“A kiss on the wind, and we’ll make the land…”

In the 1990s, I met grad students who dreamed of finding the “real” King Arthur; one would-be archaeologist was sure she’d pry Excalibur from the corner of some forgotten Devon field. Back then, most aspiring medievalists only dimly saw that we were riding multiple waves falling neatly into phase, as decades of “historical Arthur” scholarship drew energy from, but also fed, a pop-culture surge of movies, novels, comics, and games. Now that Arthuriana is waning—it’s overdue for a deep, restorative nap—the ghost of Tolkien comes drifting through to provide its “last assay / of pride and prowess”—or, perhaps, to promise its next reawakening.

Published last week, The Fall of Arthur is an oddity: a 40-page poetic fragment easily lost amid 150 pages of commentary by the author’s son. Tolkien left the poem unfinished in the 1930s, and I’ll be curious to see how his fans greet this book. Having taught Arthurian lit and composed poems that mimic Old English verse forms, I enjoy seeing Tolkien take the Matter of Britain for an original, alliterative spin—but how many readers like me could there be?

The Fall of Arthur follows the daunting rules of Anglo-Saxon verse: A line consists of two half-lines, each of which must be one of five metrical types and must contain two stressed syllables. At least one stressed syllable in the first half-line must alliterate with the first (never the second) stressed syllable in the second half-line. Also, the vowels in the stressed syllables must be long, unless they come before a consonant cluster, or unless you’re letting initial vowels stand in for consonants. If you’re feeling saucy, you can add unstressed syllables in certain positions—but never in others, or an Anglo-Saxon simply wouldn’t hear the line as verse.

Beowulf and nearly all of the surviving 30,000 lines of Old English poetry follow this form, and Tolkien liked to play with it in modern English, well aware that it didn’t always work. “Our language now has become quick-moving (in syllables), and may be very supple and nimble, but it is rather thin in sound and in sense too often diffuse and vague,” he says in a lecture cited in The Fall of Arthur. “The language of our forefathers, especially in verse, was slow, not very nimble, but very sonorous, and was intensely packed and concentrated—or could be in a good poet.”

Is Tolkien such a poet? Sometimes. The surviving 954 lines of The Fall of Arthur set up a story about the last gasp of a doomed world—Arthur, in the autumn of his reign, is “in war with fate”—and Tolkien does a heck of a job conjuring bleak, clammy gloom. As the king and his army ride east across the Rhine, the sound and shape of the poetry emphasize brutality in eerie, alien lands:

Foes before them,    flames behind them,
ever east and onward    eager rode they,
and 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,
save bird and beast     baleful haunting
the lonely lands.    Thus at last came they
to Mirkwood’s margin    under mountain-shadows:
waste was behind them,    walls before them;
on the houseless hills     ever higher mounting
vast, unvanquished,    lay the veiled forest.

The Fall of Arthur is packed with passages like this: evocations of the wild wastelands beyond the civilized world, scenes of shipwrecks and storm-battered coasts, shadowy foes lurking just out of sight. Tolkien clearly had a blast composing them, and even when his plot is derivative, these moments are original contributions to the Arthurian story in English. They’re also a pleasure to read aloud.

Once in a while, Tolkien serves up scenes that are remarkable for looking nothing like Beowulf. Here’s Lancelot, waking by his window, marveling at songbirds greeting sunrise on the sea:

His heart arose,    as were heavy burden
lightly lifted.     Alone standing
with the flame of morn    in his face burning
the surge he felt    of song forgotten
in his heart moving   as a harp-music.
There Lancelot,    low and softly
to himself singing,    the sun greeted,
life from darkness    lifted shining
in the dome of heaven    by death exalted.
Ever times would change    and tides alter,
and o’er hills of morning     hope come striding
to awake the weary,    while the world lasted.

As the Arthurian story demands, Lancelot’s hope fades before Mordred’s far more prescient gloom:

                           Time is changing;
the West waning;    a wind rising
in the waxing East.     The world falters.
New tides are running    in the narrow waters.
False or faithful,     only fearless man
shall ride the rapids    from ruin snatching
power and glory.     I purpose so.

Despite these euphonious examples, Tolkien does struggle to squeeze the bourgeois hand of modern English into the mailed glove of Old English verse. In need of words that alliterate on “f,” he uses “fell” as an adjective with offputting frequency—eight times in the first 153 lines, alongside variations of the verb “to fall”—and meter demands that he flip the order of words more often than even many readers with a patience for archaism are wont to tolerate. “Eager rode they,” “he was for battle eager,” “Ivor him answered”—the seams of this poem are easily frayed.

Christopher Tolkien, who discusses his father’s Arthurian poem as if it were a medieval work, calls it “one of the most grievous of his many abandonments” and suggests that such a slowly built, backward-looking poem “could not withstand the rising of new imaginative horizons.” Although enough notes survive to show that The Fall of Arthur was headed nowhere radical, its final, unwritten scenes might have been deeply revealing. Tolkien adored the language of the Germanic invaders who helped defeat the fictional Arthur, overran much of Britain, and gave England its name; this poem is composed in their style, as if it were sung generations later to honor a worthy foe. Had it shown Tolkien’s appreciation for the world that had to die to make way for the literature and language he loved, the finished Fall of Arthur might have been a memorable, much-quoted read.

When The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun came out in 2009, I wondered how vast a readership awaited Tolkien’s obscure and scholarly pseudo-medieval verse. The Fall of Arthur likewise makes me wonder how many Tolkien fans will wade through a 49-page essay that places this poem in its medieval Arthurian tradition; whether a 954-line fragment deserves a 50-page overview of the notes and drafts behind it; and whether the 43-page essay linking this poem to the Silmarillion doesn’t seem like padding to people who know Tolkien far better than I do.

On the other hand, The Fall of Arthur is a wonderful rarity for our times: a book that makes gigantic demands of those who pick it up, published by a literary executor who assumes his readers are patient, curious, conversant with medieval traditions, and appreciative of formal verse.

Somewhere, I know, are readers who are baffled by Sigurd and Gudrun or The Fall of Arthur but also haunted by their dim awareness of the vast intellectual realms behind them. Perhaps these readers are on the cusp of cultivating a love of Arthurian stories, an ear for archaic English, or other weird passions that civilize the brain but defy popular taste. In the end, they may not prevail—in good Germanic style, The Fall of Arthur warns them that nothing lasts—but they’ll live and fight and revel in words and think deeply for a time, becoming through Tolkien what Tolkien dubbed Gawain: “defence and fortress of a fallen world.”

[Previous Tolkieniana on this blog: Tolkien und Wagner; hobbits at a beach resortThe Lord of the Rings as Methodist Bible study.]

“When I’ve walked in the garden, when I’m walking offstage…”

Spring is a time to remember Walahfrid Strabo: abbot, scholar, tutor to Charlemagne’s grandson, and the best known gardener of the Carolingian age. He’s memorialized at the National Cathedral garden (and got a poem of his own in Looking Up), and his 444-line poem De Cultura Hortorum, “On the Cultivation of Gardens,” intermingles plant lore, political allegory, practical advice, and philosophical musings with an exhortation to get out there and work:

For whatever the land you possess, whether it be where sand
And gravel lie barren and dead, or where fruits grow heavy
In rich moist ground; whether high on a steep hillside,
Easy ground in the plain or rough among sloping valleys—
Wherever it is, your land cannot fail to produce
Its native plants. If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.
(trans. Payne)

In the March and April dankness, I followed Walahfrid’s example—and today I reaped the year’s first harvest from my little realm of dirt.

I checked to see if Walahfrid had anything to say about radishes. Indeed he did:


Hic rafanum radice potens latoque comarum
Tegmine sublatum extremus facit ordo videri
Cuius amara satis quatientem viscera tussim
Mansa premit radix, triti quoque seminis haustus
Eiusdem vitio pestis persaepe medetur.

Here’s a loose and hasty translation into pseudo-Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse:


Powerfully rooted,   it raises the vaults
Of its broadening leaves    and lies waiting,
The radish you find   in the final row.
Its flesh-root shortens    that shattering cough,
Or grind up a draught    and drink the seeds:
That dose often    will do the trick too.

Walahfrid died in A.D. 849 while trying to cross the Loire. He was only in his early thirties, but he seems to have grown to prefer plants to politics—an insight rare in places of power, then and now.

(The garden in June 2012.)

“Here comes another winter, waiting for Utopia…”

This weekend, commerce and revelry engulfed the National Cathedral at Flower Mart, the annual shindig that funds the beautification of my favorite Gothic neighbor’s gardens and grounds. Folks shopped for seedlings and dug into fried food, while I stumbled upon this NPR story about Brendan O’Connell, who paints scenes from Wal-Mart based on something he thinks he discerns there:

Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are “probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world.” In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart’s big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old.

“There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence,” he told me back in February. “And as we’ve culturally turned from religious things, we’ve turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires.”

I don’t buy the comparison. Having warehouse-high ceilings doesn’t make Wal-Mart “cathedral-like.” What does make a big box store akin to a Gothic cathedral is more banal: Look up, and you’ll see that the architectural supports in both buildings aren’t covered or obscured. (As for transcendence, Americans seek that elsewhere: sports, Vegas, the movies, and occasionally—mirabile dictu—at actual houses of worship.)

Still, artists and writers love to cast gigantic stores as misbegotten cathedrals. Five minutes on Google turns up unflattering “cathedrals of consumerism” quips in countless news stories and scholarly articles—as well as the work of artist Michelle Muldrow, who paints the interiors of big box stores for her “Cathedrals of Desire” series. Muldrow outlines her goals in a genre that would have vexed even the most patient of medieval exegetes, the artist’s statement:

“Cathedrals of Desire” investigates the experience of the repulsion and seduction of the American landscape. This new body of work incorporates the landscape painting tradition with awe-inducing elements of cathedrals to evoke a contemporary sublime. My paintings of big box stores are intended to elicit fear and awe at the vast American consumer landscape.


This series is inspired by the theories of Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime and its relationship with terror. This, paired with the concept of the divine power of the sublime, heavily influenced my depiction of these consumer spaces as Cathedrals of Desire.


The obtrusive massive structures built with no attempt at aesthetic beauty reveal the most naked of American consumer desires. The language of American desire can be reduced to vignettes of patio furniture and gingham covered tables set like small picnics.

I like Muldrow’s art, and she’s smart to turn her landscape-painter’s eye toward the vast places where Americans shop—but nothing about “Icon,” her painting of two shopping carts against a jumbled background, actually evokes icons, or implies anything about icons through their absence, or says anything about the absence of icons through the presence of shopping carts. While her lovely “Altar in Orange” captures the bright, asymmetrical beauty of an unmanned Target check-out line, the painting doesn’t fit its title: Altars aren’t like box store check-out stations in location, function, design, decoration, number, or sacrality.

Artists and critics have been down this aisle before. Émile Zola called the grand arcades of 19th-century Paris “cathedrals of commerce,” and Walter Benjamin “spent the final 13 years of his life…trying to fashion a theory of modernity based on the arcades.” A century ago, the Woolworth Building, one of countless American skyscrapers inspired by the Gothic, was approvingly dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce.” By now, the comparison is cliché. It flatters medieval cathedrals by making stores seem all the more crass by contrast—but what a limited view of cathedrals.

Unlike Wal-Marts and Targets, cathedrals were each architecturally unique. They were shrines where people hoped and prayed but rarely sated their earthly desires. They were religious institutions whose spiritual offerings didn’t cater to market demands. They were political centers overseen by men who wielded far more local power than any store manager. As distinctive hubs of pilgrimage and tourism, they attracted seekers from straunge strondes in ways no standardized big-box store could, drawing worshippers from all strata of society.

One point of these art projects is to suggest that shopping is America’s religion, and a degraded one at that—but isn’t it possible that rural shoppers at big-box stores like Wal-Mart are more likely than their countrymen to attend actual religious services and distinguish between shopping and praying? Why focus on modest people who go to unfancy buildings to buy low-priced stuff that meets their earthly needs? What about wealthier people who’d never set foot in Wal-Mart but do make pseudo-religious pilgrimages to ornate boutiques to overpay for luxury goods based on a label or a name?

Two centuries after the Hudson River School painters begged Americans to adore the New World, our artists still seek the cachet of medieval European precedents. Medievalism runs rampant in America, and for six years this blog has chased it, from Gothic synagogues in Savannah to killer queens in New Jersey, from Cajun jousters and the saints of New Orleans to the gargoyles of Perth Amboy, from Oxbridge rivalries on the Potomac to dragons and Vikings at Maryland resorts, from late-blooming scholars on postage stamps to courtly love on General Hospital—but sometimes medievalism just isn’t there, or it thrives only in a critic’s misperception.

Let’s kill this “cathedrals of commerce” cliché. A vast, bustling megastore has little in common with a medieval cathedral either socially or architecturally. The wonders that landscape painters like Michelle Muldrow find at Target—man-made vistas of color and light—are worth seeing for what they are; don’t let Gothic spires warp the view.