Following on from our Christmas countdown last year, here are some literary treats in which to seek comfort and placidity this Yuletide.
The late 14th century Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight centres on a strange ‘Christmas game’ at King Arthur’s court on New Year’s Day. The tale of a green knight presenting Arthur’s knights with the unappetising challenge to chop his green head off on the condition that the victor presents his own bonce for the same treatment a year later provides an insight into the medieval world of chivalry, hunting, and extravagance. The bacchanalian feast tales, and the wonderful descriptions of the changing seasons as the Arthurian knight contemplates literally losing his head the following year, also feel appropriate as we close this year with binge eating and welcome the new one with good intentions. I would recommend the Penguin edition for the wealth of background information which helps bring the poem to life, in particular through an understanding of its symbolism and (disputed) authorship. If nothing else, your family Christmas games will seem less stressful by comparison.
Giles Milton’s The Riddle and Knight investigates the truth or fiction of the 1322 The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, in which Mandeville claimed to have circumvented the globe. Milton retraces Mandeville’s journey across Syria, Jerusalem, Cyprus and elsewhere, unravelling seemingly opaque medieval clues with the help of a cast of fascinating characters – including Miss Eliza de Luguignan, the last survivor of a Cyprian royal dynasty, residing in my home town of Edmonton! The focus on Jerusalem – including following in Christ’s last footsteps – and the message of tolerance which Milton believes is the true key to Mandeville’s Travels, makes this pair of books fitting for the Christmas season.
It’s easy to forget the religious aspect hidden amidst the overindulgences which dominate the festivities, from the one-too-many bevvies at the Christmas party to the attack of the Quality Street tins at home. Therefore I’ve included The Cloud of Unknowing, a late 14th century religious tract about achieving greater communication with God by emptying one’s mind to receive his grace. It’s surprisingly witty in parts, and even if you are (like me) not especially religiously-inclined, The Cloud reads like a meditation piece which is surely soothing during crazy season.
Lastly, something more modern than all this medieval business which I’ve stumbled upon. Mr Golightly’s Holiday reminded me of an episode of Midsomer Murders, complete with a cast of Devon village characters (the tart with a heart, the snoop, the misunderstood ruffian), incidental provincial plot (the fate of the village tea-rooms, having been abandoned by two middle-aged lesbians, being especially gripping) and beautiful descriptions of our green and pleasant land. The Christmas link is that the author renting a holiday cottage amidst this quaint rural scene in order to re-evaluate the meaning of ‘his greatest work’ is…ok, even if the clues are there early on, and if many other reviews give the game away, I cannot do explicit spoilers at BPT so will just say it’s a dude who is considered quite important to the whole Christmas ting. This premise makes one consider what the Bible means in modern times through some genuinely moving tales of love, hope, and betrayal – I adored the relationships between Mr G and a lost village youth, the widow sheltering an escaped fugitive, and an illiterate thug and a mother figure – and provides a humorous reflection on what is important at Christmas: our relationships with, and treatment of, each other.
Wishing everyone peace and love this Christmas!