Tolkien and the medieval sources of The Fall of Arthur

This Article was published in Lembas, magazine of the Dutch Tolkien Society Unqendor.

The first decades of the new millennium have undoubtedly been somewhat of an unexpected adventure for many Tolkien enthusiasts. Firstly, Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit awoke a huge popular interest in Middle-earth. Secondly, Tolkien’s son, Christopher, surprised devoted Tolkien-readers with even more unpublished work by his father: The Children of Húrin in 2007, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún in 2009, The Fall of Arthur in 2013 and this year (2014), on May the 22nd, Tolkien’s translation and commentary of Beowulf. In my opinion, all these publications have been a testament to the enormous knowledge, artistry and productivity of the author and I think that they have become essential for any further development in Tolkienistics.
In 2013-14 I wrote a review on The Fall of Arthur with doctor Frank Brandsma for Kelten, the magazine of the A.G. van Hamel Foundation. As a graduate student who specialized in medieval Arthurian literature, and a long-time Tolkien fan, I was very excited to read my favourite author’s interpretation of my favourite story. It was not a disappointment. I enjoyed every page of it and I wholeheartedly agreed with Christopher Tolkien when he said that The Fall of Arthur was “… one of the most grievous of his many abandonments.” (Tolkien 2013, 122) During my research I stumbled upon another review, written by the renowned medievalist and Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey. Here, he made a remarkable observation that teased my brain for quite a long time:

Arthur arguably posed even more difficult problems than Sigurd/Siegfried, for although the Volsungs and the Nibelungs exist in both Norse and German versions, the Arthurian epic had spread across the whole of Europe. Nevertheless, the major sources could be trimmed down. Geoffrey of Monmouth to begin with, in the twelfth century, and the Geoffrey-based Brut of Layamon, which Tolkien certainly read attentively: in The Lord of the Rings Éowyn’s cry “Begone, foul dwimmerlaik!” borrows a word from it. In the fourteenth century the anonymous Alliterative Morte Arthur continued Geoffrey’s chronicle-tradition, while the also anonymous Stanzaic Morte Arthur brought in the French tradition centred on Lancelot and Guinevere rather than on Arthur’s fabulous European wars. Both these, and the French “Vulgate Cycle” as well, were then subsumed into Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. The material Tolkien chose to deal with was then manageable, if provocatively inconsistent. (Shippey 2013)

This last sentence caught my attention. Was Tolkien’s use of medieval sources in The Fall of Arthur really “provocatively inconsistent”?  This question lingered in my mind until, finally, with this article, an opportunity arose to investigate the matter more closely.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is probably the only work of Tolkien with a similar nature as The Fall of Arthur. In both of these cases, Tolkien’s labour resulted in works which are original and authentic but which, at the same time, are rooted in long medieval traditions. As such, I will consider both of these works (albeit not to the same degree). In conclusion I will discuss The Fall of Arthur in relation to other modern adaptations of the Arthurian legend. Are the ‘inconsistencies’ in Tolkien’s medieval material really that provocative?
I realize that an article of this size can never adequately answer all these questions in its entirety. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and The Fall of Arthur are inspired by medieval literary traditions  to which some scholars have devoted their entire careers. However, I think that the posthumous publications of these texts provide literary critics with a unique opportunity, not only to better understand Tolkien as an artist and an author, but also as a medievalist and a scholar. In my opinion, it is only in the combination of these different roles that we can fully appreciate Tolkien’s unmatched craftsmanship.

The medieval sources of Tolkien’s retellings

Let’s take a closer look at some of the sources that Tolkien used in his adaptation of the Arthurian legend. In the passage quoted in the introduction, Tom Shippey already gave an overview of the medieval material that had inspired Tolkien’s Arthur. But to understand what he meant it is important to consider some of them separately.
First and foremost among the sources mentioned is the Alliterative Morte Arthure. This work, written around 1400 by an anonymous poet, tells the story of the last part of King Arthur’s life and his eventual death at the hands of the traitor Mordred. Therefore, the Alliterative Morte Arthure is a logical place to start, for it does not only treat the same subject-matter as Tolkien’s Arthur (i.e. Arthur’s downfall and death), but it also uses the same literary form, namely alliterative verse.
At the start of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, King Arthur already rules over an enormous kingdom that stretches out over the European mainland. The poem opens with a prayer, after which the narrator dispenses some background information on Arthur’s rule. Then a Roman senator arrives at Arthur’s court and claims that the lands, though conquered by Arthur, are still part of the Roman empire and are thus still obliged to pay tribute to Rome. Arthur, of course, disputes this and war is declared.
To those who have read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, this should seem like a familiar scene. In Geoffrey’s work, the Britons are direct descendants of Brutus of Troy, who is the great-grandson of the legendary founder of Rome, Aeneas. In Geoffrey’s Historia the Britons and Romans have a complicated relationship and are constantly at odds with each other. This is not the case in Tolkien’s adaptation of the legend, but The Fall of Arthur does open in a similar war-like tone:

Arthur eastward    in arms purposed
his war to wage    on the wild marches
over sea’s sailing    to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm    ruin defending. (v. 1-4)

Here we see an Arthur, not attacking Rome, but seemingly defending what is left of it against the Saxon invaders. The atmosphere is grim and king Arthur and his nephew, sir Gawain, are portrayed like battle-hardened warriors:

Thus Arthur in arms    eastward journeyed,
and war awoke    in the wild regions.
Halls and temples    of the heathen kings
his might assailed    marching in conquest
from the mouths of the Rhine    o’er many kingdoms. (v. 39-43)

Tolkien chose to portray Arthur as a warrior-king. Those who are familiar with Tolkien’s legendarium will know that Tolkien had an affinity for epic scale wars, but also that he had a certain preference for a particular kind of king, usually descending from a great lineage, but with a humble personal background. Aragorn is a good example of such a king. He was a descendant of the great Isildur, but he was also exiled and chose a life as a ranger and an outcast.[1] In this respect, Arthur must have been a king quite to Tolkien’s liking. In the romance-tradition of the post-vulgate cycle and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, he was born as the son of king Uther Pendragon and Igraine but (through Merlin’s intervention) he was raised by Sir Ector in the British countryside. In Tolkien’s adaptation, however, Arthur already rules over a large kingdom (like in the Alliterative Morte Arthure) and his childhood is not discussed anywhere. Tolkien’s  choice to portray Arthur as a warrior-king is mostly in agreement with the Alliterative Morte Arthure, which is much more indebted to the chronicle-tradition. In his famous edition of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, Larry D. Benson says the following on its portrayal of Arthur:

The King Arthur of this poem is neither the “somewhat childish” romance king who appears in Sir Gawain nor the helpless cuckold he so often seems in French romance. He is a warrior king, shifting his troops about, sending out skirmishers, and ever ready to do battle himself. (Benson 1986, xv)

This last sentence is of pivotal importance when we consider the characterization of Arthur. Shippey already linked the Alliterative Morte Arthure with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia. In this “history” we find Arthur to be a similar warrior-king. For example, Geoffrey claims that at the battle of Badon Hill, Arthur single-handedly defeated 960 foes in one charge. It is clear that his battle-prowess is of great importance and the exaggerated number of defeated foes mainly serves to illustrate and emphasize this. Like Shippey, Benson also explicitly links the Alliterative Morte Arthure to the chronicle-tradition:

The Alliterative Morte Arthure is in the tradition of sober chronicle history, which stems ultimately from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. Our poet, of course, used other sources as well, but his fondness for precise dates, his use of real place names, and his comparative lack of interest in the supernatural lend his poem the air of chronicle rather than romance. So does his lack of interest in matters of love and courtly manners. Honour is more important than courtesy in the poem; Gawain is a great warrior, not a famous courtier, and Lancelot is only a young and fierce knight, with no hint of interest in Guenevere (or Waynor as she is called in this poem). Guenevere’s desertion of Arthur seems more political than an amatory act, and Arthur is infuriated rather than heartbroken. (Benson 1986, xvi-xvii)

The link between the The Fall of Arthur and the chronicle-tradition seems obvious. As an author with a scholarly background, Tolkien was always very outspoken about his ideas on (good) literature. In relation to the kind of “historical” legends of the chronicle-tradition, Tolkien made some remarks in a letter, written in 1951. During this period Tolkien (with some difficulty) was trying to get some of his work published. At the suggestion of Milton Waldman, he wrote an elaborate letter in which he tried to convince the publisher that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion should be published together. In this undated letter we can find some very interesting ideas of Tolkien in relation to myths, fairy tales and legends in general:

But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite. (Tolkien 1981, 144)

In the passage above Tolkien clearly phrases some of his personal preferences, among which “heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history”. Here, he writes not only as an author, but also as a reader, with the intention to arouse the publisher’s interest in his own work. This letter is also one of the few instances where Tolkien openly gives his opinion about the Arthurian material and legend as a whole:

Also – and here I hope I shall not sound absurd – I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its ‘faerie’ is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. (Tolkien 1981, 144)

This passage is a bit deceptive in that it might suggest a negative assessment of the Arthurian legend on Tolkien’s part. That, however, would be the wrong conclusion. In relation to this letter, we have to bear in mind that Tolkien was, first of all, trying to promote his own legendarium, that of the fictional world of Arda. But to understand his objections here, it is important to consider the term faerie. In his essay On Fairy Stories Tolkien defines this term in the following way:

Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. Yet I hope that what I have later to say about the other questions will give some glimpses of my own imperfect vision of it. For the moment I will say only this: a “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso : if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away. Of this seriousness the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an admirable example. (Tolkien 1983, 114)

It is interesting that Tolkien refers to the ‘faerie’ of the Arthurian legend as “too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive”, but (at the same time) in his essay On Fairy Stories he used precisely an example from an Arthurian romance to illustrate what his concept of good ‘faerie’ actually entails. What this means is not that Tolkien’s ideas were incoherent or inconsistent, but merely that the Arthurian legend is of such an enormous size that one will always find good and bad examples when discussing a particular literary phenomenon. Hence, Tolkien was attracted to “magic of a peculiar mood and power” something which he found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but not necessarily in other incarnations of the Arthurian legend. In his essay on Sir Gawain, Tolkien describes the ‘faerie’ of the poem with great clarity:

That is the way with the greater fairy-stories – of which this is one. There is indeed no better medium for moral teaching than the good fairy-story (by which I mean a deep rooted tale, told as a tale, and not a thinly disguised moral allegory). As the author of Sir Gawain, it would seem, perceived; or felt instinctively, rather than consciously: for being a man of the fourteenth century, a serious, didactic, encyclopaedic, not to say pedantic century, he inherited ‘faerie’, rather than deliberately turned to it. (Tolkien 1983, 73)

What is essential here, is the attitude of the poet. The Gawain-poet doesn’t turn to magic in an artificial way (as an arcane practice) nor in a conscious way (as a literary device), but instinctively; as if it were an intrinsic part of the fictional world.
Aside from the the chronicle-tradition, which primarily leans on a semi-historical account of events, Tolkien’s Arthur also draws on the romance-tradition. It is mainly here that we find what we might call the Arthurian faerie that Tolkien referred to in his essays. Benson placed the Stanzaic Morte Arthur in this particular tradition with the following arguments:

The Stanzaic Morte Arthur represents a different tradition, more familiar to modern readers, one in which the emphasis is more romantic than historical. Arthur is the lord of the fictional Camelot (a place never mentioned in the Alliterative poem), and his most famous campaign is in Lancelot’s legendary kingdom of Benwick rather than Metz or Milan. When he goes to the Isle of Avalon, it is not because there are skilled surgeons there who try and fail to cure his wounds, as in the alliterative poem, but because the three strange ladies come to take him away in a magic boat. (Benson 1986, xvii)

The chronicle-tradition, in its effort to present the reader with a more or less ‘historic’ Arthur tends to avoid magic. However, the attraction of Tolkien to the romance-tradition, as his analyses of Sir Gawain already demonstrated, is evident through the presence of ‘faerie’. But unfortunately (not to say surprisingly), there are no examples of magic in The Fall of Arthur, except for the prophecy in Canto IV of Mordred’s doom at the hands of Lancelot:

For Lancelot,    Lord of Benwick,
Most he hated    and yet most dreaded,
and words of witchcraft    well remembered
that lords of Benwick    the lily bearing
in open battle    should ever challenge
he would reap ruin. (v. 102-7)

In the review I wrote with doctor Brandsma we criticised, what we deemed to be, Christopher Tolkien’s superfluous treatment of Avalon. However, based on what I wrote above, Christopher’s chronological positioning of the work might actually be of great interest, as he linked the naming Tol Eressëa with the Arthurian Avalon around the time that Tolkien worked on The Fall of Arthur. Christopher Tolkien writes the following based on his father’s notes:

On the departure of Arthur we have only these sentences (pp. 135-6): “Arthur is dying in the gloom. Robbers search the field. Caliburn and the lake. The dark ship comes up the river. Arthur placed in it.” And subsequently we read that Lancelot sailed into the west following Arthur, but never returns, and “Whether he found him in Avalon and will return no one knows.” (Tolkien 2013, 139)

This would imply that Tolkien had every intention of including Avalon in his adaptation of the legend but that he simply never got around to it (as he abandoned the work somewhere around 1934). If there is any realm in the Arthurian legend which borders on the magical, it is certainly Avalon. As much as the chronicle-tradition fancies real place names, the romance-tradition fancies legendary places. Besides Avalon, another good example of legendary places is Lancelot’s legendary kingdom of Benwick (also refered to as Benoit). The character of Lancelot, as the famous knight who had an affair with queen Guenevere, is mainly a product of the romance-tradition:

In the stanzaic poem, the tale of the love of Lancelot and Guenevere has been superimposed on the basic plot. The focus is shifted to the clash of loyalties and internal divisions of the Round Table itself; the significant foreign war is now that between Arthur’s forces and Lancelot’s, and Arthur’s death is now due as much to the feud between Lancelot and Gawain as it is to Morderd’s rebellion. Morderd is changed from the principal (and largely unmotivated) villain to simply one more element in the complex circumstances in which all the characters are trapped. (Benson 1986, xvii)

Based on his father’s notes, Christopher explains that in The Fall of Arthur, the death of Arthur would in part be the result of Lancelot arriving too late on the battlefield. It is obvious that Tolkien wanted to emphasize a “breaking of the fellowship” among Arthur’s knighs as they abandon the ideal of the Round Table for personal reasons: Lancelot for an adulterous love, Gawain for vengeance and Mordred for power and ambition. We find this idea almost literally in the third Canto of The Fall of Arthur:

In evil hour    was Agravain
the dour-handed    to death smitten –
by the door he fell – dear to Gawain.
Swift swords were drawn    by sworn brethren
and the Round Table    rent asunder
in the Queen’s quarrel. (III v. 68-73)

I have tried to demonstrate how Tolkien constructed his own unique version of the Arthurian legend based on a selection of medieval material stemming from the chronical and romance traditions respectively. Now, let’s consider some general properties of Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, as it is a work that is of a similar nature. However, as I am a neophyte in Eddaic poetry, I will try to treat this subject-matter carefully and with the modesty that is appropriate in such a case.
Tolkien’s preference for ‘heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history’ is clear and we have seen how the Arthurian legend through the chronicle and romance tradition, unites these two properties. The same could be said of the material that Tolkien used for his Sigurd. Here too, we find historical characters like Atilla (Atli) the Hun and Gunnar, the king of the Burgundians, but which also has these ‘faerie’ or magical elements like Fafnir the dragon and Andvari the dwarf and his magic ring. Christopher opens his introduction to Tolkien’s Sigurd with a passage from On Fairy-Stories:

I had very little desire to look for buried treasure or fight pirates, and Treasure Island left me cool. Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows (I had and have a wholly unsatisfied desire to shoot well with a bow), and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and above all, forests in such stories. But the land of Merlin and Arthur were better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd and the Völsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable. (Tolkien 2009, 3)

For his adaptation of the legend of Sigurd, Tolkien used a variety of medieval sources. Among these were The Völsunga saga, a legend on the rise and fall of the Völsung-clan, written in the 13th century, the Prose (or Younger) Edda written by the Icelandic scholar and historian Snorri Sturluson around 1220, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. But the most important source is probably the Poetic (or Elder) Edda.
The Elder Edda only survived the ages in the form of a manuscript, Codex Regius, which was supposedly copied from an older version in the 1270’s. Unfortunately, time has been rather cruel on the manuscript and considerable parts of it were lost. In the end, only 45 pages survived and after page 32 another 8 pages are missing. According to Christopher, his father thought that (among other things) these pages contained the “Long Lay of Sigurd”, which would have been an important part of the manuscript. It was this lacuna that Tolkien primarily used to give his own interpretation of the legend, partly based on the works I have mentioned above. On his own Sigurd, the so-called ‘New Lays’, Tolkien said the following in a post scriptum of a letter to the poet W.H. Auden:

Thank you for your wonderful effort in translating and reorganising The Song of the Sibyl. In return again I hope to send you, if I can lay my hands on it (I hope it isn’t lost), a thing I did many years ago when trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry: an attempt to unify the lays about the Völsungs from the Elder Edda, written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza. (Tolkien 1981, 379)

According to Christopher, this is exactly what his father did in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, an attempt to ‘unify’ and ‘reorganize’ the Norse legend, but this does not do the work justice as it is also a reinterpretation and thus an original work in itself. In this regard, Tolkien’s treatment of Sigurd is very similar to what he did in The Fall of Arthur. The passage above ends with a comment on the literary form of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and it is mainly this property of both thes work that we should pay extra attention.

The literary form of Tolkien’s retellings

In the last passage I quoted, Tolkien referred to a time in which he tried “to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry”.  Years later, W.H. Auden the poet (the poet to which he wrote this letter) recalled a lecture by Tolkien that he attended and which became his first encounter with Old English alliterative poetry:

I remember one [lecture] I attended, delivered by Professor Tolkien. I do not remember a single word he said but at a certain point he recited, and magnificently, a long passage of Beowulf. I was spellbound. This poetry, I knew, was going to be my dish. I became willing, therefore, to work at Anglo-Saxon because, unless I did, I should never be able to read this poetry. I learned enough to read it, however sloppily, and Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry have been one of my strongest and most lasting influences.[2] (Carl Phelpstead 2004, 434)

Auden left Oxford in 1928 and though he does not specify when exactly he attended this lecture, both The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and The Fall of Arthur were probably written in the early 1930’s. According to Christopher, his father probably started working on the Norse poems right after abandoning his work on the Lay of Leithian but, as far back as 1925, Tolkien was already working on the alliterative poem The Lay of the Children of Húrin. His efforts ‘to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry’ was by no means a mere phase, but something to which Tolkien had devoted a substantial amount of his creative efforts. The works that I have discussed here should be considered a result of that labour.
The Alliterative Morte Arthure, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf are all written in what is called the ‘alliterative long line’. Characteristic for this form of verse is its division into two parts (or hemistichs) by a heavy pause or caesura. The first verse is called the a- or on-verse, the second is the b- or off-verse. Each of these parts contain two predominant stresses (chief syllables) and so there are four in the entire line. The stanza’s are of a varying length, mostly comprising a single concept, idea or event. In The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien used the exact same literary form as the Alliterative Morte Arthure. The most important difference is that Tolkien’s Arthur is written in modern English instead of Middle English.
The same goes for The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. Here, again, Tolkien used alliterative verse, but in this case that of a different tradition, namely the so-called fornyrðislag, which means “Old Lore Metre”, though, according to Christopher, his father preferred the term ‘kviðuháttr’, meaning “the manner” (Tolkien 2009, 45). This particular type of verse consists of stanza’s with four long lines, each of which are divided into two half lines. Every half line consists of two stressed syllables and an unspecified number of unstressed syllables (but usually no fewer than two or more than four). At least one stressed syllable (or lift) in the first half line alliterates with the first stressed syllable (the so called head stave) in the second half line, though it is possible for both of them to alliterate with this head stave, and so with each other. The second stressed syllable in the second half-line cannot alliterate with it. Again, Tolkien largely used the same literary form as the Elder Edda. However, there are some noteworthy differences, the most important of which is the strophic form, which is less strict in the Elder Edda and, unlike Tolkien’s version, varies regularly.
Based on what I have discussed here it is clear that Tolkien did not merely select his medieval sources on the basis of their content, but also for their particular literary form. Here we see the synthesis of Tolkien’s role as scholar and author most clearly. His familiarity with alliterative verse, his extensive knowledge of Old Norse and Old English and his ability to use this literary form for his own original retelling of these legends are unique and without question unsurpassed by any modern author.


The last sentence is of great importance when we try to evaluate Tolkien’s work. Whether we are discussing The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur, or even The Lord of the Rings for that matter, it is essential that we keep in mind that we are talking about a 20th century author. In the end, it was this what bothered me about Shippey’s remark. When he called Tolkien’s selection of medieval material for his Arthur ‘provocatively inconsistent’ that would have been true if Tolkien had lived in the 1400’s, when the chronicle-tradition still had some credibility and such a choice would have implied a preference for either the pseudo-historiographical or purely fictional approach. But this, of course, is not the case, since we know now that the chronical tradition is in every way as fictional as the romance tradition. Though Tolkien might have found Shippey’s assessment amusing (or maybe even flattering) in my opinion it doesn’t do his work justice to be evaluated on medieval criteria. However, this seems typical of a lot of literary criticism when regarding Tolkien’s work and most of it either fails to appreciate Tolkien’s knowledge and mastery of medieval literature or his unique abilities as a 20th century author. In an article on the Arthur of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Norris J. Lacy makes the following observation:

As illustrated by the preceding examples, the Arthurian legend provides a complex set of symbols, motifs and points of reference that can be appropriated by poets, novelists, filmmakers and others, with reasonable confidence that the reference will not be lost on the audience. Among those easily recognizable features are the Holy Grail and the quest, Merlin, the sword in the stone, the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the possible return of the ‘once and future’ king. The twentieth century saw these features recast in numerous forms and permutations, and later in the century a good many authors would increasingly liberate themselves form the traditional authoritative sources, leading to some original and appealing creations but also to a good many eccentric works that appear to have no anchor at all in traditional models. (Lacy 2009, 122)

What sets The Fall of Arthur apart is not its provocatively inconsistent use of medieval sources, on the contrary. Such a practice has slowly become the norm for modern adaptations of the Arthurian legend. After all, modern authors generally do not feel obligated to justify their use of sources which largely originate from both historical and literary traditions. Instead, The Fall of Arthur is unique for its presentation of the Arthurian legend in the old form of its medieval literary art, which, as far as I am concerned, is extremely rare, if not completely non-existent among modern adaptations. This is why The Fall of Arthur truly is ‘the most grievous of his many abandonments’, because it would have been a unique work among its modern contemporaries. The reason it has now been published and enjoys so much attention is, of course, because of the last name of the author. But I hope that, with this article, I have been able to shed some light on the actual quality of this work.


  • Benson, L.D. King Arthur’s Death, Exeter, University Press of Exeter, 1986.
  • Carpenter, H. (ed.) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, London, HarperCollins, 2006.
  • Lacy, N.J. ‘The Arthur of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ in The Cambridge companion to the Arthurian Legend, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 120-135.
  • Shippey, T. ‘Tolkien’s King Arthur’ published in The Times Literary Supplement, 2013 (digital source:
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays, London, HarperCollins, 2006.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, London, HarperCollins, 2009.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur, London, HarperCollins, 2013.

[1] But also Thorin Oakenshield, the dispossessed dwarven king and grandson of Thrór, ruler of the once wealthy kingdom of Erebor, and Bard the Bowman, a descendant from Lord Girion, the last king of Dale, who was a mere soldier of the impoverished Lake-town during the attack of the dragon Smaug.

[2] It is possible that the lecture to which Auden refers to is the one added by Christopher at the end of The Fall of Arthur.

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