The estimable Robert Macfarlane has helped to organize a group reading on Twitter of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The choice makes sense: it’s the most-loved entry in a much-loved series of books, and its action begins on Christmas Eve and continues to the end of the Christmas season.
And yet the book really has nothing to do with Christmas. It takes narrative advantage of the warm associations people have with Christmas, but Cooper makes a point early in the novel of emphasizing the falsity and ineffectuality of Christianity. Now, of course, I wouldn’t say that the book should therefore be avoided — I have spent my entire adult life studying and teaching books by people who are indifferent towards Christianity, or who despise it, or who know nothing about it at all — but as a Christian I think I might want to make a different choice for reading this season.
So here’s my suggestion: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th century poem by an unknown writer from England’s West Midlands — where J. R. R. Tolkien, who translated the poem, is also from. Not only do we know nothing about the author, but the poem itself, along with three others apparently by the same person, survived in a single manuscript, thanks to the antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton. The poem is written in alliterative verse, which most translations attempt to replicate at least to some degree.
By far the best of those translations, I believe, is the one by Simon Armitage.
It was Christmas at Camelot — King Arthur’s court,
where the great and the good of the land had gathered,
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table
quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure.
Time after time, in tournaments of joust,
they had lunged at each other with leveled lances
then returned to the castle to carry on their caroling,
for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,
with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.
The hubbub of their humor was heavenly to hear:
pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,
so the house and its hall were lit with happiness
and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.
Such a coming together of the gracious and the glad:
the most chivalrous and courteous knights known to Christendom…
And then a strange and utterly unexpected guest appeared — to propose a “Christmas game.”
To be continued…