Tolkien's household and poetic places

Knight_of_the_woeful_countenance_05424uFAMILY MATTERS: Andrew O'Hehir gives a nice overview of Tolkien's "The Fall of Arthur" in the pages of the New York Times that only stumbles at the very end. A couple of reasons why Tolkien abandoned that poem, which his son Christopher notes in the new book, involved the pressures of work and his family. Tolkien the Elder's interest also seemed to flag as his conception of Middle-earth started to grow.  All sounds pretty reasonable to me. If you've ever tried to compose a long work of fiction or nonfiction, and you have a young family, that line about Tolkien's situation might resonant as strongly for you as it did for me. I can relate to the bard. I can easily see us, side by side in the pub down the road from Merton College, throwing back what's left in our pint glasses.

"I'm stuck!" he says. "I can't get a bleedin' moment to meself  for Arthur!"

Tears pop from my eyes. I pound my fist on the bar.

"Aye John, you dinna hae to tell me!  Barkeep, two more glasses!"

Near the end of his review, O'Hehir thinks Tolkien more likely broke off his work because the alliterative, Anglo-Saxon style of the poem doesn't fit the Arthur of history: "If there was ever any historical cognate to Arthur, he was a Celtic Briton who spoke a language ancestral to modern Welsh and Cornish. To write about him in the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon verse style of later centuries ...  can only have struck this eminent philologist as an uncomfortable linguistic and historical pastiche."

Holy smokes that's fancy. Maybe it's true, but more compelling for me is the fact that in the years when he composed his Arthur fragment, Tolkien and his wife had four kidlings -- two early teens, two pre-teens. I'm sure any attempt to write about Arthur's clash with  Saxon invaders paled beside the battles taking place in the Tolkien house!

OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO: A post last week on worthwhile poetry websites drew some nice responses from my friends, Jilanne Hoffmann and Michael Odom. Along with my recommendations:

Red Hen Press

Sarabande Books

Copper Canyon

they suggest a couple more that you should start patronizing:

SPD (Small Press Distribution)

Marick Press

Bookmark them and make a point of dropping in on a weekly (or more frequent) basis. You don't have to do too much, but the small gestures count for so much. They encourage the small publishers to continue on with their sacred work and, who knows? You might find yourself discovering some exciting new voices. Hope you're having an excellent week, friends.

The once and future mystery: recent in bookstores

'Twill never be forgot: Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews in "Camelot." A few years ago, Adam Ardrey published a couple of books about the history behind the King Arthur legend, and he titled them "Finding Merlin" and "Finding Arthur." Both are speculative histories that peel away the myths and try to identify the flesh-and-blood figures of early Britain who inspired the Arthurian legend. When "Finding Camlann" (W.W. Norton & Company) appeared, I thought it was another installment by the Scot, aiming for a trilogy gift-set just in time for the holidays. It isn't.

Instead, "Finding Camlann" is an enjoyable literary detective novel by Sean Pidgeon that had me thinking of Byatt's "Possession" and Kostova's "The Historian." Both of those books are partly about trails of clues left in ancient manuscripts, and Pidgeon's first novel clearly belongs with them in your library.  For his novel's two researchers, Donald and Julia, the hunt for the real Arthur's kingdom is facilitated by "The Song of Lailoken"--a Welsh poem that tells the story of the king's final, fatal battle.

There's nothing better than a mystery connected with literary tradition. Dan Brown might grab the headlines for his new Dante-themed thriller,  but Pidgeon's book deserves a look this summer. Not only do books like his help us to appreciate stories thoroughly embalmed by our high school English classes, they remind us that the past contains so much that's worth our time.

SPEAKING OF ARTHUR: by the way, the mailman delivered the best kind of mail yesterday: a copy of "The Fall of Arthur" by J.R.R. Tolkien and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This will probably be the last (is it really?) "new" Tolkien item to appear in the years since the ringmaster's death in 1973. Edited and curated by Tolkien's son, Christopher, the book was delivered into my hot little hands just in time for the three-day holiday: Nothing better than some alliterative Anglo-Saxon verse poolside!

I'll have a full report next week. Until then, my friends, a happy Memorial Day to you and yours.