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.