Completed 9/13/2015, Reviewed 9/15/2015
How do you review an unfinished poem in Old English style alliterative verse that’s about 45 pages long with 180 pages of commentary? Carefully? This is one of a group of books of alliterative verse that Tolkien never finished which his son published posthumously. It’s about the last tragic scenes from King Arthur’s life, with Mordred usurping the crown and pursuing Guinevere, the exile of Lancelot, and the death of Arthur. It’s told in alliterative verse, so it’s a tough read. I chose this book because I thought it would be a break from Middle-Earth and an introduction to the alliterative verse style I will encountering in the next book in the History of Middle Earth series. I’m glad I chose this over his longer poems. It was just the right amount to be overwhelmed.
Alliterative verse means that several words in a line begin with the same sound, like the T’s in “Attend the Tale of Sweeny Todd”. It was a common form of poetry used in Old and Middle English. This being my first encounter with it, I found myself often becoming fixated on the alliteration rather than the content. Add this to my already mediocre appreciation of poetry, and you can probably guess that I had to reread many verses to get what was going on. It took a while, but I was able to appreciate the musicality of the poetry.
The commentary was difficult to follow. I think one needs to be quite the bibliophile or at least have been an English major to appreciate the analysis that Christopher produced. The one chapter compared the poem to other Arthur texts. I found this quite confusing, only having read “The Once and Future King” in high school; my memory of the Arthur myth is very minimal. The texts Christopher discussed were some of the earliest documents describing the Arthur myth. I know it’s probably great analysis, but the bouncing between which text had what detail of the myth lost me.
Another chapter discussed the influence of the Arthur myth on the development of the Silmarillion, particularly Avalon, Numenor, and Atlantis. The third discussed the evolution of the poem from earlier drafts and notes. In both of these, the concepts are interesting and I could follow part of the discussion, but eventually, my eyes would glaze over and I’d be lost.
I give this book three stars out of five. It might be a brilliant book from the academic perspective, but that’s out of my realm. I’d recommend reading the poem though because it is an experience. Tolkien was quite the wordsmith. Despite my lack of academic prowess in literary analysis, I’ll continue to read Tolkien’s posthumous works. I’m hoping that by the time I get to the last of his works, I’ll be able to appreciate, if not understand, the sorts of things Christopher presents in these tomes.