Tolkien and Arthurian Legend

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Tolkien and Arthurian Legend

Ene 18, 2014, 8:15pm

I thought I might start a thread on a favourite of mine, JRR Tolkien, specifically on his scholarly work on the Arthurian legends.
Obviously we have 'The Fall of Arthur' and his renowned rendering of ' Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight'.
I know from reading Carpenter that Tolkien was an expert in the Anglo Saxon genre and as a linguist he was an outstanding scholar in old and middle English as well as the Norse tongues.
For those of you who have read Tolkien in this area, what are your thoughts?

Ene 21, 2014, 9:36am

I don't have The Fall of Arthur in front of me, but my recollection is that Tolkien's relationship to the Matter of Britain and Arthurian romance was a complicated one. Clearly he recognized that medieval Arthurian literature offered a wealth of material that might have been used in his own legendarium, but for some reason he resisted the temptation. Perhaps he felt that the Arthurian romances were too messy (too many variations, interpolations, continuations). In any event, I for one am glad that he took his own path in devising an Epic for England that, while it has a medieval feel to it, has little in common with Arthurian/chivalric romance. The more I think about it, in fact, I wonder whether the Middle-Earth corpus is anti-Arthurian: there are no love triangles, no tournaments, no Grail Quests (the quests for the Silmarils and to destroy the Ring are quite different), no serial kidnappings and rescues.

As a scholar, as far as I'm aware his only work on Arthurian material was his work as editor of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and his collaboration with E.V. Gordon on the latter's standard edition of Pearl (probably by the same poet as SGGK). Tolkien's scholarly work ranged across the Old English and Middle English landscape. And I doubt that his work on SGGK was prompted by an interest in Arthurian material per se, but rather by the poem's linguistic value as an exemplar of Midlands alliterative verse. Ditto for Pearl, which actually isn't Arthurian at all. That Tolkien translated both of these poems was probably due to his love of the poet (both poems in fact display a great deal of interesting verse technique) rather than out of a desire to do "something Arthurian."

Ene 21, 2014, 4:31pm

What I think is an interesting counterpoint to the Quest for the Grail is the idea within the Lord of the Rings that although a terrible journey, full of hardship and sorrow, must be taken, the underlying theme is of carrying a great burden in order to destroy it.

As far as I recall from my own reading, I cannot recollect any story in this genre in which the purpose is to get rid of something. Of course the going on a journey is universal, but Tolkien certainly introduces something if not unique, is seldom seen. And of course the physical object symbolic of good and evil is manifested in the ring, just as the Grail is the good.

Jul 12, 2014, 12:48pm

The theme of giving something (usually evil) away, as opposed to questing for it, is not as unusual as one might think: it certainly happens in fairytales, and I can think of one oriental tale from my childhood where someone with a growth on their face has it pulled off by a greedy opponent, also with a growth on their face, under the impression that it will bring great fortune; but unfortunately everybody else spurns the greedy one. Not quite the same, I know, and the tale certainly has in addition to its humour a moral intention different from LOTR. Or The Hobbit, for that matter, where Bilbo gives away the Arkenstone.

In Alan Garner's Alderley Edge trilogy one of the protagonists, Susan, also gives away objects of desire. In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen it is the jewel of the title, while in The Moon of Gomrath it is a bracelet. Little good comes of such parting however. Garner was writing soon after Tolkien's trilogy and may perhaps have imbibed the notion of getting rid of a desired object from that.

Ene 31, 5:28pm

I recall reading something to the effect that Tolkien rejected the Arthurian path for his 'matter of England' project because he felt that the extant Arthurian texts and tales were too imbued with religion (grail, Joseph of Arimathea, etc) and he wanted his mythology for England to not include an explcit religion subtext. Seems odd for such a pious Christian but there it is...