Heroes of Old: Alexander the Great

You may recall how I thought one of the more exciting parts of The Habitation of the Blessed—Catherynne Valente’s reworking of the legends of Prester John’s magical kingdom deep in central Asia—was how she worked in a legend regarding Alexander the Great building a massive wall to imprison the evil giants Gog and Magog. As it happens, she was adapting part of the Romance of Alexander, a series of tales passed down since at least Roman times that were greatly expanded in the Middle Ages. Two selections from a loose translation of these tales, retold by Richard Steele in 1894, is available in The Tolkien Fan’s Medieval Reader.

I recently read them, and was delighted. These are rousing adventure tales, reveling in the new, the exotic, and the bold. The presence of magic is generous. Curiosity is the virtue extolled here, and courage in exploration, and there is a palpable joy at the prospects of all that God’s great world might hold (though the deity Alexander seems most to honor is Bacchus, who also was reputed to travel widely into India).

The titles of these passages are: How Alexander Passed through the Land of Darkness and Slew the Basilisk and How Alexander Came to the Trees of the Sun and the Moon.

I love these titles.

The History

 A wonderful thing about Alexander the Great’s conquests, from a storytelling perspective, is how far he ventured into the sprawling regions of the East, filled, to the Greek mind, with every rumor and elusive dream that ancient lore could tell of. Beyond Babylon he marched, beyond Persia, and through Afghanistan (subduing it as no modern army has managed thus far) even into India and the Himalayas. He conquered, he colonized, and he explored. It took him something less than ten years, and he never saw defeat on the field of battle. He was driven to always keep moving, onward to the next city over the horizon, to see every wonder the world had to offer and to claim it as his own. He died in Babylon, aged 32, either by poison or some kind of illness, and reportedly wept that he had not conquered all the regions of the world.


These wide travels provide great fodder for legendary material. For all that ancient writers told about Alexander, much remains undocumented and open to speculation of both the serious and the fanciful kinds. Naturally, I am more interested in the fanciful kinds.

The Source

According to Turgon, the editor and compiler of The Tolkien Fan’s Medieval Reader (and a founding member of TheOneRing.Net), most of the Alexander romances remain untranslated. These passages are from a retelling by Richard Steele; I have not yet found any other information about them from a scholarly source, and have thus resorted to Wikipedia. In summary, the various sources range from Roman-era Greeks like Arrian, Diodorus, and Plutarch to anonymous authors throughout the ages, extending into the late Renaissance. They appear in many languages, including Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic. Even the Koran records myths relating to the king of Macedon. And, at least for the European sources, it doesn’t seem that we know who wrote them.

The Stories

 How Alexander Passed Through the Land of Darkness and Slew the Basilisk

 Now the trees of this land were fruitful and bore all manner of food for man, and amongst them were apples and almonds, vines and pomegranates, and plums and damsons; and it was in this land that the Greeks first ate of damsons, for they did eat of them three days while they were in the forest. (Turgon 154)

 The story begins after the last of Alexander’s historical conquests, in India. He leads a combined army of Greeks and Indians into “a plain full of fair flowers and trees,” rich exotic fruits and spices, and peopled only by a race of cowardly giants who are easily routed. They venture further and discover more wonders, including a vast desert with a central region on which the sun never rises.

In the Land of Darkness, Alexander searches for the Well of Life with the aid of the magic stone Elmas, which shines brighter the nearer it is to the Well. Now the Well of Life is said to disappear once a man has bathed in it, and it does not reappear for another year. Alexander sends out search parties in every direction with instructions not to touch the water of the Well if they find it, but to return immediately to him. Because the land is still perpetually in night, trumpeters sound their instruments every hour so the searchers can always find their way back to camp. When one searcher, Philotus, returns with his hair wet, Alexander knows the man has found the Well and bathed in it, thus gaining immortal life. The king has Philotus take him to the spot, but the Well is gone.

Then the wrath of the King burst out, for he knew that he should see the Well no more for a year if he remained in that place, and that all the gray of his expedition was spent for nought but to make this Indian immortal, and he bade men bring great stones, and build them in a pillar round the Indian and close it at the top, and they did so, and he was left alive inside the pillar, for indeed the Greeks could not slay him. (157)

Alexander continues up into the eastern mountains, recalling a prophecy that said he would learn of his fate in the East. When his men start dropping dead in the mountain passes, he climbs to a high peak and spies a Basilisk—a great snakelike creature who slays merely by its glance—hiding among the rocks. He defeats the Basilisk in the time-honored way of Greek heroes, by use of a mirror, and collects precious ingredients from the monster’s remains.

Returning to a mountain temple he had previously passed, Alexander is told by the priests about a Northward Way that leads to the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which can speak the future in human languages and read human minds.

How Alexander Came to the Trees of the Sun and the Moon

Ever the ambitious man, Alexander leaves his army and embarks upon the Northward Way with a small entourage. He finds “a great cliff, shining in the setting sun from thousands of brilliant points like diamonds, and from chains of red gold leading from step to step up the face of he rock, high up beyond the ken of men” (159).

Who has cut these steps—two thousand and five hundred of them!—into the mountainside? We don’t know, but Alexander climbs them anyway, and finds at the top a wide golden plain, full of trees bearing varied spices and fruits, and villages of friendly Indians wearing tiger skins, and far off a shining palace. The land is so beautiful and fertile that it seems only Paradise could excel it.

A gray Elder waits in the palace and impresses Alexander by knowing his name without being told. The Greeks ask for the Trees, and are led into a garden, where a colorful Phoenix is casually pointed out as it roosts in a hundred-foot high tree. Then they come to the Tree of the Sun, which is gold and male, and the Tree of the Moon, which is silver and female.

I interject merely to note that Tolkien reportedly cited this story as an inspiration for the Trees of Valinor, which were gold, silver, and sacred.

From the Trees Alexander learns the answers to his two most pressing questions: that he will never return home to his mother in Macedon, and that his death will come by poison at the hand of one of his most trusted friends. Hearing this, he is deeply grieved, and briefly considers whether by slaying all his friends he might save himself. But wisdom prevails, for he cannot bear the thought of the suspicion and dishonor that would bring him to the end of his days. And so he leaves the marvelous land, rejoins his army, lies about the Trees’ prophecies in order to lift the spirits of his men, and begins his journey home, joyous in outlook, but wary in spirit.

Pictured: Alexander doing something epic. In a boat with other dudes.

The Hero

Alexander is a hero in the classic sense; a man who accomplishes amazing feats the rest of us could only dream of. For him to have this quality we should, I think, be able to find some moral value in his deeds, if not his heart.

My favorite moment in these stories comes just before he reaches the land of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon:

“Early in the morning he arose, and when he had called to him his twelve tried princes, he began to ascend the steps on the side of the mountain, and as he went up it seemed to him that he was going into the clouds, and when he looked down, the path by which he had come seemed as a silver ribbon among the hills, and the men of his host seemed smaller than bees, and nothing that might happen seemed strange to him, for his joy and lightness of heart” (159).

This, to me, is the great virtue of Alexander as a hero: his delight in exploration, in seeing overwhelming natural wonders for the first time. I have felt a lesser version of it, once when I stood at the top of a Scottish munro, wrapped up to my nose from the chill and howling winds, gazing in rapture into the wide silver mists that obscured most of the wet, heather-filled world from view. Other ancient heroes desire fame, honor, and success in war. While Alexander undoubtedly wants to conquer and rule, he is also driven by this desire to see all great things the world has to offer.

This curiosity breeds a certain generosity and tolerance in him. The Greeks and Persians famously hated each other due to decades of bloody wars, but Alexander envisioned an empire-wide culture that fused Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and Indian elements. Indian King Porus is his second-in-command, and he makes sacrifices at every alter he comes across, regardless of religion. Tellingly, he displays no desire to conquer the land of the Trees, though it is undoubtedly the richest and most wonderful land he has come across. He treats it with caution and respect, as if recognizing that its mere existence suggests the work of a deity greater than the kind he claims ancestry from.


Heroes of Old: The Cid

The literature of ages past has given us many iconic heroes, whose feats and fame have defined for us what it means for a human to be extraordinary. Some were historical, some purely imaginative, and still others combined qualities of both. Hercules, Beowulf, Arthur, Cú Chulainn, Arrow-Odd – all of them admired for possessing certain qualities that allowed them to achieve things or see wonders that the rest of humanity only dreams of.

But it is in my mind that most of these heroes are better known by generalized reputation than actual familiarity with the original stories. So, as I reflect upon these elevated individuals in my personal readings, I will also share some of my thoughts on them with you.

The first hero, since I recently reread his story, is Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, more commonly known as the Cid. (Or as El Cid Campeador, or simply Ruy Díaz.)

The Source

The Poem of the Cid, composed most likely around A.D. 1200, is remarkable for two main reasons: it is by far the most complete epic of medieval Spain to have reached us (most others being so fragmentary as to be unreadable), and it tries very hard to root its stories in historical fact. The historic Cid was a knight of Castile, vassal to King Alfonso VI, and lived roughly between the years A.D. 1042 and 1099. His many battles and exploits won him fame and honor, and although The Poem of the Cid does freely take artistic license, it also strives hard to connect its invented story elements with many known facts of the Cid’s life.

The story is separated into three parts, called Cantars, and the frame story is this: certain evil nobles at the court of King Alfonso are jealous of the Cid and have turned the king against him through the spreading of lies. In his unjust anger, Alfonso exiles the Cid, swearing that if he ever returns to Castile his life and lands will be forfeit. But so beloved is Ruy Díaz that hundreds of knights and soldiers join him on his way out, filling the ranks of his army and bolstering his spirit. As he leaves Castile, the Cid swears that he will work incessantly to regain the favor of the king, and will hold no grudges nor enmity against him.

The First and Second Cantars are mostly a series of battles and conquests. The Cid, with his army of volunteers, is attacked by neighboring kings who fear his presence. Both Christian and Muslim armies he routs, with his brilliant cavalry charges always causing the numerically superior foes to break. He plunders so much gold and valuables that he can make all his men wealthy and still be rich himself. This section of story can become tedious, as there is neither much tension nor much of a plot. The Cid always wins, no matter what.

The Third Cantar is where the story itself becomes interesting, because it provides the Cid with a battle that cannot be won on the battlefield, but only through moral fortitude. His battles won and his favor with King Alfonso regained, the Cid celebrates by allowing his precious daughters to be married to two young nobles, the Infantes of Carrión, at the nobles’ request. Unfortunately the Infantes are evil, cowardly men who nurse an absurd grudge against the Cid and are devoid of all the manly virtues. On the honeymoon, they humiliate, abuse, and abandon the Cid’s daughters as a way of getting revenge against him. Their stupidity should be evident. Yet the Cid’s reaction is a very telling one, I think, and not necessarily the most expected. Rather than seek revenge, he appeals to Alfonso for justice, demanding only a trial, and that the wedding gifts he gave to the Infantes be returned and his daughters held innocent of this dishonor. The trial becomes a matter of interest for the whole kingdom, with all the nobles gathered to hear the testimonies of both sides and pass judgment. In the end, two of the Cid’s closest friends and vassals step forward to fight the Infantes in a trial-by-combat. The Cid should not have to defend himself against such outrageous insults as the Infantes offer. Of course the villains are slain, the daughters remarried to good men, and the Cid becomes an ancestor to future kings of Spain.

I am using the translation by Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry, first published by Manchester University Press in 1975, re-published by Penguin Classics in 1984.

The History

My interest is only in the Cid as a poetic and literary character, but that examination will be helped by knowledge of some of the story’s historic context.

Obviously the real Cid looked like Charlton Heston.

Eleventh-century Spain was a kaleidescope of Christian and Muslim petty kingdoms, almost evenly split between the two religions in terms of land. Muslim armies from the Umayyad kingdom in Morocco had invaded in the year 711 and conquered most of the Iberian peninsula, until they were halted by Christian victories at Toulouse, Covadonga, and Tours (when they invaded France). The intervening centuries saw the beginning of the Reconquista, a general push by the Christian kingdoms to retake their old lands. It was haphazard and disorganized, but fairly steady – it did not end until 1492, when the Castilians under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally captured the Moorish stronghold of Granada. (This victory allowed the monarchs to fund a certain nautical expedition by one Christopher Columbus.)

The period of the Cid is so fascinating because it lies right in the middle of this process. You see, contrary to what you might expect, there was not a perpetual war of hatred between the Christian and Muslim kingdoms. A kind of stalemate developed: the Muslims had taken the large, wealthy cities, but were unable to dislodge the Christians from their northern mountain strongholds. Both cultural groups had a multiplicity of leaders, all with their own ambitions, strategies, and personal prejudices. Christians often fought Christians with Muslim aid, and Muslims often fought Muslims with Christian aid, nearly as often as they fought each other. A king looking for some plunder was just as likely to attack a neighbor of the same religion as one of the enemy religion. There is even one fascinating story of a Muslim prince who, when his throne was usurped by his uncle, sought refuge in a nearby Christian city, whose monarch gave him military aid and put him back on his throne.

In short, most of the kings and generals of the time were concerned with politics more than religion, whatever they say in their chronicles.

The Hero

The world of the poem is much like the historical reality, but with virtues and villainy magnified to enhance the drama. Through this colorful landscape of ever-shifting borders, Eastern arches, and Western towers the Cid rides boldly. Since he is praised and admired by everyone, including his enemies, for his heroic virtues, I find it prudent to ask: what are they?

I haven't actually seen the 1961 film starring Charlton as the Cid and Sophia Loren as Dona Jimena.

Well, his title is from the Arabic Sayyidī, which means “my lord.” This immediately tells us a few things about him. First, although Christian, neither Ruy Díaz nor his soldiers think it strange or unseemly for him to have an epithet in a Muslim tongue. Secondly, the epithet is personal. While in translation he often gets called “the” Cid, or “El” Cid, the Spanish text always calls him Mio Cid, or “my Cid.” This man is equally beloved by those who write about him as those who follow him, and the reason is because he really loves his own people. He has a sensitivity to the needs of other people which is rare among epic heroes, and he is passionate. When happy, he sings in joy and clasps loved ones to his chest. When grieved, he weeps and pulls his flowing beard. When challenged, he steps forward fearlessly and encourages his friends. When offended, he restrains his anger and pursues justice and mercy, because he believes in the justice and mercy of God with all his heart.

An illustration of the last point is how he treats the Infantes of Carrión, his treacherous sons-in-law. Before the treachery, when he had every reason to believe them good men, he welcomed them generously into his family and defended them against other nobles who accused them of cowardice in battle. There’s a great scene where a lion has escaped from captivity and is roaming the palace at night. The Cid’s knights wake and immediately form a circle around their sleeping lord to protect him. The Infantes scream and run away in terror, one of them hiding under a couch. When the Cid wakes up and sees the lion, he calmly walks towards it, grabs it by the head, and guides it back to its enclosure. The Infantes are roundly mocked, but the Cid, refusing to fault them for reasonable fear, forbids the jokes at their expense. Later, when their treachery is revealed, he demands only justice, no more and no less. He contains his hurt and his rage, and remains a real man, while the Infantes remain pathetic, wicked dogs.

Contemplating how to get Sophia Loren to be less melodramatic.

He is also fantastically brave, of course, a paragon of valor. This seems a requirement of all heroes. When an army of fifty thousand men led by King Yusuf of Morocco arrives to besiege the Cid in Valencia, he watches them from the ramparts and laughs with joy because the plunder will make his men rich. He always leads his cavalry charges, taking the most dangerous risks in battle. He inspires every friend with courage and idealism, and every foe with fear and respect. He can cause five hundred men to defeat five thousand with a handful of losses, and then treat his conquered subjects with kindness. He is resolutely Christian, always praising God, but taking part in none of the nonsense of forced conversions or “holy” wars that many of his historical colleagues engaged in.

He is magnificent. He is larger-than-life, absurdly successful, portrayed as nearly faultless, and yet possesses a maturity and self-control that makes the heroes of Greek mythology seem like savage youths in comparison.

But you know what I really like about the Cid? How openly he loves his wife and daughters.

He’s just a big softie when it comes to his family. The poem opens with the Cid tearfully bidding them farewell, as he leaves them in the care of a trustworthy bishop. He kisses his wife, embraces his daughters, and is loathe to leave them. When they reunite many months later in the city the Cid has conquered, it is gloriously joyous. His daughters, Elvira and Sol, don’t have much character, but the Doña Jimena is an interesting woman. She and Ruy Díaz are clearly lovers as well as spouses, and she bears their separation with strength and dignity, never losing face in public but still managing to express her fear for his safety and her desire for his return. The Cid’s love is so great and emphasized so often that it’s really shocking when the Infantes disgrace his daughters so badly. Don’t these wicked idiots know how he loves these girls? Don’t they know the Cid is invincible, unstoppable, and loved by all?

In fact, this might be the main lesson The Poem of the Cid is trying to teach: that it is foolish to do evil to a good man.

Book Review: “King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition” by Tyler Tichelaar

[N.B. A review copy of this book was sent to me by its author. In no way has this influenced the opinions I express here. You can find Tyler Tichelaar’s blog at CHILDREN OF ARTHUR.]

Title: King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition
Author: Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D.
Pages: 179
Publisher: Modern History Press
Genre: Scholarly study
Blurb: “…The first full-length analysis of every known treatment of King Arthur’s children, from Welsh legends and French romances, to Scottish genealogies and modern novels by such authors as Parke Godwin, Stephen Lawhead, Debra Kemp, and Elizabeth Wein. King Arthur’s Children explores and often overlooked theme in Arthurian literature and reveals King Arthur’s bloodlines may still exist today.” (Back Cover)
Recommendation: For anyone with a more-than-casual interest in the Arthurian legend, especially regarding different versions and the more obscure tales, this is a very handy resource. The end significance of many of the discussions may not mean much except to serious scholars, but Dr. Tichelaar’s book will open even the eyes of an amateur hobbyist of Arthuriana to the extraordinary diversity of the legends and the ways in which they have been continually adapted and retold over the centuries.

Key Thoughts

“It may be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s responsibility that Arthur’s sons disappeared from later versions of the legends; The History of the Kings of Britain was so popular that it firmly placed a structure on the way the tale would be told from then on, and since Geoffrey did not give Arthur any sons, his successors avoided creating sons for Arthur. And if writers had added sons to the legend, they would have had to come up with explanations for why these sons did not succeed their father.” (23)

Though a slender volume, Dr. Tichelaar’s book examines an impressively large amount of texts in its pursuit of all information that could potentially shed light on its subject of study, which is in some ways a bit obscure. Loads of scholarship exists on King Arthur himself and the main body of legends, but surprisingly little is known about his progeny except for Mordred, the bastard son of Arthur’s incest with his half-sister Morgan (whose name has numerous spellings). There are actually quite a few others just in the medieval and Old Welsh sources. The great virtue of King Arthur’s Children is how methodically Tichelaar goes through every mention of a character being a direct descendent of Arthur and examines all possible ways in which that mention interacts with other versions of the story.

The first section of the book concerns the Welsh traditions, which give Arthur three sons: Gwydre, Amr, and Llacheu. They have brief mentions—and in the case of Gwydre, only one undeniable mention—and thus little is known about their stories; nonetheless, they are the oldest mentions of Arthur’s progeny.

The most substantial section of the book discusses Mordred and the myriad portrayals he has had. Popularly he is Arthur’s bastard son, but in some tales he is legitimate, in others he is a nephew, in still others he is a brother, and sometimes he is not said to be related to Arthur at all. Scottish traditions even regarded Mordred as the good and legitimate king of England, with Arthur the evil imperialist usurper! This section really shows the diversity of the legends.

The third section is more interesting from a historical perspective, as Tichelaar looks at Arthur’s descendents and heirs. The English monarchy has often claimed descent from Arthur, but I was surprised to hear that those of Belgium and the Netherlands also make the claim. There is virtually no possibility of these claims being true even if there was one man who was the real King Arthur, but it’s still fascinating to explore all the possibilities.

The final section of the book deals with modern literature. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset is identified as the first twentieth-century novel to give Arthur a child—a daughter—although the role is minor, since the infant dies soon after birth and serves mostly to provide a source of tension between Artos and Guenhamara. Discussions of other authors follow: Barbara Ferry Johnson, Catherine Christian, Parke Godwin, Vera Chapman, Susan Cooper, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison, Bernard Cornwell…even Stephen King’s Dark Tower series gets some attention! Not all sources seem legitimately relevant (such as the 1995 movie A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), but no one can deny Tichelaar’s thoroughness. This discussion of modern treatments is a great way to trace the legend’s influence, although Tichelaar does mix in a lot of these analyses in the earlier sections of the book, to distracting effect. I’d have preferred that he keep all the modern novels that deal with Arthur’s children in this final section, rather than sprinkling a lot of his discussion of them in the earlier sections as well.

As the subtitle indicates, Tichelaar is interested in the way Arthur’s children have been used by various authors. He believes in the possibility of a historical Arthur and goes to great lengths to see if any of the sons and daughters mentioned stand a chance of also being historical, or if not, then at least part of the earliest stories. Mostly this is done by checking what is said of them against the more venerable facts of older traditions. Tichelaar’s detailed examinations of the conflicting theories of various authors and later scholars is welcome, though often confusing for someone like me. I feel that many of the theories Tichelaar brings up rely too heavily on literary or mythical analogues, such as similarities in names and story events—many of which sound unlikely to a non-specialist. However, Tichelaar knows that the flexibility of Arthurian legend is such that it is extremely difficult to be dogmatic on almost anything. When discussing the more far-fetched theories of other scholars (such as the death of Llacheu coming from the tale of a Welsh solar god, or Norma Goodriche’s theory that Lancelot and Mordred were brothers because the Irish gods Lugh and Dylan might be interpreted to be brothers), he often comments on their unlikelihood. All the same, with subject matter as nebulous as this, it’s good to treat all legitimate possibilities seriously.

I cannot claim to know how exhaustive Tichelaar’s work really is, but it appears very thorough. I found King Arthur’s Children to be very interesting, and I’m glad to have it in my Arthurian collection.

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.