When do posthumous releases go too far?

When do posthumous releases go too far?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s latest posthumous release, The Fall Of Arthur, unearths one of his long lost epic poems, and is the only original piece by the fantasy legend to take place in the world of Camelot. While a previous posthumously published translation, Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, firmly cemented his contribution to Arthurian texts, The Fall Of Arthur was advertised as an event, since the poem was from Tolkien’s own imagination. For Tolkien fans worldwide, who have devoured the seemingly endless procession of posthumous books released by his son, Christopher, it was finally a chance to see what their hero could do in a world they probably already loved, and one with close ties to Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

While The Fall Of Arthur does contain a poem written in an epic style, which chronicles Arthur at the end of his reign, it’s really a discarded scrap from Tolkien’s notes. Of the 220 pages, only 40 of them contain Tolkien’s words. The poem itself is barely formed, and nowhere close to completion; it doesn’t quite end mid-sentence, but it’s clearly less than half a story. Instead, the bulk of the book comprises Christopher Tolkien’s commentary on his father’s work and Arthurian legend in general. It may be well researched and competently written, but it doesn’t provide any insight beyond what any other academic book on Camelot could do in better detail. Nothing in Christopher’s writing justifies the poem’s release in this format, or its $25 price tag.

When I first got the book, I planned to write a straight-forward review, but I immediately found myself in a bit of a pickle: The whole thing seems more like a commercial enterprise for the Tolkien estate than an important lost work. What grade could I possibly give it? Did the fact that the poem worked well—what there was of it—trump my annoyance with Christopher Tolkien for putting it out? If pressed, I’d say the poem deserves a B, but the entire book an F. (Sometimes a letter-grading system doesn’t always make the most sense.) But it also got me thinking about the role posthumous works should play in a legacy, and under what circumstances it makes sense to release them. 

A person’s intent for releasing abandoned or unfinished art can’t be the deciding factor. If that standard were obeyed, a number of incredible works would be lost, because the release was strictly for financial or other less-noble reasons. Besides, almost all art released after someone’s death is done for commercial purposes, and that doesn’t necessarily make the work as mercenary as The Fall Of Arthur. The Dark Knight was a testament to Heath Ledger’s skills as an actor, but it was also a summer blockbuster that brought Warner Bros. hundreds of millions of dollars. Likewise, Nick Drake’s mother has profited as a result of his lost tapes. The commercial aspects of these enterprises don’t take away from their artistry, or the important roles they play in Ledger and Drake’s bodies of work. 

Sometimes, virtuous intentions don’t guarantee quality, either. Take The Original Of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov, for example. At the time, plenty of people were glad that Dimitri Nabokov had disobeyed his father’s will and not destroyed the manuscript. But critics found the book to be a sad facsimile of Nabokov’s published works. Alexander Thoreau wrote

“The last card of The Original Of Laura is a poignant list of synonyms for ‘efface’—expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate… it is a pity that his instructions were ignored and the novel survived in such a form.” 

Although people who knew Dimitri have attested that he released the book in an effort to help augment his father’s legacy, the novel may have done the opposite. The Original Of Laura didn’t seem to provide any new insight on Nabokov, nor was it actually enjoyable. 

It doesn’t bother me that Christopher Tolkien will make money from The Fall Of Arthur—he made plenty from other posthumous works by his father, including Gawain And The Green Knight, which I’m glad was released—but he seemed to reach the bottom of the pile of his father’s old manuscripts, and decided even this half-written, abandoned poem was worth releasing. The flimsiness of the work reinforces that it shouldn’t be in the spotlight; The Fall Of Arthur deserves to be the appendix to something else, perhaps a re-release of Gawain, not its own book. 

On the other hand, visual artists’ inchoate works are presented all the time, and usually are much appreciated. Most retrospectives in museums include sketches, or half-finished paintings, which show the artist’s movement from vague notion to fully fleshed-out work. In these cases, drafts are welcomed, and they don’t seem like a rip-off, because they’re included to show an artist’s process, not stand on their own. If The Fall Of Arthur or The Original Of Laura had been presented in that way, perhaps my reaction would be a bit different. Instead, The Fall Of Arthur has been marketed as if it were close to finished, and could stand up as its own work, as opposed to neatly fitting into a larger compendium of Tolkien’s collected papers.

At some point, the desire to see new material from an artist, or to collect all the material an artist ever created, should be tempered by the fact that a lot of unreleased work probably isn’t any good. What justifies, beyond quality, a work being released after an artist’s death, and, especially, when he or she has stipulated that it not be released? (Tolkien didn’t say explicitly The Fall Of Arthur should remain unseen, but leaving a manuscript untouched for years before his death seems a good enough indication as any that he didn’t want the work published.)

Ultimately, there needs to be some combination of good intent and completion (or at least importance) to the work. The Fall Of Arthur fails on both of these levels. Since the poem is so embryonic, and doesn’t take place in Middle-earth, it’s impossible to argue its importance in the Tolkien canon. If the poem had been finished, it would be worth the trouble of releasing it. As it is, Christopher Tolkien could have tacked The Fall Of Arthur onto plenty of other collections of Tolkien’s unfinished work, where it would serve a purpose much like a visual artist’s drafts displayed in a museum.

If a work is great, it doesn’t need justification. Alternately, if an artist’s estate or family or friends release some juvenilia or unfinished piece with no pretensions, simply for the sake of raising awareness about the artist’s body of work, the quality of the work isn’t that important. But most posthumous works don’t fit into either of these categories. (Looking at you, Tupac.) Not every scrap of work someone created, even someone as hallowed and talented as Tolkien, is worthy of posthumous release, even with the level of completism that is cherished in this day and age.

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