Tolkien's Take on the Arthurian Legends

The Arthurian legends have come a long way over the years, from 12th century English cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain to 15th century poet Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur to, well, the handsome stylings of Sean Connery and Clive Owen. But "The Fall of Arthur," a "new" (unpublished) poem by The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, takes the legends back to their roots.

Tolkien, who passed away in 1973, took the Arthurian legends so far back, in fact, that he passed over hundreds of years wherein blank verse was the standard form of English epic poetry. That means his new poem won't feature the rhythms you'd recognize from most English language epics, like translations of Dante's The Divine Comedy (here translated by Longfellow),

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark

or Milton's Paradise Lost,

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe

Tolkien instead embraced the Old English tradition of alliterative verse -- the language of Beowulf and much of the medieval poetry he loved. What is alliterative verse, exactly? It features four-beat lines, often split in half by a pause (usually a comma) -- it's a rhythm that some scholars propose arose from the cadence of a ship's oar strokes. The sound is muscular and fierce rather than flowing. You can hear this in the new poem's opening lines, which were published in The Guardian:

Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.
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.

You'll notice, too, how alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds) aggressively presses the lines forward -- for example: "war," "wage" and "wild" in the second line and "seas," "sailing" and "Saxon" in the third.

It will be interesting to see how Tolkien handles the old legends, and how readers respond to the old form in the hands of such a talented and popular author. Harper Collins, the poem's publisher, acknowledges that the book's audience will probably be somewhat "specialized." In the 21st Century, people are accustomed to having their Arthurian legends with a side of Richard Gere riding a horse in slow motion.

The Fall of Arthur is scheduled for release in the UK in May of next year.