Well that’s just not fair.
First I had to define “best,” and now I have to define “classic?” You ask the impossible! Scholars and educators have debated this question for ages, with only a vague consensus on what is called the Western Canon. Wikipedia declares “A classic book is a book accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy, either through an imprimatur such as being listed in any of the Western canons or through a reader’s own personal opinion.” I’d better not define it by my own opinion, then, because all the other Meme topics are my opinion, and it would ruin the point of having limitations in these choices. So I guess I shall go by the Western Canon of Great Books. Which of course is a general outline, and can easily be modified (each university usually does modify it to their own liking).
To this I will add the following qualifications: no 20th Century books, but the definition of “book” can be flexible.
Even among this limited list, there are so many grand and important books that I admire, and would like to feature. To speak of classic literature and not laud Homer, Aristotle, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, or Dostoevsky would pain me, so please, I beg you, consider them now lauded.
Still, I choose the fourteenth-century Middle English verse romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
As “the finest Arthurian romance in English,” as it is called by the Norton Anthology, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight blends beautiful language and strong moral purpose into a story of surprising nuance and complexity. On purely aesthetic grounds, the poem is exceptional, especially if translated with the alliteration intact (the excerpt below is translated by Marie Boroff). Take a moment to enjoy this description of the Green Knight, shortly after he has burst into Arthur’s hall unannounced:
And in guise all of green, the gear and the man:
A coat cut close, that clung to his sides,
And a mantle to match, made with a lining
Of furs cut and fitted—the fabric was noble,
Embellished all with ermine, and his hood beside,
That was loosed from his locks, and laid on his shoulders.
With grim hose and tight, the same tint of green,
His great calves were girt, and gold spurs under
He bore on silk bands that embellished his heels,
And footgear well-fashioned, for riding most fit.
And all his vesture verily was verdant green;
Both the bosses on his belt and other bright gems
That were richly ranged on his raiment noble
About himself and his saddle, set upon silk,
That to tell half the trifles would tax my wits,
The butterflies and birds embroidered thereon
In green of the gayest, with many a gold thread.
The pendants of the breast-band, the princely crupper,
And the bars of the bit were brightly enameled;
The stout stirrups were green, that steadied his feet,
And the bows of the saddle and the side-panels both,
That gleamed all and glinted with green gems about.
The steed he bestrides of that same green
A green horse great and thick;
A headstrong steed of might;
In broidered bridle quick,
Mount matched man aright. (151-178)
In my reading, the poem centers around the efforts of the Green Knight Bertilak and his wife, the Lady of Castle Hautdesert, to help Arthur’s court mature by dragging them out of their comfort zone and forcing them to live up to their great name. Camelot is young at this point, its knights still “in their first age” (54) and inexperienced in life. The Green Knight has two tests for Gawain, the court’s young representative. The infamous Beheading Game tests his courage against certain death and his personal integrity in keeping a promise even to the loss of his life. The more subtle game of seduction that Lady Hautdesert plays tests Gawain’s commitment to spiritual purity, a courteous disposition, and self-control. All of these traits are essential for spiritual chivalry.
The Gawain of this poem is my favorite Arthurian knight, bar none. He is the most realistic Christian knight in literature that I have encountered because he desires so strongly to follow Christ’s example but is hindered by all the imperfections and sins that attack us in real life. The poet describes his physical and spiritual journeys with a wonderful attention to detail and a flair for descriptive passages that, while often quite long, remain nonetheless fascinating. And the passages of dialogue, which I admit are not always selling points for medieval romances, are tricky games in and of themselves, with each character cleverly concealing their true thoughts for different purposes.
Another definition of a classic story is one which “keeps on giving” to the reader. It can be endlessly read, interpreted, and reinterpreted, and it inspires people to do so because of the wealth of life lessons it yields each time. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does this.
It also happens to be a rattling good story.
(Thank you, British writers, for inventing the phrase “rattling good story!”)
Honorable Mentions: The Odyssey by Homer and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.