The Fall of Arthur

J. R. R. and Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins, May 2013

Guinevere will always remain the Yoko Ono of Arthurian romance. For men of a certain bent, she summons to mind the new wife or girlfriend of their old friend, who now threatens to intrude upon the Round Table of their male camaraderie. What if she doesn’t just stay at home and darn his socks? What if she wants us to see her as a person, not just our friend’s possession? Already, she’s changed him. Remember the good old days when he slapped you on the back and denounced all women as whores?

Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur continues the ungenerous tradition of presenting Guinevere as a figure of treacherousness, not just discord. On those occasions where she rises from the role of disputed possession, she becomes a manipulative temptress towing men to their deaths. From her first entrance, we hear of her remorselessness,

                     His heart returned
to its long thraldom   lust-tormented
to Guinever the Golden   with gleaming limbs
as fair and fell   as fay-woman
in world walking   for the woe of men
no tear shedding.

[canto II 25-30]

And again (recounting her earlier love for Lancelot),

                     Dear she loved him
with love unyielding,   lady ruthless,
fair as fay-woman   and fell-minded
in the world walking   for the woe of men.
Fate sent her forth.   Fair she deemed him
beyond gold and silver   to her grasp lying.
Silver and golden,   as the sun at morning
her smile dazzled,   and her sudden weeping
with tears softened,   tender poison,
steel well-tempered.   Strong oaths they broke.

[canto III 53-62]

Most of the condemnation for their tryst descends on Guinevere, rather than Lancelot or her ever-absent husband,

and the Round Table   rent asunder
in the Queen's quarrel.

[canto III 72-73]

fair as fay-woman   they to fire doomed her,
to death they condemned her.   But death waited.
There Lancelot   as lightning came
amid riding thunder   ruthless flaming
in sudden assault   sweeping heedless
he friends of old   felled and trampled
as trees by tempest   torn uprooted
Gaheris and Gareth   Gawain's brethren
by the fire fell they   as fate willed it.
From the fire he snatched her;   far he bore her;
fear fell on men,   none would follow after;
for Ban's kindred   in their battle closed him.

[canto III 74-86]

Lancelot later repents and arranges to restore Guinevere to the man who ordered her execution. The rectitude of such repentance becomes clear when we hear about Guinevere’s ungrateful scorn and deviousness,

                     Strange she deemed him
by sudden sickness   from his self altered.
From war she shrank not,   might her will conquer,
life both and love   with delight keeping
to wield as she wished   while the world lasted;
but little liked her   lonely exile,
or for love to lose   her life's splendour.
In sorrow they parted.   With searing words
his wound she probed   his will searching.

[canto III 95-103]

                     Dear he loved her.
Though in wrath she left him,   no ruth showing,
no pity feeling,   proud and scornful,
dear he loved her.

[canto III 165-168]

Guinever hiding   in the grey shadow
watched and waited,   while the world faltered;
grimhearted grown   as gladness waned
danger weighed she   in her dark counsel,
her hope in havoc,   in her heart thinking
men's fate to mould   to her mind's purpose.

[canto III 181-186]

Yet to rework the tale into a form more palatable to modern sensibilities, must, I fear, produce one that would ring false in our ears. Its roots extend too deep into the loathsome traditions of the Middle Ages. So long as its other medievalisms remain, its knights and serfs and the butchery of conflicting armies, such reworking will look like a whitewash over historical colour. It will look like a Victorian fig leaf over renaissance genitalia.

The Fall of Arthur recounts the wars of Arthur’s last days. Tolkien presents the fracas as clashes between vast, disembodied forces. They appear as storms awakened by men’s passions, but no longer subject to man’s command. They propel armies and navies against one another, heroes and kings to one another’s throats, but those forces themselves seem to encompass whole divisions of nature.



Dark wind came driving over deep water,
from the South sweeping surf upon the beaches,
a roaring sea rolling endless
huge hoarcrested hills of thunder.
The world darkened. Wan rode the moon
through stormy clouds streaming northward.
Mordred came then; and men trembled
at his dark visage drenched with water;
wind-tossed his hair, and his word grated:
'Do ye ransack with rabble this royal castle,
Because a ship from storm to shore flieth?
The king of Gothland on his carven prow
he smote to death and to sea drave him;
upon lords of Lochlan lightning hurled he,
helms boar-crested, heathen standards
hewed asunder. Hig rang his voice
'Arthur' calling. The air trembled
with thunderous answer thousandfolded.
As straw from storm, as stalks falling
before reapers ruthless, as roke flying
before rising sun wrathful blazing
his foemen fled.
As in last sortie from leaguered city
so Gawain led them.
Then came Gawain his king guarding
valiant-hearted the vaward leading:
a hundred ships with hulls shining
and shrouds swelling and shields swinging.
Behind beheld they the host faring:
deepweighed dromonds and drawn barges,
galleys and galleons with gear of war,
six hundred sail in the sun turning,
fair sight and fell.
From the West comes war that no wind daunteth,
might and purpose that no mist stayeth;
lord of legions, light in darkness,
east rides Arthur!
Shields on the water shorn and splintered
as flotsam floated.
In cloudless sky clear and golden
the sun at evening summer rekindled
in a glow sinking. The sea glimmered
under streaming stars in the steep heaven.
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.
                     Now pity whelmed him
and love of his land and his loyal people,
for the low misled and the long-tempted,
the weak that wavered, for the wicked grieving.
Beams fell slanting through the boughs of trees
glancing and glimmering in the grey forest;
rain drops running from rustling leaves
like drops of glass dripped and glistened.
                     Out of deep valleys
fogs unfurling floated upward;
dim vapours drowned, dank and formless,
the hills under heaven, the hollow places
in a fathomless sea foundered sunken.
Trees looming forth with twisted arms,
like weeds under water where no wave moveth,
out of mist menaced man forewandered.
Dark lay the road through dank valleys
among mounting hills mist-encircled
to the walls of Wales in the west frowning
brownfaced and bare.
Too long my lord from your land ye tarry!
While war ye wage on the wild peoples
in the homeless East, a hundred chiefs
their seahorses swift and deadly
have harnessed in havens of the hidden islands.
                     Grief knew Arthur
in his heart's secret, and his house him seemed
in mirth minished, marred in gladness,
his noblest knight in his need losing.
                     But what foe dareth
war here to wake or the walls assail
of this island-realm while Arthur liveth,
if the Eastern wolf in his own forest
at last embayed must for life battle?
Their hoary heads hills and mountains
tossed in tumult on the towering seas.
On Benwick's beaches breakers pounding
ground gigantic grumbling boulders
with ogre anger.
But fainer with fewer faithfulhearted
would I dare danger, than with doubtful swords
and tarnished shields of truant lieges
our muster swell.
'Liege and kinsman loyal and noble,
to tower and targe, my true counsel,
the path before us to peril leadeth.
                     But pale her cheek
for heart misgave her, as one that hounds tameth
to follower her feet and fawn at hand,
when wolf unawares walks among them.
                     The moon glittered
in glaring eyes upon their grey faces
death outstaring. Doom o'ercame them.
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