius has been found (KH Jackson, ALMA p.2, citing a source of 1924-5). However, we know too much about the lineage of the early kings of Deira for Tolkien to fit Arthur in here easily. York tradition goes back in at least some detail to within one generation of Arthur, with the Aelle who features in Bede and appears in a Middle English romance. A York-based Arthur should have survived rather better in history than he does (unless of course Tolkien used the total lack of documentation to keep Arthur in the York line, but known to history only by his Germanic name). Least likely in our view is Kent itself, because of the strong historical traditions linking this area with Hengist and Horsa, and with Jutish rather than Anglian settlers. It is possible that Tolkien’s Arthur will have links to other kingdoms such as Anglian Mercia and Cymric Gwynedd. If there is a second or subsequent phase of The Fall of Arthur dating to after 1939 and the Sutton Hoo find, that would give Tolkien a chance to introduce or strengthen any East Anglian connections in the poem.

Mordred will probably be straightforwardly Arthur’s nephew, the son of his sister, and not Arthur’s own incest-begotten offspring. It is likely that Mordred will have been closely associated with Arthur, yet he will not feel that he is getting proper treatment from his illustrious uncle (a motif echoed in Tolkien’s handling of the character Maeglin in the ‘Silmarillion’ tradition). Mordred will probably be from the Romano-British side of Arthur’s family, and have religious and political objections to Arthur’s position between the christian Roman and pagan Germanic worlds, as well as personal disagreements. His worries and his obsession with Guinever will render him vulnerable to someone who wants to work against Arthur.

Gawain will probably be Mordred’s full brother, and it is likely that he will be depicted as a good man, honourable and courteous, fonder of peace than war yet valiant and moderate in battle until confronted and overset by Mordred’s treachery. He may well be the second most important character of the piece.

Guinever, on the other hand, is likely to be depicted as a woman who does not get on well with her husband. Her name is very Celtic, so she will probably be from a family more British than Roman, perhaps from what is now Wales. She is likely to be much younger than her husband, and she may well be Arthur’s second wife. The difficulties between Arthur and Guinever may be either because she is selfish to the point of irresponsibility, or because Arthur has rejected her real knowledge and abilities and regards her as a ‘mere woman’ who has nothing to contribute to his rule or understanding. If Guinever is a second wife, it is very probable that her predecessor will have died at Arthur’s orders, falsely accused of a crime. Guinever will probably not be the mother of Arthur’s children. He may well have had two sons, and if so then it is likely that Arthur will have been directly responsible for the death of one son. The other will either die in a Saxon raid if this is what sparks Arthur’s invasion of the Continent, thereby giving Arthur a powerful motive for action, or survive almost to the end and perish in the campaign against Mordred, perhaps killed by Arthur’s once-loyal retainer Kay after he turns against his former master.

It is probable that Arthur will be urged to attempt the conquest of the Saxons by a counsellor who has a grievance against the King (either over the King’s mistreatment of this counsellor’s wife or the King’s murder of the man’s brother), against the wishes of others who are part of Arthur’s court. This character will be trusted absolutely by the King, but will actually be working against him, constantly advising Arthur to follow the promptings of the worse side of Arthur’s nature. He may be either a secular nobleman, or a ‘Welsh’ (Romano-British) churchman, paralleling the Gildas of both history and legend. This character’s machinations may have resulted in the death of Arthur’s first wife and one of his sons, and the flight of some of his other relatives from his court. Such a character would certainly be working with Mordred, though he might well be set on achieving the downfall of the whole of Arthur’s family and merely be using Mordred as an unwitting agent. (He might also be associated with a ‘Morgan le Fay’ or at least ‘evil wizard’ character if the poem has supernatural characters in it.) Gawain is likely to speak for peace at a council held to discuss the Saxon situation, but Arthur will decide on war. It is probable that Tolkien will make it clear that the choice to go to war is an unjustified decision and that Arthur is letting ambition, pride and bad advice get the better of his good judgement. Tolkien is very likely to do this via a ‘Merlin’ character who can act as a spokesman for wisdom, but is not closely associated with the King’s court. This figure could well be a Christian churchman of Germanic ancestry analogous to the ‘bishop Bedwin’ of the medieval versions, and the real chorepiscopus Ulfilas, responsible for the Gothic translation of the Bible. The large part played by Church disputes in the downfall of Theoderic the Great in Italy would allow for similar but lesser problems between supporting and antagonistic clerics to occur at Arthur’s court in Britain.

Following on from this, Arthur will summon his army, entrust his kingdom to Mordred and Guinever, and set sail for the Continent. He may either sail up the Rhine, possibly fighting his way past the Franks, or land north of the Rhinemouth and advance through Frisia, which may already have submitted to Arthur and be, technically, part of his realm. It is likely that Arthur himself and many of his most prominent followers will have links of kinship and family history with the various lords of Frisia, Anglia and Jutland.

At some point in this movement towards his Saxon foes, Arthur will probably be told of a monster, which he will choose to seek out himself. (It could be suggested that an appropriate foe would be Grendel’s father.) Whatever it is, this monster will be ravaging the countryside, killing people and ravaging crops and animals, and the local lords will be unable to do anything about it. Arthur will probably face it in single combat, inventing a pretext for coming close to its haunts with only a small company – Kay, Bedivere and Gawain might be suggested – then slipping away alone. It is likely that in Tolkien’s version Arthur will defeat the monster, but only after a desperate and dangerous struggle, and the wiser heads among the army will complain at the chance he has taken. Gawain may possibly have an independent adventure involving a man with a ‘bear’ name, or a bear shapeshifter – perhaps a kinsman of Bedivere – whom he will probably persuade to become one of Arthur’s allies.

After this, it is probable that Arthur and his army will advance inland; they will fight a battle against a Saxon king and his allies, and win. It is likely that there will be a set-piece ‘arming of the hero’ scene, where Arthur’s weapons and armour will be described and named. After the battle, Arthur will insist that they go on into Saxony with a view to taking the allies’ lands as well as those of the defeated and probably dead Saxon king. Gawain though doubtful will say nothing. As they move on, Arthur and his army will probably ravage the Saxons’ lands, causing great damage and woe to the innocent as well as the guilty. There will certainly be somewhere that Arthur particularly wants to go to, but which he never reaches. The real wars of Charlemagne against the Saxons suggest that this place could be the shrine where the pagan cult object called the Irminsul (and a considerable treasure of offerings) was kept (R. Collins 1991, ch.15, p261 p/b). This would mirror the religious, political and financial aspects of Arthur’s attack on Rome in the medieval writings, within a historical and ‘Germanic’ context. This part of the tale may involve the Wistlawudu of the Old English poems, Icelandic Mirkwood, the edge of that older, Gothic world Tolkien had so much interest in and the barrier between the North and the Steppes. At some point before reaching the place which he is aiming for, Arthur will discover, probably from a messenger who is very reluctant to tell him the truth, that Mordred has usurped both kingdom and queen behind Arthur’s back. Guinever may well be depicted as having been an active participant in what has happened, whether allied with Mordred, still working for Arthur, or acting on her own behalf, not as a passive figure without a will of her own. It is possible that shortly before this Arthur will have had a prophetic dream of some sort, which will be described but may not be interpreted to the king; in any case though it may hint at the situation in the reader’s eyes, the dream will not tell Arthur explicitly what is happening.

It is probable that Tolkien will have Arthur succumb to absolute fury when he learns of Mordred’s treachery, and that he will decide to lead his army home at once to overthrow the usurper. It is also probable that when Gawain learns of Mordred’s treachery he will be shown as being exceedingly angry and upset, all the more so as this creates an impossible conflict of loyalties between him and his brother. When they return to Britain, it is likely that Gawain will be among the first ashore, and that he will die in combat with Mordred, possibly after a desperate fight in which Gawain will have killed several young men: one of whom might be the son of one of Mordred’s allies, perhaps a prince of Wessex; another might be a younger brother of the two, or a son of Mordred. After this first encounter, it is probable that Mordred will try to retreat and regroup, while Guinevere flees into a nunnery.

Probably Arthur will now press on after Mordred, angrier than ever, paying no heed to anything except his own wish for vengeance. A battle will take place; just before, during or immediately after this, Arthur will realise what a fool he has been, in a scene running parallel to Gandalf’s healing of Theoden. Arthur will probably kill Mordred himself, but be very seriously injured in the fight. It is likely that Arthur will then hand his kingdom on to a surviving kinsman, probably someone connected to him through his Romano-British mother, perhaps with advice to kill the counsellor who was working to make Mordred rise against his King. Arthur will then either simply die or, rather less probably, depart to a mysterious end, depending on whether the tenor of the poem is relatively naturalistic or strongly marked by the supernatural.
Fall of Arthur by Ruth Lacon

Tolkien’s only known statement on the matter would suggest that he would not think of Arthur’s return as being possible; there may however be varying opinions on this expressed in different versions of the poem. If any of Tolkien’s work reached so far, Guinever may finally meet a strange death of her own, drowning under peculiar circumstances.

That, at any rate, is our best guess at the storyline which Tolkien might have chosen to follow in writing, The Fall of Arthur. The key assumptions underlying it are, firstly, that Tolkien was trying to link the Arthurian legend with the Anglo-saxon traditions which develop out of the same timespan; secondly, that his primary sources would have been the ‘English’ Arthurian traditions exemplified in two great medieval alliterative poems which were both in his day seen as close successors to Anglo-Saxon epic, Layamon’s Brut and the anonymous Alliterative Morte Arthure; and thirdly that Tolkien would have depicted Arthur as having Germanic connections of some sort as well as links to Roman Britain and the emergent Wales. We could of course be right or wrong in any of those assumptions, not to mention any or all of the points we have described in our speculative reconstruction. Furthermore, Tolkien thought of The Fall of Arthur as ‘unfinished’ and may never have clearly envisaged certain areas of the story. This reconstruction is at least a piece of informed speculation; as such, it is more than has ever been offered in connection with The Fall of Arthur before.’

As I wrote all those years ago, it will be very interesting to see what the real poem contains when it is finally published.

Title: The Fall of Arthur
J. R. R. Tolkien
Editor: Christopher Tolkien

Publication Date:
23 May 2013

hardcover, 240 pages
ISBN-10: 0007489943
ISBN-13: 978-0007489947

deluxe edition, 240 pages
ISBN-10: 0007489897
ISBN-13: 978-0007489893


I’ve opted to give a full listing of relevant books here, as an aid to following our research into the sources.  Anonymous works are listed under the translator or editor and cross-referenced if another description is used in the text.
Alcock, L., 1972, ‘By South Cadbury that is Camelot’; Excavations at Cadbury Castle 1966-70’, Thames and Hudson.
alliterative Morte see Hamel 1984
ALMA see Loomis 1959
Armstrong, H., (ed) 1998; ‘Digging Potatoes, Growing Trees - 25 Years of Speeches at the Tolkien Society’s Annual Dinners,             vol.2’, Peter Roe Memorial Booklet 6, The Tolkien Society.
Barron, WRJ, and Weinberg, SC, 1989, see  Layamon.
Barron, WRJ (ed.) 2001; ‘The Arthur of the English’, University of Wales Press.
Billings, AH, 1901 repr. 1975; ‘A Guide to the Middle English Metrical Romances (dealing with English and Germanic Legends, and
            with the cycles of Charlemagne and of Arthur)’, Henry Holt & Co./Folcroft Library Editions.
Bromwich, R., 1961 (3rd edn 2006); ‘Trioedd Ynys Prydein’, University of Wales Press.
Bromwich, R., Jarman, A.O.H., & Roberts, B.F., 1991; ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’, University of Wales Press.
Bruce, J.D., 1928; ‘The Evolution of Arthurian Romance from the Beginnings down to the Year 1300,’ 2nd edn., Johns Hopkins             Press; repr. 1958, Peter Smith.
Carpenter, H, 1977; ‘Tolkien; A Biography’, George Allen and Unwin.
            1978; ‘The Inklings: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends’, Unwin.
Chadwick, HM, 1912; ‘The Heroic Age’, Cambridge University Press.
Chambers, R.W., 1912; ‘Widsith; A Study in Old English Heroic Legend’, Cambridge University Press.
Child, F.J., 1882-98, repr.1965, 2003; ‘The English and Scottish Popular ballads’,
            orig. pub. Houghton, Miflin & Co., reprinted Dover Publications Inc.
Collingwood, R. G., 1938, ‘The Principles of Art’, Clarendon Press (later reprints Oxford University Press).
Collingwood, R.G., 1939; ‘An Autobiography’, Penguin.
Collingwood, R.G. and Myres, J.N.L., 1937 (2nd Edn); ‘Roman Britain and the English Settlements’, Clarendon Press.
Collingwood, R.G., (eds D. Boucher, W. James, and P. Smallwood), 2005, ‘The Philosophy of Enchantment’, Oxford University Press.
Collins, R., 1991; ‘Early Medieval Europe 300-1000’, 1st edn, Macmillan
Davis, N., and Wrenn, CE., eds., 1962; ‘English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R. R. Tolkien’, George Allen and Unwin.
Dumville, D., 1977; ‘Sub-Roman Britain; history and legend’, History 62: 173-92)
Evans, AC, 1986: ‘The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial’, British Museum Press.
Fimi, D., 2007; ‘Tolkien’s “‘Celtic’ type of legends: Merging Traditions’, pp.51-72 in
            Anderson, D. A., Drout, M.D.C., & Flieger, V., (eds) ‘Tolkien Studies; An Annual Scholarly Review’, vol.IV, West Virginia             University Press
            2010; ‘Tolkien, Race and Cultural History; From Fairies to Hobbits’, Palgrave Macmillan
Gantz, J (trans.) 1976; ‘The Mabinogion’, Penguin.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, trans. L, Thorpe, 1966; ‘The History of the Kings of
            Britain’, Penguin.
Gerald of Wales [otherwise known and often cited as Giraldus Cambrensis]; trans.
            L Thorpe 1978, The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, Penguin
Gillespie, G.T., 1973; ‘A Catalogue of Persons Named in German Heroic Literature’, Clarendon Press.
Glyer, D., 2009, ‘The Company they Keep’, Kent State University Press.
Gordon, E.V. and Vinaver, E., 1937 ‘New Light on the Text of the Alliterative Morte Arthure’, Medium Aevum vi pp81-98.
Guest, Lady Charlotte, 1838-49, ‘The Mabinogion from the Llyfr Coch o Hergest, and other ancient Welsh manuscripts’; London.
Grotta, D., 1976 (2nd edn 1978); ‘JRR Tolkien; Architect of Middle-earth’, Running Press.
Hamel, M. (ed), 1984; ‘Morte Arthure; a Critical Edition’, Garland.
Haywood, J., 1999 (2nd edn) ‘Dark Age Naval Power’, Anglo-Saxon Books.
Helms, R., 1974; ‘Tolkien’s World’, Thames and Hudson. 
Hibbard, L.A., 1924; ‘Medieval Romance in England; A Study of the Sources and Analogues of the Non-Cyclical Metrical                         Romances’, Oxford University Press
Hutton, R., 2003; ‘Witches, Druids & King Arthur’, Hambledon & London.
James, E., 1988; ‘The Franks’, Basil Blackwell Ltd.
Layamon, ed. & trans. Barron, WRJ, and Weinberg, SC, 1989; ‘Layamon’s Arthur’,
            Longman; see also Wace.
            as ‘Lawman’, ed & trans Allen, R, 1992, JM Dent and Sons.
Lewis, A., and Currie, E., 2009: ‘The Epic Realm of Tolkien’, ADC Publications.
Loomis, R. S., 1949, ‘Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes’, Columbia and Oxford University Presses
Loomis, R.S., ed., 1959 repr 2001, ‘Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages; a Collaborative History’, O.U.P (Clarendon Press)
Lupack, A., 2005, ‘Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend’, O.U.P.
Mabinogion see Gantz and Guest.
Malory, Sir T. (ed.Caxton), 1485 repr. 1996; ‘Le Morte D’arthur’, Wordsworth.
           ed. Shepherd, S.H.A., 2004; ‘Le Morte Darthur’, W. W. Norton & Co.
Masefield, J., 1928; ‘Midsummer Night and Other Tales in Verse’, William Heinemann
Olrik, A., trans. Hollander, LM., 1919; ‘The Heroic Legends of Denmark’, Oxford University Press.
Orchard, A, 1997; ‘Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend’, Cassell,
Rivet, A.L.F., and Smith, C., 1979; ‘The Placenames of Roman Britain’, BT Batsford Ltd.
Rhys, Sir John, 1891; ‘[Studies in] The Arthurian Legend’ [title differs on the two title-pages of the book, & this work is variously             cited], Clarendon Press.
Salu, M., and Farrell, R.T. (eds) 1979, ‘JRR Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller’.  
Sands, D.B. (ed), 1986; ‘Middle English Verse Romances’, University of Exeter Press.
Shippey, T., 1982, 2nd edn 1992; ‘The Road to Middle-earth’, George Allen and Unwin, repr. HarperCollins.
Shippey, T., 2000; ‘JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century’, HarperCollins.
Snyder, C., 2000; ‘Exploring the World of King Arthur’, Thames & Hudson.
Sturluson, S., trans. Faulkes, A., 1987; ‘Edda’, Dent/Everyman
Taylor, B., & Brewer, E., 1983; ‘The Return of King Arthur’, DS Brewer.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord, ed Rolfe, W.J., 1898 rep 2004; ‘Idylls of the King’; Dover Publications, Inc.
Tolkien, C.J.R. (ed & trans), 1960; ‘The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise’, Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd.
Tolkien, J.R.R., 1937 (4th edn. 1975);  ‘The Hobbit’, George Allen & Unwin.
            1954 & 1955 (2nd edn. 1966); ‘The Lord of the Rings’, George Allen & Unwin.
Tolkien, J.R.R., and Gordon, E.V., (eds) 1925, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Clarendon Press.
Tolkien, J.R.R., & Tolkien, C.J.R. (ed.), 1977; ‘The Silmarillion’, George Allen & Unwin.
            1980; ‘Unfinished Tales’, George Allen & Unwin.
            1983, repr 2006; ‘The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays’, George
            Allen & Unwin repr HarperCollins.
The History of Middle-earth Series;
            1983; ‘The Book of Lost Tales Volume 1’, (HOME vol.I), Allen & Unwin.
            1984; ‘The Book of Lost Tales Volume 2’, (HOME vol.II).
            1985; ‘The Lays of Beleriand’, (HOME vol.III).
            1986; ‘The Shaping of Middle-earth’, (HOME vol.IV), Unwin Hyman.
            1987; ‘The Lost Road’, (HOME vol.V).
            1988; ‘The Return of the Shadow’, (HOME vol.VI).
            1989; ‘The Treason of Isengard’, (HOME vol. VII).
            1992; ‘Sauron Defeated’, (HOME vol.IX), HarperCollins.
            1993; ‘Morgoth’s Ring’, (HOME vol.X).
            1994; ‘The War of the Jewels’, (HOME vol.XI).
            1996; ‘The Peoples of Middle-earth’, (HOME vol.XII).
Tolstoy, N., 1985; ‘The Quest for Merlin’, Hamish Hamilton Ltd.
Wace & Layamon, trans. E. Mason, 1962; ‘Arthurian Chronicles’, Dent/Everyman
Williams, G.A., 1994; ‘Excalibur; the Search for Arthur’, BBC Books.
Wilson, RM, 1970 (2nd edn.); ‘The Lost Literature of Medieval England’, Methuen.
Wimberly, L.C., 1928: ‘Folklore in the English and Scottish ballads’, University of Chicago Press
Wolfram, H., trans Dunlap, TJ., 1979/1988; ‘History of the Goths’, University of California Press.
Wright, J., 1910; ‘Grammar of the Gothic Language’, Clarendon Press.
Wynn-Davies, M., 1996; ‘Women in Arthurian Literature; Seizing the Sword’, Macmillan Press Ltd.

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