In spite of the expected stormy weather everyone who could get into the Library made the trip – a few people were already doing other things – but 8 of us gathered to continue reading The Fall of Arthur, ‘The Poem in Arthurian Tradition’. We had already discovered in our reading that Tolkien drew on the best-known sources of Arthurian legend: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s late 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae, the alliterative Morte Arthure, the French romance Mort Artu, the stanzaic Morte Arthur and Thomas Malory’s late 15th century Death of Arthur.
In view of this range of influential material, I began the discussion by asking if everyone found the chapter on Tolkien’s use of the Arthurian tradition more or less confusing than the Commentaries on sources in Sigurd and Gudrun.
Angela said she needed to make notes, while Laura said she found the Arthurian material less tricky to work through. Tim observed that the chapter we were reading provided a useful summary of sources.
Chris remarked, with a hint of subversion: ‘which version would Peter Jackson make’!
We spent some time discussing the kinds and functions of the sources – especially the political agenda behind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text. Mike suggested – with reference to critical opinion of the source texts that once academics establish the status of a text there is no challenge. Ian commented on function and motivation that there may also be a desire to record oral history on the part of early authors of what is now called ‘pseudo-history’. That this is not necessarily connected with political legitimation such as that posited for Geoffrey’s work, but might depend on funding from the rich and powerful.
Tim questioned whether it was possible to regard Geoffrey as indulging in his own act of ‘sub-creation’ as he put together tales from ancient sources of his own?
Mike observed that people have always been filling in gaps in what is already known, and that things are taken as fact until they are proved wrong. We all discussed a range of problems associated with knowledge and Ian remarked that knowledge is often a matter of interpretation.
I mentioned that we are used to being sceptical but at the time when the Arthurian source texts were written critical questioning of established authorities was not acceptable and had to cautiously attempted. The classic later example is Galileo, who was forced to recant his heliocentric theory of the universe because it challenged established theory.
Mike returned us to the text when he asked if we thought Tolkien was satisfied with his version of the Arthurian material. Laura remarked that he too was rewriting the old legends. Ian noted that his treatment of Arthur’s return home may have provided a ‘moral’ to the tale but since the poem is not completed Tolkien left the argument unfinished. Mike observed that not finishing things was Tolkien’s problem. Chris remarked that Tolkien just seems to have liked creating the poetry.
Mike observed that Tolkien was making the older, and sometimes difficult, material accessible for a newer audience. Chris added that Tolkien was writing for a modern audience in his characterisation of Guinevere, who is accorded more self-determination, more psychology, and emotion than is customary in the sources. Mike then asked about the characterisation of Mordred, and whether it retained in Tolkien’s poem the same negative aspects traditionally linked with the character. We searched the chapter and found that the alliterative Morte Arthure provided the basis for Mordred’s lust and threats against Guinevere, as well as her escape from him. Other aspects of Mordred’s characterisation were much as we anticipated. But we considered possibilities such as the influence of the wicked regency of King John on Tolkien’s depiction of Mordred as a violent usurper.
Angela compared the relationship of Arthur, Mordred and Gawain with that of Aragorn, Denethor and Boromir, and possibly Faramir, as there are 2 versions of Gawain in the source texts. In the better-known version Gawain is called ‘the Good’ and is heroic and loyal. In the less well-known version he causes a violent feud.
Our discussions were wide-ranging as new topics constantly opened up before us, but it was agreed that we would read the next chapter in the book: ‘The Unwritten Poem, and its relation to The Silmarillion’.