This week we began reading The Fall of Arthur, but before we started our new book there were a number of diversions. The first was Laura’s disturbing revelation, illustrated by a newspaper cutting, of a fashion among footballers for tattoos using the Tengwar. Laura had tried to translate the text shown on the arm of one Aguero, but without success. Ian looked up the matter online and discovered that the tattoo purported to read ‘Kun Aguero’ (Kun being his nickname or childhood name). Ian then discovered that Fernando Torres also has his name tattooed on his arm in Tengwar. If they ever get lost in Lothlorien and can’t remember who they are some passing elf will be able to reassure them of their identity!
In response to Laura’s alert to the 50th anniversary of the city status of Southampton, and the fact that Tim had noted by email that this year is the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Southfarthing / Tolkien Reading Group, we discussed the possibility of doing something special to celebrate these anniversaries. After much debate it was proposed that we might at provide ourselves with a logo or livery to celebrate our 10 years, and as Ian confirmed that 2016 would be the centenary of Tolkien’s return from the trenches in WW1 we also decided to offer to host the Tolkien Society seminar in that year.
At last we got on to our new book, and both Tim and Laura commented on the number of speculative books about King Arthur and the battles he fought, based on absolutely no factual evidence. As Tim observed, enthusiasts suggest he might have been a former Romano-British dux bellorum skilled in Roman tactics – if he had been anything other than a figure of Welsh myth.
In a less controversial direction, Chris remarked that he liked the poem – an opinion generally supported. Laura commented that she felt the impulse to read the poem aloud because of its strong patterns of alliteration. Laura also noted Tolkien’s use of heroic similes, also known as epic or Homeric similes: long detailed similes of which Milton was the great exponent in English. They frequently begin ‘As when …’ and occur in The Iliad as well as in Paradise Lost.
Laura went on to note the absence of Percival from the knights named by Tolkien as members of the Round Table. Ian observed that Peredur in The Mabinogion is the forerunner of Percival, but agreed that he is not a ‘romantic’, ‘chivalric’ knight in the Welsh version.
Tim noted that in The Mabinogion Arthur and his court are Dark Age warriors. They also exist in more mythic contexts.
Angela turned our attention to a phenomenon noted previously in our reading of Sigurd and Gudrun, as Tolkien uses phrases and concepts we recognised in LotR. In this case canto I, line 138: ‘they heard a horn in the hills trembling’ – a distinct pre-echo, as is ‘Foes before them, flames behind them’.
Chris observed that some images were clearly so embedded in Tolkien’s mind that they keep recurring in his work. We discussed examples of such images and Angela proposed that Mordred’s lust for Guinevere gave the lie to the perception that there is no sex in Tolkien’s work. Laura added Grima’s lust for Eowyn, while Angela suggested Morgoth’s lust for Luthien. Chris noted that in canto III, 65-6, the ‘black shadow / o’er the courts of Arthur’ recalled Grima’s effect on Theoden.
Tim was quietly rereading canto I, l. 63-5, finding these lines very powerful ‘…folk fled them as the face of God, / till earth was empty, and no eyes saw them, / and no ears heard them in the endless hills.’
I picked this up, commenting that where we were used to the pagan or non-religious framework in Tolkien’s work, because of the background material with which Tolkien was working it was relevant for him to include references to God.
Chris noted that in canto V, l. 37, the emphasis on pity was also carried over into LotR and reiterated in the characterisation of Aragorn. Angela and I saw it as such an important virtue, especially in the context of kingship that it was rather different to echoes or repetitions of phrasing and poetic cadence. Chris asked if any major study has been done on echoes of the recent poetry, edited by Christopher Tolkien, in the later fantasy. I did not think so, but could see great scope for such research.
As Ian pointed out, Arthur and Sigurd and Gudrun are a completely different literary form, not just because they are poetry but because they are not pseudo-history like LotR, but have a basis in the real world. Ian proposed that they were a development out of his establishment of an academic self, showing his knowledge of poetry and the source texts. Then The Hobbit skewed his interest into fantasy.
Chris observed that if the reader reads deeply into LotR they will find all the Arthur and Sigurd and Gudrun material in there.
Angela noted that canto IV l.124 echoes Aragorn’s return: ‘Thus came Arthur … at early morn / at last returning … to his lost kingdom’, while Laura remarked that in the same canto, l. 168 the description of the invading Saxons read like a conventional description of Viking ships arriving.
Laura observed the inclusion in poem at several points of the familiar ‘beasts of battle’, while Angela noted references to crows, a motif again repeated in LotR.
Laura remarked that Lancelot’s withdrawal and refusal to join Arthur in the battle read as though he was ‘sulking in his tent’.
I then asked if anyone thought there was any obvious influence of Anglo-Saxon in the poem, apart from the alliteration, which could be seen as drawing on the 14thC alliterative revival, the basis for the Gawain verse form among others. Tim and Laura picked out the term ‘sea-horse’ as a kenning for a Saxon ship. Laura the proposed that Arthur’s decision to attack the Germanic invaders on their own territory might be seen as an instance of A-S ‘ofermod’ – the pride Tolkien ascribed to his academic life to earl Beorhtnoth on account of his strange decision at the battle of Maldon. Laura wondered too about Mordred’s arrogance, but I thought her analysis of Arthur’s conduct more persuasive.
Angela observed that Arthur trusted Mordred enough to leave him as regent in England while away in Europe, in much the same way that the White Council trusted Saruman for many years during which he was already plotting against their interests. Angela also noted that while Mordred has a persuasive tongue, like Saruman, with his outspoken servant he is violently abusive and threatening.
Laura noted that Merlin does not feature in the poem, so the occult is absent. Tim remarked that 2 ‘historical’ stories of powerful men became conflated in various stories.
Laura then observed that the poem has added interest in its references to real places such as Romeril (Romney) and Angel (where the Angles originated).
We ended our afternoon agreeing to read pages 73-122 – ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’ for our next meeting.