[ " Our official Xmas reading -- utterly seasonal, as it takes place the week between Xmas and the New Year in two consecutive years -- is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of my favorite poems in the English language. But then, it would be, because I love to alliterate, and this might the best alliterative poem we have, with its marvelous scheme of head-rhyme (alliteration) that gives way to a tail-rhyming quatrain at the end of each stanza. Bubbling with the energy of the mystery plays, bristling between ancient customs and Xtianity, it's a poem to be read out loud -- something best done in 14th-century English, whether one understands every word or not. Despite the transformation of the language since then, it's more comprehensible heard aloud than read off the page. There is no better phrase in English to recount the action of falling snow than "the snawe snitered ful snart." One holiday weekend back in the early 80s, I think it was, I read the entire thing live in middle English, as best I could pronounce it, at the Ear Inn -- it took about two and a half hours, as I recall -- while composer Warren Burt played burbling little space-age synthesizer sounds through polyplanar styrofoam speakers.
The poem begins with a memory of the siege of Troy that takes the listener forward in time to the figure of King Arthur. Here's the opening in middle English (with the "thorn" and "yogh" characters modernized), followed by one of many possible modern versions that strives mightily to maintain the rhyme schemes, and which I pinched from this website. And then there's the marvelous rhyme of "wonder / blunder."
Sithen the sege and the assaut was sesed at Troye,
The borgh brittened and brent to brondes and askes,
The tulk that the trammes of tresoun ther wroght
Was tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe.
Hit was Ennias the athel and his highe kynde,
That sithen depreced provinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneghe of all the wele in the west iles.
Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swythe,
With gret bobbaunce that burghe he biges upon fyrst
And nevenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
Ticius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes up homes,
And fer over the French flod, Felix Brutus
On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settes
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi sythes has wont therinne,
And oft bothe blysse and blunder
Full skete has skyfted synne. . . .
Translation by Marie Boroff:
Since the siege and the assault was ceased at Troy,
The walls breached and burnt down to brands and ashes,
The knight that had knotted the nets of deceit
Was impeached for his perfidy, proven most true,
It was high-born Aeneas and his haughty race
That since prevailed over the provinces, and proudly reigned
Over well-nigh all the wealth of the West Isles.
Great Romulus to Rome repairs in haste;
With boast and with bravery builds he that city
And names it with his own name, that it now bears.
Ticius to Tuscany, and towers raises,
Langobard in Lombardy lays out homes,
And far over the French Sea, Felix Brutus
On many broad hills and high Britain he sets,
Where war and wrack and wonder
By shifts have sojourned there,
And bliss by turns with blunder
In that land's lot had share . . .