Does King Arthur Matter Anymore?
Thoughts on The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
(Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)
For a thousand years, the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, after the Bible, was the story of Western civilization. Before the invention of the printing press, these tales were translated into English, Welsh, French, German, Spanish, Icelandic, Italian, and Russian, and hand-copied into books all over Europe. The first book printed in English was Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (“The Death of Arthur”) in 1485.
For a thousand years monks, bards, painters, novelists, composers, and historians have added to it, modernized it, and decorated it. I grew up hearing these stories from my mother, who had heard them from her father. I think it would be safe to say that practically everybody in the English-speaking world, years ago, had some acquaintance with King Arthur.
Out of curiosity, I recently questioned a publicly-schooled thirteen-year-old, and his thirty-eight-year-old uncle, to see how much they knew. The teenager had Arthur confused with King George III, and aside from that, knew nothing. The adult had heard of King Arthur and the Round Table, but drew blanks on Camelot, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot.
In a mere two generations, our culture has managed to erase a body of lore and legend that, for a millennium, was one of its chiefest ornaments.
Scholars are not sure whether Arthur ever existed at all. Under the thick layer of medieval add-ons, we find a military leader, not necessarily a king, who defended Christian, Romanized, civilized Britain from a wave of barbarian invasions sometime around the year A.D. 500. The earliest annals, bardic poems, Welsh triads, and saints’ lives give us little more than that. But centuries later, when Geoffrey of Monmouth made Arthur the centerpiece of his History of the Kings of Britain in 1136, an Arthurian “boom” swept across Europe and kept on booming for a thousand years.
Until, it seems, our own time. Today.
The Fall of Arthur is an unfinished poem by J.R.R. Tolkien, world-famous for his fantasy novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He seems to have stopped writing it sometime around 1934. His son, Christopher, has published it forty years after the author’s death.
Since the twelfth century, the keynote of the Arthurian legend has been the vague hope that he would return someday. To return, of course, means that first you have to go away. Judging by the non-answers offered by the teenager, you might say that Arthur finally has indeed departed from this world.
But has Professor Tolkien, himself departed forty years ago, brought him back?
A Poem about Fate?
Here is one of my favorite passages from the poem. Arthur, on campaign in Europe against the pagan invaders in their homeland, has just received the news that Mordred has usurped his throne, back home in Britain.
A while then Arthur white with anger
there sat in silence. Thus sudden fortune
had turned and betrayed him. In twenty battles
he had fought and conquered; his foes were scattered,
neath his hand were humbled heathen chieftains.
Now from hope’s summit headlong falling
his heart foreboded that his house was doomed,
the ancient world to its end falling,
and the tides of time turned against him. (Canto I, lines 171-180)
You may not have seen this kind of poetry before. It’s an ancient form of alliterative verse favored by the Norse peoples-including the heathen Anglo-Saxons, whose massive invasion of Britain created the nation of England. Tolkien was steeped in this tradition: it was his academic specialty, and one of the great passions of his life. But it’s ironic that he chose to tell the tale of Arthur in the form of poetry created by Arthur’s mortal enemies.
In Tolkien’s poem we can see a pitfall waiting for Christian artists who work in a non-Christian tradition.
The Old English, before their conversion to Christianity, believed that Fate-they called it “wyrd”-was the force that ruled the world: not God, but blind, inexorable Fate. As the Middle Ages wore on, Fate was translated into Fortune, symbolized by the Wheel of Fortune that raised kings up and then cast them down. These are not Christian concepts. They have no place in them for God’s sovereign lordship over heaven and earth, and His divine providence, guided by His righteous love and perfect wisdom. It is, instead, an inheritance from the pagan North, even as the teachings of Plato and Aristotle are the legacy of pagan Greece.
Tolkien sharply criticized his friend, C.S. Lewis, for all the classical, pagan Greek motifs he allowed to populate his Chronicles of Narnia-fauns, centaurs, dryads, and even a pagan “god” or two. But in The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien fell into the same error: not with fauns and centaurs, but with a whole worldview imported from the pagan Norse.
Which goes to show, I suppose, that Christian artists, like the rest of us, are only human.
And so Tolkien has Arthur raised up and then beaten down by fate, a beneficiary and then a victim of fortune. In this poem, although Arthur is plainly depicted as a Christian, his heroism stems from his great-hearted, but futile, refusal to submit to fortune. Tolkien was a devout Catholic. But he was also an ardent lover of the old Norse culture: and there is more of that in this poem than there is of Christianity.
Is This the ‘Real’ Arthur?
For a thousand years in the Western world, Arthur was the model of a Christian king: using his great strength to protect the weak, and establish law and justice in the land; defending the church against the heathen; promoting courage, honor, and chivalry. In that sense he mattered very much-even if Western kings and parliaments and presidents more often than not fell short of the ideal.
Now his legend has been buried under a landfill of humanism, sexual “liberation” movements, reality TV, video games, rap “music,” and cheap novels. Far from emulating Arthur, today’s national leaders look more like a rogues’ gallery of corruption, venality, scandal, and sheer lawlessness-more like the British lords excoriated by St. Gildas in his diatribe, On the Ruin of Britain. (Gildas was born in A.D. 500, the year, tradition has it, that Arthur won the decisive Battle of Badon against the Saxons.)
Whether Arthur himself existed or not, someone rallied the British and, for a generation or two, halted the Saxon advance. This won a breathing space in which the native Britons established themselves in Wales and in the north. The church was given time to convert the invaders to Christianity. By the year 700, the Old English themselves had produced their own Christian saints-Edmund, Oswald, and the Venerable Bede.
I have studied Arthurian lore all my life, and I enjoyed the poem. It takes up only forty pages of the book. The rest is commentary by Christopher Tolkien, of interest mostly to specialists. But he does provide us with some memorable lines that his father never incorporated into the “final” version. Such as:
Guinevere grew grey in the grey shadow
All things losing who at all things grasped. (p. 168)
We can only wonder what Tolkien might have accomplished with this poem, had he finished it. Would it be a good thing for children to learn about a Christian king who saved Christianity in his country, and won the survival of his people, against long odds?
Tolkien’s Arthur is undone by fate. His queen and his strongest knight, Lancelot, betray him by committing adultery together. Mordred, desiring throne and queen for himself, plots against the king …”and the tides of time turned against him.”
But that is all medieval tradition, post-Geoffrey. Lancelot and Guinevere made a story that courtly audiences of the twelfth century wanted to hear. There’s no evidence it really happened, no mention of it in Arthurian sources prior to Geoffrey. We are free to believe in King Arthur without obligation to believe that his queen and his champion, by their abominable sin, brought about his fall.
I cannot explain why Tolkien chose to incorporate the Lancelot-Guinevere affair into his poem. Christopher Tolkien does not address the issue.
The Return of King Arthur
By all means, let’s bring back King Arthur-not as a victim of fortune, but as a Christian hero subject to divine providence.
Because, you see, Arthur didn’t fail. In God’s providence, a new and Christian nation was created out of Britons and Saxons, a nation which sent its ministers all over the world, spreading God’s Word and helping to create more new nations, including our own. Subtract Arthur from history, and what do you get? The heathen swarming over Britain, the native Britons overwhelmed and turned into a vanished people, and the church in Britain very badly crippled, maybe even wiped out for a time. Those things didn’t happen because King Arthur happened.
As much as I love Tolkien, I think to write about “the fall of Arthur” was to miss the point of Arthur’s life.
By all means, bring Arthur back into the culture-not as a victim, but a victor.
As we enter a new kind of Dark Age, we’re going to need a new King Arthur.