Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I don’t remember when I first read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it must’ve been at least two years ago. I had read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, because it seemed like one of those books that I was supposed to have read already. I ended up enjoying it so much that when I saw a verse translation of Sir Gawain in the same series, I picked it up, though I had never heard of the translator, Simon Armitage.

Now I read Armitage’s Sir Gawain every year at Christmastime, and if possible I rope family members into reading it aloud with me, because it’s that kind of a poem. Alliteration has gotten a bad rap nowadays for being childish, and, yes, there is something Seussical about Armitage’s translation. But it’s simply great fun to read aloud lines like “for such prime pieces of perfect pork / and such sides of swine were a sight to be seen.” The long passages of people eating huge feasts and putting on expensive clothes and armor also lend a confectionary, festive air to the poem that feels appropriate for the holidays.

The plot itself is loosely Christmasy—at least as Christmasy as some of my other holiday favorites, like Nancy Meyers’s The Holiday and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Sir Gawain starts with a Christmas feast at Camelot, where King Arthur calls for some game or diversion to entertain his court while they eat, when a hulking green giant rides in (on a hulking green horse) and challenges King Arthur to a contest. The game is fairly straightforward, though it’s not going to top any Buzzfeed lists of favorite holiday games: King Arthur gets one swing of an axe to try to behead the green knight, and in one year’s time, the green knight will get one swing of an axe to try to behead King Arthur. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge in place of his liege, but things go sideways when the freshly beheaded green knight picks up his own head and rides away from Camelot, promising next year to behead Sir Gawain.

The hint of a magical ghost story—and later the threat of some illicit flirting with the beautiful mistress of a castle—are mostly just the intriguing backdrop for a cozy and indulgent yarn about people eating tons of food, staying up way too late talking for days on end, and hunting wild game to spice up their lives and add a bit of danger. At its heart, it’s silly and yet moralizing (like any good medieval tale), weird and weirdly relatable, addictively readable while at the same time inviting you to slow down and savor the beautifully rhythmic poetry.

And yes, I probably feel overly fuzzy about Sir Gawain because I’ve made a Christmas tradition out of it, but I already know I’ll enjoy reading it again next December. This year I read almost half of it to my niece, who seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. Who knows? Maybe next year I can get a whole room full of people reading it aloud while we sip glasses of spiced wine by the fire.

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