The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Tolkien has certainly been busy for an author dead for forty years; here's yet another new book. Actually, though, this one's been awaited for nearly that long, as this unfinished epic poem in alliterative verse was first described, and quoted from, in Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien in 1977.
And pretty fragmentary it is: the extant text consists of four cantos of about 220 lines each, plus about a quarter of a fifth canto, before the author abandoned it, sometime in the mid-1930s, though he long meant to pick it up again. That makes about a fifth of an already short book, the rest being editorial material.
As verse, I thought it astonishingly good: clearly written and intensely readable. Usually in epic verse I nod off for long periods when I'm not quite sure what the author is talking about, but not here. Even more than in Tolkien's other alliterative poems, he proves himself here a master of this ancient verse form used by hardly anybody else for five hundred years.
Although the narrative focus is abbreviated, more like the prose of The Silmarillion than anything in The Lord of the Rings, it has some vivid imagery, particularly landscape imagery, strongly reminiscent of Tolkien's more familiar writings. I liked a passage at the start of canto 4, describing horsemen riding through a drear country. "Night fell behind. The noise of hooves / was lost in silence in a land of shadow." Sound like anything else you've read? In canto 1, Arthur and his men pass through a forest called Mirkwood, a name Tolkien didn't invent, and it gets the descriptive treatment you'd expect.
The story is straightforward. Arthur and his men are campaigning off on the continent somewhere when they hear that Mordred, who'd been left behind as regent, has declared himself king and hired hordes of mercenaries. Arthur decides he'd better head back. Mordred - the most vividly drawn character, a cross between Saruman and Macbeth - learns of Arthur's imminent return. He rushes to the bower of Guinever, for whom he secretly lusts, and tells her she can be his queen or his slave, and she'd better choose quickly. Guinever defies him gallantly, and uses the little time he allows her to sneak off and run away, thereby earning herself a minor place among Tolkien's little-known list of gutsy female characters. A parenthetical canto on Lancelot explains that his affair with Guinever is long in the past, she'd been forgiven and he's living in exile, waiting for a summons back he never gets. Arthur returns, and wins the ensuing, very briefly described battle, and that's about where the poem drops off.
Longer than the poem is each of 3 appendical essays by CT. The first tries to place the storyline in the history of a confusing welter of similar but differing, interchangeably-titled medieval Arthurian tales from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory. I had a lot more trouble understanding this than I did the poem. The third describes the voluminous draft material for the poem at hand. And the second and most interesting analyzes the notes and drafts for the unwritten part of the story. What's going to catch the reader's eye here are the note that Lancelot is to set sail into the West and never return, and some material identifying Avalon with Tolkien's earthly Elvish paradise, Tol Eressëa. But the latter should not be a surprise to Tolkienists, as the writings making that equation had been published in The History of Middle-earth as much as 25 years ago. The suggestion that Lancelot is to be identified with Eriol/Ælfwine, the sea-wanderer who, in Tolkien's earliest tales, comes to Tol Eressëa and has the stories of the Silmarillion recounted to him, doesn't hold up for me, because the important thing about Ælfwine is that he comes back and passes on those stories. By longing for the West, but we never learn if he gets there or not, it seems to me that Lancelot here is to be placed with Tuor and Amandil, who share his yearning and his unknown fate.
Chewy stuff, but only for devotees. Even the readability of the poem doesn't make this anything more than a specialty-interest volume, and it's a little embarrassing to see it published as a general-interest trade book, the more so as the grumbling about "laundry lists" is already being heard, again. It's not a laundry list. Those who neither know what they're talking about nor care about it had best just ignore it.