The BBC Genome Project has been uploading on its site listings information which the BBC printed in Radio Times between 1923 and 2009. I’ve been meaning to have a little look there for Tolkien-related items for a while. There are many (315 entries) but I was particularly interested in programmes in which Tolkien himself participated in some way. I didn’t expect to find anything brand new – Tolkien scholarship has recorded and discussed Tolkien’s BBC interviews and other contributions for many years now. But there were still interesting finds! The earliest two of the Tolkien-related programmes found in this database are from the 1930s, and for this decade the Genome Project includes digitized files of the actual pages in the Radio Times with that particular day’s listings. So here we go:
1. ‘Pearl’, 7 August 1936, 23.40
This was a broadcast of parts of Tolkien’s translation of the Middle English poem ‘Pearl’, described in the Radio Times as “perhaps the loveliest of all old English poems”, a lament of a distraught father for his little daughter, complete with elements of dream vision and medieval allegory. The BBC Radio Times listing notes that:
This poem has been modernised by J. R. R. Tolkien in such a way that it keeps all the delicacy and atmosphere of the original mediaeval poem.
At some point in or around early 1936 Tolkien had offered his translation of this poem to the London publisher J.M. Dent for publication but was rejected. However, Guy Pocock, who joined the BBC in 1936, saw it and recommended that the translation would make a good radio programme (see Tolkien Chronology, pp. 193, 199). Tolkien’s translation of “Pearl” wasn’t published until 1975, two years posthumously, together with his translations of Sir Gawain and the Greek Knight and Sir Orfeo.
What I find fascinating is perusing the programmes preceding Tolkien’s ‘Pearl’ – one can imagine Tolkien tuning in to hear his own translation being read out, and perhaps catching some of the programming around it. That particular Friday, the programme earlier that evening included a recording of a speech by Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement, from what is described as the “International Boy Scouts’ Jamboree”, which, however, must be the Northern Counties Jamboree, at Raby Castle, near Staindrop, County Durham. I speculated in my 2008 monograph that Tolkien was at least familiar with scouting principles and learning, but we now know that he and his brother, Hillary, were definitely involved in the movement, having started three patrols of scouts at the Birmingham Oratory. I wonder whether Tolkien would have listened to Lord Baden Powell’s speech that evening, while waiting to listen to the broadcast of his translation of ‘Pearl’!
2. ‘Poetry Will Out’, 14 January 1938, 22:45
Following Tolkien’s seminal 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, C.V. Salmon of the BBC wrote to Tolkien to discuss the possibility of “a broadcast on Beowulf with a reading in the original Old English” (Tolkien Chronology, p. 220). This led to a very short talk which was broadcast on 14 January 1938, as part of a series of short programmes titled “Poetry Will Out”, subtitled: “Studies in National Inspiration and Characteristic Forms” (Radio Times, 14 Jan 1938). Later Tolkien enlarged this talk, parts of which Christopher Tolkien edited and published as an Appendix to The Fall of Arthur (2013), under the title “Old English Verse”.
Once more, the context of this short broadcast is interesting. The Genome Project lists 6 programmes in the “Poetry Will Out” series, with a clear aim:
The idea of this series is that poetry is to be found in the hearts of all peoples, although among different peoples it takes different forms. Some of these forms-the French sonnet, Scandinavian sagas, Italian epics, and so forth – are traced in this series.
Tolkien’s actually was the 6th and last broadcast of the series. Here is the full list of subjects and contributors, all by University Professors, one of whom was Tolkien’s close collaborator and friend, E.V. Gordon:
1. Wednesday 3 November 1937, “Persian Poetry”, by Sir E. Denison Ross, C.I.E., Professor of Persian in the University of London
2. Tuesday 23 November 1937, “The French Sonnet”, by Louis Brandin, Fielden Professor of French and of Romance Philology in the University of London
3. 11 December 1937, “The Nibelungenlied”, by Frederick Norman, Reader in German at King’s College, London
4. Thursday 16 December 1937, “Dante”, by Cesare Foligno, Serena Professor of Italian at Oxford
5. Thursday 30 December 1937, “The Icelandic Eddas”, by E. V. Gordon, Smith Professor of English language and Germanic Philology in the University of Manchester
6. Friday 14 January 1938, “Anglo-Saxon Verse”, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Oxford
Let’s hope that the Genome Project will continue to digitize old Radio Times issues – let’s see what else we can discover about Tolkien’s BBC links!
The last few years have seen the publication of two of Tolkien’s works that scholars and serious fans have known about for a very long time:
Tolkien’s unfinished alliterative poem The Fall of Arthur[i] and
Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf (together with relevant notes from Tolkien’s lectures, as well as his fairy-tale Selic Spell and two Lays on the story of Beowulf)[ii]
Review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur
A lot has been written and said about the contribution of the Beowulf volume to Old English scholarship and on the ways Tolkien thought about the English Arthurian tradition as evidenced in The Fall of Arthur, but what I want to focus on today is what is it that linked those two works in Tolkien’s imagination as represented in his Middle-earth mythology.
So let me start with The Fall of Arthur:
It’s probably bad etiquette to begin with a quotation from my own published stuff, but bear with me: in this paper I may have to be self-reflective at points as I have long been interested in Tolkien’s “Celtic” sources, and I have hazarded public speculations on The Fall of Arthur before it ever appeared in print. So, here it goes:
Carpenter seems to be pointing to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur as an immediate source for Tolkien’s poem. However, Tolkien’s poem was written in alliterative metre, while Malory’s is in prose.
There are actually two very short fragments, of no more than forty five lines in total, from the unpublished “Fall of Arthur” available to the researcher within Tolkien’s manuscripts at the Bodleian… [and] it is significant that Christopher Tolkien’s note on the Folio refers to the poem as “Morte Arthure”. This title would not point to Malory’s poem but rather to the Middle-English text known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure. This is a late fourteenth-century Arthurian romance, which, together with the almost contemporary Stanzaic Morte Arthur, forms the main English Arthurian tradition before Malory […] Tolkien might have showed a preference for this poem rather than for Malory’s work because of it being part of the alliterative revival, a literary movement which began in the mid-fourteenth century and included such works as the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Tolkien co-edited with his colleague E. V. Gordon and also translated into Modern English alliterative verse. […]
Apart from a tribute to the alliterative form, though, the poem could also be a tribute to the Arthur of the English, to the English Arthurian tradition.Unfortunately, Tolkien’s “Fall of Arthur” is not available to consult and compare with either Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, or the Alliterative Morte Arthure, but both works would qualify as depicting an English Arthur, as opposed to a Welsh, or even worse for Tolkien, a French one.[iv] (emphasis added)
At that time I had very little to go on: just Carpenter’s description of The Fall of Arthur[v] and those 45 or so lines in the Bodleian (in pretty undecipherable handwriting), but Tolkien’s love and desire for a modern revival of alliterative poetry had been long known (not least from his published work – especially in The Lord of the Rings) and, of course, much has been written and discussed about Tolkien’s Francophobia; and Tolkien as a writer of Englishness, interested in an English mythology and identity, as opposed to “things Celtic”.
I suppose I got some things right – which brought a great feeling of relief when I finally read The Fall of Arthur in its entirety: the Alliterative Morte Arthure is indeed the most substantial source for Tolkien’s unfinished poem, and Christopher Tolkien’s commentary seems to support the idea that Tolkien had in mind the English “chronicle” tradition of King Arthur, rather than the French “Romance” tradition, or the Arthurian folklore tradition from the Welsh material. But, then, I really didn’t expect that Tolkien was contemplating linking The Fall of Arthur with his own legendarium. This was a complete surprise, which opened entirely new questions and research avenues.
For me, The Fall of Arthur raised two intriguing questions that demanded answers:
What was Arthur doing in the East at the beginning of The Fall of Arthur?
Where (and what) is Avalon?
I will address the latter first.
From Tolkien’s drafts and MSS on The Fall of Arthur, we know that he had certain ideas about how his poem would end. As I said above, Tolkien followed very closely (and for a large part of his poem) the Alliterative Morte Arthure. But the Alliterative Morte Arthure ends with the mortally wounded Arthur taken to Glastonbury, where he is eventually buried with great ceremony. In Tolkien’s drafts we have, instead:
Arthur dying in the gloom. Robbers search the field. [Excalibur >] Caliburn and the lake. The dark ship comes up the river. Arthur placed upon it.
Lancelot… rides ever west. The hermit by the sea shore tells him of Arthur’s departure. Lancelot gets a boat and sails west and never returns. – Eärendel passage.[vi]
And in another draft:
Lancelot parts from Guinevere and sets sail for Benwick but turns west and follows after Arthur. And never returns from the sea. Whether he found him in Avalon and will return no one knows.[vii](emphasis added)
In the extraordinary draft poem that follows, which Christopher Tolkien calls, for convenience, “Eärendel’s Quest” (it seems to be the “Eärendel passage” Tolkien refers to in the last but one quotation), Eärendel seems to take the place of Lancelot (or vice versa?).
But the draft I am most interested in is the next one, which Christopher Tolkien calls “Arthur’s Grave”, in which the same lines (or at least very similar ones) with the last part of “Eärendel’s Quest” are now attributed to Arthur, after listing the graves of other Arthurian characters:
The grave of Gawain under grass lieth
by the sounding sea, where the sun westers.
What grave hath Guinever The grey shadow
her gold in [?ground] [(struck out:) gleams like]
her gold in silence unseen gleameth.
Britain nor Benwick did barrow keep
of Lancelot and his lady.
No [(struck out:) grave hath Arthur] No mound hath Arthur in mortal land under moon or sun who in ………..
beyond the miles of the sea and the magic islands
beyond the halls of night upon Heaven’s borders
[(struck out:) the] dragon’s portals and the dark mountains
of the Bay of Avalon on the borders of the world. up[on] Earth’s border in Avalon [sleeping >] biding. While the world w….eth till the world [??awaketh][viii]
(Christopher Tolkien notes that “In the penultimate line the verb is not waiteth and seems not to be watcheth.”[ix])
Historia regum Britanniae, reproduced from https://libwww.freelibrary.org/digital/item/3252
Now this ambiguous idea of Arthur mortally wounded, on the one hand, but carried over to Avalon over the sea to be healed, on the other, goes back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the beginning of the Arthurian legend as we know it today, where we hear very briefly that he was “carried thence to the isle of Avalon [insulam Auallonis] to be cured of his wounds”[x]. In his later work, Vita Merlini, Geoffrey elaborates on Avalon, and translates its name: he refers to it as the “Island of Apples, which is called the Fortunate Isle” [insula pomorum que fortunata vocatur]. Most scholars agree that the derivation of the place-name “Avalon” confirms Geoffrey’s translation: in Welsh afal means ‘apple’, so the term “Avalon” and its otherwordly associations point to a Welsh tradition. A cognate and parallel mythological use is attested in early Irish literature: Emain Ablach, ‘Emain of the apples’, is the poetic name for the Isle of Man when it is specifically identified as the blessed and otherworldly domain of the sea divinity Manannán mac Lir.
Though there are much more numerous in Irish medieval literature, there are examples of otherworld islands in the Welsh tradition, e.g. the timeless feast in the island of Gwales in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. But, most importantly, Arthur himself is involved in an expedition to an otherworld island in the early Welsh poem ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ (‘The Spoils of Annwfn’, c.850-1150). He leads a sea raid on an otherworldly stronghold made of glass in his ship, Prydwen. The aim is to rescue a prisoner and steal a magical cauldron that ‘does not boil the food of a coward’.
Vita Merlini, reproduced from: https://viewer.library.wales/4623419#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0
But the tradition that Tolkien seems to be alluding to in his draft, is Arthur’s departure to Avalon and his promised return, a Messianic prophecy that gave the Anglo-Saxons and Normans a lot of headaches when they were faced with Welsh nationalism. In Vita Merlini Geoffrey includes this belief in Arthur’s return. But the belief seems to be earlier, part of the Welsh, pre-Galfridian Arthurian tradition. The first hint of this tradition in the Welsh medieval corpus is a text that Tolkien definitely knew, and that – I think – he emulates in his projected ending of The Fall of Arthur: the Englynion y Beddau (the Stanzas of the Graves). This is series of verses in the manuscript known as The Black Book of Carmarthen which list the locations of the graves of famous Welsh heroes.
The MS is quite late (13th century) but the stanzas themselves have been dated to the 9th century. The heroes whose graves are catalogued include important characters from the Mabinogion (Pryderi, Dylan), and Arthurian characters are very much present also. So we hear about the graves of Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain), Bedwyr (Sir Bedevere), and March (King Mark) of the Tristan stories, among others. The most important lines for the purposes of this paper are those of stanza 44:
Bet y march.
bet y guythur.
bet y gugaun cletyfrut. Anoeth bid bet y arthur.
[There is] a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword the world’s wonder (anoeth) [is] a grave for Arthur.[xi]
Now the word anoeth is archaic and difficult and can mean a wonder, or something difficult to obtain, or an impossible task. (So, for those of you who are familiar with the Mabinogion tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the “impossible tasks” that the giant Ysbaddaden demands that Culhwch should accomplish to win Olwen for his bride are called “anoethau”). The line Anoeth bid bet y Arthur has variously been translated as “A wonder of the world is the grave of Arthur”, “a difficult thing is the grave of Arthur”, “Impossible to find in this world is the grave of Arthur”. Patrick Sims-Williams has linked this stanza with the Welsh tradition of Arthur’s temporary departure and eventual return, which is corroborated by William of Malmesbury’s remark in his Gesta regum Anglorum (c. 1125) that ‘Arthur’s grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claims that he will return’.[xii]
To my knowledge, there is no other medieval work that lists the graves of Arthurian heroes in the way Tolkien does, other than the Englynion y Beddau. Tolkien actually owned two copies of this text: one in a 1888 facsimile and one in a 1907 edition and reproduction of the Black Book of Carmarthen. You can see the latter (in the exact edition Tolkien owned) in Image 1, and the pages containing the verses quoted above in Image 2.
So much for the Arthur of the English, then!
As I was reading The Fall of Arthur, I was definitely getting elements of motifs and tone from the Alliterative Morte Arthure (the strong homosocial bonds between Arthur and his knights, for example; or the insistence on the epic/chronicle depiction of Arthur as an active war leader, rather than the more shadowy Arthur of the Romances); but I was also getting bits and pieces of the Arthur of the Welsh. In Tolkien’s work, Arthur’s ship is Prydwen, a name attested in the Welsh tradition only (Geoffrey had evidently heard it but got it wrong, as he gives the name Pridwen to Arthur’s shield). Wales also figures as a location in the poem with somewhat mystical associations: twice Tolkien describes Wales in his poem as “the hidden kingdom” (Canto IV, lines 12, 67). There are many “hidden kingdoms” of the Elves in the legendarium, including Gondolin and Nargothrond, but the term Hidden Kingdom, capitalised, usually refers to Doriath, which – as I hypothesized in my 2007 article – is associated with tales for which Tolkien was inspired by “Celtic” material.
But what is more significant, is that – by the point of the projected ending of Tolkien’s poem – the Welsh-derived tradition of Arthur as the “once and future king” seems to have prevailed. And I think it is significant that the MS of the Alliterative Morte Arthure seems to echo exactly what Tolkien did: As I said before, this 14th-century poem ends with Arthur’s elaborate funeral and burial at Glastonbury. But added to the very end of the poem, in a different hand from that of the main MS scribe, is the line: “Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futurus.” (Here lies Arthur, king once and king to be.) Scholars have debated this addition, claiming that it clashes with the scene of Arthur’s funeral just a few lines above. Is this added line a reference to Arthur’s importance even after death? Is it Arthur’s supposed epitaph? Or is it – as Mary Hamel has claimed – that the writer simply ‘disagreed with the poet’s ending’[xiii]? I think that Tolkien’s interpretation would be the latter – or at least, he himself disagreed with this ending and went back to the older Welsh tradition, to Avalon and the absence of a grave for Arthur.
But why link this tradition with his own legendarium? Why make the Arthurian Avalon equivalent to Tol Eressea, the island of the Elves off Valinor?
In the notes that accompany the texts of The Fall of Arthur, Christopher Tolkien gives a full commentary of the emergence of the name Avallon in Tolkien’s mythology. In the legendarium, Avallon was also (initially) associated with Tol Eressea, but is there given as an alternative Elvish name for the island, in the mode of the linguistic punning that Tolkien often liked to use. The term first shows up in the legendarium with the emergence of Númenor and Tolkien’s unfinished novel The Lost Road around 1936-1937. Was that around the same time he was also contemplating the ending of The Fall of Arthur? Perhaps. Christopher Tolkien actually gives us a list of Tolkien’s plot notes for the ending of the poem (see Image 3) on which he writes down the date “Aug 1937” at the point where Arthur departs for Avalon, so there is corroboration for this hypothesis.
Now calling an imaginary island in an imaginary mythology Avallon, is one thing. But to retell the story of Arthur’s last days, a legend of the real world, and then equate the Arthurian Avalon with the imaginary island in your own mythology, is quite another. What I think may point to an answer of why Tolkien explicitly links the Avalon of primary world legend to his own secondary world, may have to do with the first question I posed at the beginning of this paper:
What was the point of Arthur’s campaign in the East in The Fall of Arthur?
Christopher Tolkien is at pains to show that this is not a campaign against Rome and the Roman Emperor, as in much of the “chronicle” Arthurian tradition, including the Alliterative Morte Arthure, but a campaign to defend “the Roman realm”, which Christopher Tolkien concludes must be a reference to Roman Britain, i.e. Christian Britain, after the Romans left, but before the Anglo-Saxon invasion[xiv]: this is indeed the usual historical context for the possible existence of a “historical” Arthur, as per the writings of Gildas, Nenius, the Welsh Annals, etc. It was, definitely, astonishing for me, when reading The Fall of Arthur, to suddenly realise that Tolkien was in this poem writing from the point of you not of his usual semi-historical/semi-legendary Anglo-Saxon heroes, like Eriol, supposedly the father of Hengist and Horsa in The Book of Lost Tales, but from the point of view of the people the Anglo-Saxons oppressed, the Romano-British population, defended by Arthur in the Welsh Arthurian tradition. Tolkien’s much-praised Anglo-Saxon heroes are here oppressors, ravagers and – worst of all – heathens! The soul of the Frisian sea-captain, who brings Mordred news of Arthur in Tolkien’s poem, goes straight to hell[xv]. The sense of impending doom at the beginning of the poem is highlighted by lines that point to the end of an era:
Thus the tides of time to turn backward
and the heathen to humble, his hope urged him
(Canto I, lines 5–6)
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 176-9)
Time is changing;
the West waning, a wind rising
in the waxing East. The world falters.
(Canto II, lines 147-9)
Now we’ve seen many times in Tolkien’s world this motif of sorrow and loss over a changing world that will never be the same again – most recognisably in The Lord of the Rings, but it is astounding that Tolkien here laments the end of the Romano-British world, and portrays that Anglo-Saxon invasion as a disaster. Christopher Tolkien’s commentary also notes this remarkable deviation from Tolkien’s usual sympathies, and – significantly – he links this sense of a world at the edge of doom with Tolkien’s other long alliterative poem on a semi-historical, semi-legendary event: The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth.
Wild blow the winds of war in Britain!says Sir Cradoc, when telling King Arthur (I.160) of the heathen dragon ships driving in on the unguarded shores; and five centuries later Torhthelm, in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, repeats his words with reference to the Norsemen:
So the last is fallen of the line of earls,
from Saxon lords long-descended,
who sailed the seas, as songs tell us,
from Angel in the east, with eager swords
upon war’s anvil the Welsh smiting.
Realms here they won and royal kingdoms,
and in olden days this isle conquered.
And now from the North need comes again: wild blows the wind of war to Britain![xvi]
In this poem we have another invasion from an external foe at a much later time, against England and the previous invaders, the Anglo-Saxons: the new invaders are the Vikings, some of whom came to stay. Tolkien was – I would claim – very interested in the idea of English history as a series of invasions: his drafts of The Book of Lost Tales include the idea of the “Seven Invasions of Luthany”. Some of the invaders are listed as: the ‘Rumhoth’, the ‘Ingwaiwar’, and the ‘Forodwaith’, identified as the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Vikings[xvii]. In The Book of Lost Tales, the “good” invaders who save the Elves and learn their legends are the Anglo-Saxons, and it would be their perspective that would serve as the framework of The Book of Lost Tales. Much later, Tolkien contemplated another “framework”, the story of Númenor, now linked with the legend of Atlantis, and the transmission of the legends of the Elves via collective memory, rather than via the Anglo-Saxon ancestors[xviii].
Was Tolkien – at the time of The Fall of Arthur – contemplating yet another potential framework? The framework of the Arthurian legend? Would Lancelot find Arthur and learn the legends of the Elves in Avallon/Tol Eressea? Was Arthur going to come back, eventually, and save Britain from the waves of invaders that followed? I appreciate that this is pure speculation, but it may be that such an idea possibly entered Tolkien’s mind, if only for a while. After all, this was around the same time he was definitely considering different frameworks for his mythology, associated with the emergence of the Númenor story, which led to his famous note-to-self: “Do the Atlantis story and abandon Eriol-Saga” (brilliantly discussed by Professor Flieger in the first volume of Tolkien Studies).
I suppose we can’t ever know what “would-have-been”: but I’d like to emphasise here the strong attraction that Tolkien felt towards the idea of the otherworld over the sea.
The significance of the Voyage to an Otherworld island in the West in Tolkien’s mythoscannot be underestimated. It could even be claimed to be central. The example most readers would think of is the departure of the Elves, Gandalf, as well as Bilbo and Frodo, for the Undying Lands at the end of The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien’s extended mythology abounds with examples of many other characters who make the same voyage overseas – not least Eärendel, whom we mentioned already earlier. And that’s where we can bring in Beowulf.
It is noteworthy, I think, that in Tolkien’s lecture notes on Beowulf we find in the recent volume, there is a discussion of the lines on Scyld Scefing and the famous scene of his ship funeral. In this note, Tolkien claims that the Beowulf poet blended the history-based legend of a heroic ancestor with a myth of a “corn-god” or “cultural hero” who comes in a boat “out of the unknown” and is returned to that unknown land upon his death. In Tolkien’s words, the Beowulf poet combined Scyld as a semi-historical ancestor with:
the more mysterious, far older and more poetical myth of the mysterious arrival of the babe, the corn-god or the culture-hero his descendant, at the beginning of a people’s history, and adding to it a mysterious Arthurian departure, back into the unknown, enriched by traditions of ship-burials in the not very remote heathen past…[xix]
So here’s a point of convergence. Both Tolkien’s rendition of the Arthurian legend and Beowulf include the motif of an otherworld land somewhere out there, across the sea. And they are not the only mythological texts to do so. Other European traditions include visions of otherworld lands or islands, and Tolkien himself reworked – or contemplated reworking – two of them:
The Voyage to Vinland as portrayed in OId Norse sagas[xx] and
The Irish material of St. Brendan’s voyage (you may be familiar with Tolkien’s poem “Immram”)[xxi]
So what is going on here? Is the motif of the voyage across the sea to the Undying Lands so strong in Tolkien’s imagination so as to make Arthur’s sailing to Avalon (perhaps the most iconic representation of such a story) to gravitate towards the more Anglo-Saxon-focused bulk of his mythology? And, if I go back to the hypothesis that Tolkien may have contemplated an “Arthurian framework” for his mythology, is it possible that Tolkien would have made the point that all of those heroes of all of those Northern European legends (Scyld, Arthur, St. Brendan and his company, the Vikings who travelled to Vinland, etc.) were all just misremembered fragments and versions of the same story, Eärendel’s voyage to the Lonely Island?
I suppose we’ll never know – unless any further notes or manuscripts emerge. But I think it is significant that there are numerous cross-references to the Arthurian matter throughout Tolkien’s lecture notes on Beowulf. I am just noting a few, among around ten I located.
Apart from calling King Scyld’s departure across the sea “Arthurian”, (as per my earlier quotation) Tolkien also says that
any sense of a historical Beowulf would only be “historical, if at all, in the sense and degree that King Arthur is”[xxii]
And he also refers to “the ‘Arthurian’ court of Heorot, glorious and doomed, gnawed already by the canker of treachery”[xxiii].
In a longer parallel Tolkien notes:
Heorot was still glorious, but it was doomed to be burned. All the history of Heorot was in the mind of poet and audience; but the poet was conscious of dramatic time (as throughout). The ultimate doom of the dynasty of Healfdene and the great hall built by Hrothgar cast a shadow over the court of Heorot in Old English – as later a shadow lay on Arthur and Camelot.[xxiv]
One could argue that Tolkien’s Arthurian references in his Beowulf lecture notes are there for educational purposes: to help his student gain a deeper understanding of the contexts and atmosphere of this Old English poem. After all, everyone knows something about the story of King Arthur – the tale of Beowulf doesn’t have the same resonance for most people. But that may also explain Tolkien’s own fascination with the Arthurian legend, and may point to the reason why he may have contemplated bringing King Arthur’s departure to the heart of his own mythology. If the otherworld voyage was such a powerful stimulation to his imagination, how could he leave Arthur’s Avalon out?
Tolkien’s continued to be fascinated with what happened to King Arthur, precariously balanced between bothbeing “mortally wounded” and“carried to Avalon to be healed”, an ambiguous ending that the Welsh tradition supports, a tradition that was bequeathed to Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings.
In his other unfinished novel, The Notion Club Papers, written nearly a decade after The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien includes a character named Ramer who narrates a dream scene to the rest of the members of the Notion Club. This is the image of an old librarian looking through “a volume made up of various manuscript-fragments bound together, probably in the sixteenth century.” Ramer continues:
In the remembered bit of the dream I knew I had been able to read the page before he turned over, and that it was not English; but I could remember no more than that – except that I was delighted, or he was. Actually it was a leaf, a unique fragment of a MS. in very early Welsh, before Geoffrey, about the death of Arthur.[xxv]
This desire for a more ancient, pre-Galfridian, and perhaps more “authentic” medieval source about Arthur’s death (or departure and perhaps possible return) which is only hinted at in The Stanzas of the Graves, remained strong in Tolkien’s imagination. Christopher Tolkien refers to the unfinished status of The Fall of Arthur as “one of the most grievous” of Tolkien’s “many abandonments”[xxvi] but we are lucky to have at the very least the drafts of how Tolkien might have imaginatively rendered the tradition of Arthur’s overseas voyage and how he might have linked it to his own mythology.
[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2013.
[ii] Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2014.
[xi] Sims-Williams, Patrick. ‘The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems’, pp. 33-71, in Bromwich, R.. Jarman, A.O.H., and Roberts, B.F. (eds.) The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991, p. 49.