Book Meme Day 10: Favorite Classic Book

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
so bright.
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.


  1. mjschneider says:

    I like that last definition of a “classic” story. At work tonight I was thinking about how I would define what it means for something to be “great,” and I decided that it is anything that you can return to at any point in your life and get something totally fresh out of it each time, along with all the stuff that made it wonderful each previous time. Which is horribly subjective and whatnot, but there you go. By coincidence, I’ve been preparing a little (fascistic) tirade about the term “classic” for my own blog, and I was happy that the way you use the word — and your selection for it — are in keeping with the principles I believe should be in place whenever the idea of a “classic” is brought up.

    Since you disqualified anything written after 1900, I’m curious to know which 20th or 21st c. book, in your opinion, comes closest to filling the criteria of a genuine, canonical classic. If you’re planning to cover that in a later book meme post, then I can wait, of course. And when I say classic, I include everything from your own judgment of raw artistic merit coupled with what you predict/perceive to be long-lasting influence and historical precedent.

    1. David says:

      Ah, that is a tough question. It’s not covered later in the meme, so I can ponder a bit here. Well, The Lord of the Rings is probably the clearest choice, both for how it exemplifies its genre, the quality of its writing, and the influence it has had and will continue to have. The Chronicles of Narnia also, to a slightly lesser degree, though their influence among the Christian community may be greater. I’d like to include Lewis’ Space Trilogy as well, for its power, brilliance, and sheer uniqueness, although I’m not sure what sort of influence it has had. Definitely To Kill a Mockingbird. On a personal level I would also include a few books by Rosemary Sutcliff, especially The Lantern Bearers and The Eagle of the Ninth.

      1. mjschneider says:

        I haven’t read any Sutcliff, but the others strike me as eminently appropriate answers. I’m inclined to concur especially with Lord of the Rings and to Kill a Mockingbird; the latter especially, if only because it seems to be a standard in high school English classrooms. What do you think of Faulkner and Fitzgerald?

        1. David says:

          Haven’t read Faulkner. In high school The Great Gatsby‘s characters frustrated me more than anything, I think, and I didn’t like how the story progressed, but I seem to remember Fitzgerald evoking well the empty nature of wild, glitzy nighttime parties and the melancholy yearning of Gatsby himself as he gazed out over the bay at the green light. It certainly has achieved the reputation of a classic, but I’d need a reread to see if it earns a spot on my personal list.

  2. We also coined “corking good read” and “ripping good laugh.” You’re welcome. I wonder how you feel about including Stevenson, who turned out some liquid gold and also some utter bilge. Ought a great classic writer be brilliant, or consistent?

    1. David says:

      You did indeed, and I might try those now and again myself, too. Great question about consistency, though. It might be too much to demand a writer never falter or turn out various pieces of garbage now and then — just like it is very difficult to find a writer whom you admire in every single way possible. For Stevenson, I’ve read three of his novels (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Black Arrow), but all in grammar school or high school, before I was really thinking critically about them. I enjoyed them all, and remember his writing to be sharp and vivid, but can’t say much more than that. Doubtless he deserves inclusion among “great writers” more than Dumas, whose books, while sometimes containing great wit, comedy, and adventure, were also about three times too long due to unnecessary clutter and a lack of focus (I speak of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo).

      What do you think, on that question of sporadic brilliance versus consistency?

  3. Doni says:

    In my opinion, if a book isn’t a “rattling good story” in the first place, it doesn’t matter how excellent it’s moral virtues are. If it’s not compelling as a story, are you really going to read it? I can’t stand “stories” that are written just to present the author’s views on an issue, without actually taking the story part seriously. I mean, if we wanted bare philosophy, we’d read philosophical treatises. We read stories because we want a number of other things, too: entertainment, pleasure, excitement, suspense… Stories engage the heart and mind in a way philosophy alone doesn’t (why did our Lord tell so many stories?). Of course, the truly good books (like Gawain) always do contain moral truth, but as a supporting part to the good story being told. The story needs to be the point; and only if the book succeeds first as a story can we gain any moral or spiritual benefit from it. Of course, I also think that the story, per se, can only succeed, i.e., be satisfying, if the morals are good. But I think books can probably have good morals without being very satisfying stories. Thus my distinction. Am I making any sense?

    I have trouble reading allegory for this very reason. I often feel that the story is subordinated to the point the author is trying to make, and thus the plot and characters feel contrived to me. Of course, I haven’t read a great deal of allegory either (because I don’t like it!–a vicious cycle?) so I may have my mind changed on the subject at some point in the future.

    1. David says:

      Aye, you are, and I agree. Tolkien also expressed a dislike of allegory, and while Lewis did like allegory, I think he would still have agreed with you. As George Macdonald said in “The Fantastic Imagination:” “The best thing you can do for your fellow [reader], next to rousing his conscience, is not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.”

      The Pilgrim’s Progress is the most overtly allegorical book I have read, and for some it is a very difficult read. In one sense, the story does exist only for the message. However, I think that one is a curious case where, though Bunyan expressly intended it to be like a series of sermons in story form, it somehow grew into a fine story in and of itself. It cannot be separated from its allegorical nature, and yet the characters have life and personality, they think deep thoughts and make mistakes and try to help each other, and the plot has a good rhythm to it, if you don’t mind some passages of long theological discussions. ‘-)

  4. Melpomene says:

    Also, reading this with Dr. Purdy was amazing. That was a good class.

    1. David says:

      It was! She was amazing — I was lucky to have her as my English lit tutor as well, so she taught me Old English and The Dream of the Rood. After her 2 weeks or so of lecturing for that class, the entire lecture hall gave her a standing ovation.

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