Commentary Magazine


A Different Christmas Story

This holiday season, while other stocking stuffers hash out the comparative merits of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman, why not cut these confections from your diet and go straight for the meat and potatoes (or bangers and mash) of Middle English poetry? I don’t mean the new Beowulf in 3-D—though that poem is in Old English, of course, which is why it looks like somebody dumped a sack of Scrabble tiles on the floor. If O.E. is your poison, Alex Nazaryan has posted some thoughts on the new Beowulf at Armavirumque. It would seem that this poem is unfilmable: Here on the horizon, Peter Suderman wrote that “[c]omparing it to its source material is of little use. It’s been streamlined and modernized, and now bears more resemblance to a computer game than an ancient epic.”

Whether or not you check out Beowulf, have a look at Simon Armitage’s new verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem whose hairy green villain gets less attention than Grendel for the simple reason that he rarely appears on high school curricula. Paul Johnson wrote, “No one ever reads Beowulf unless forced to do so (in schools or universities) or paid to do so (as on the BBC). Gawayn and the Green Knight is little more attractive.” I disagree vehemently on both counts. A few days ago, the poet Edward Hirsch explained in the New York Times what makes Gawain so great:

In 1967, Ted Hughes’s third book, “Wodwo”—raw, spooky, elemental—sent me scurrying to find out the meaning of this strange Middle English word. The figure of “wodwo,” which Hughes elsewhere characterized as a sort of “half-man, half-animal spirit of the forests,” seemed to have loomed up out of the unconscious of English poetry. The book’s epigraph came from a ferocious passage in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and soon I was parsing the somewhat resistant Middle English text and bounding through J. R. R. Tolkien’s faithful translation. I was transfixed. I had stumbled upon the underground alliterative tradition of English poetry. . . .

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the founding narratives of English literature. The storyteller nods to the Aeneid, thus invoking his epic lineage, and then settles down to tell his tale, which begins in the court of King Arthur, “most regal of rulers in the royal line.” It is Christmastime at Camelot, and the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table are carrying on and carousing when suddenly an enormous stranger appears, a hulking interloper, “a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.” The astonishing stranger is green from head to foot, a kind of emanation from nature. Even his horse is “a steed of pure green stock.”

You can read the poem “Wodwo” here, but I suspect you’ll get more out of Gawain. It’s stranger than just about any Christmas story you’re likely to encounter—after all, it does substitute “You’ll lose your head” for “You’ll shoot your eye out“—and of course it shows us what English literature looked and sounded like it its infancy. As Hirsch writes, the poem “still wields an uncanny power after 600 years. We’re fortunate that ‘our coffers have been crammed/ with stories such as these.’”