The Green Knight: The Limitations of Human Capacity


The Green Knight: The Limitations of Human Capacity
An Interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)

Artist’s Remarks

In ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ the Green Knight taunts the Arthurian court by using his grandeur to emphasize their shortcomings and haunts Sir Gawain, who comes to fear his mortality at the Green Knight’s hands. As I carried the Pearl poet’s Green Knight in my mind across the weeks, I realized that his existence is a direct challenge to the limitations of human capacity. I hoped to capture this aspect of the Green Knight’s existence in physical recreation. I have created a model out of crushed papers, fallen leaves, and green plastic bags in my creative interpretation. His armor is made of leaves painted over in green to cast them as “evergreen,” and as per the description in the text, the Green Knight remains shoeless. He is beheaded, holding his head – wrapped in green plastic – by his side. He has a red braid around his waist and decapitated head. My creative decisions in making this model (whom I affectionately call “man”) are products of much deliberation. As this essay proves, my decisions document the dilemmas I faced as I worked within my own human capacity limitations. 

From the introduction of the Green Knight, he is set apart from the knights of the Arthurian court in how massive his stature is. The first descriptions of the Knight depict him as “a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, / a hulk of a human” (lines 137-138), placing him (literally) a head and shoulders above the other knights. To attempt to capture this “most massive man” (line 141), I set out to create a model as large and sturdy as I could make it. The model is big – I was indeed questioned by passersby, who noticed I was carrying a rather large (and green) model of a man back and forth from the Art Studio. However, I admit he is not as large as I would have liked him to be. Running into issues of storage, transportation, and resource shortages pointed me to the limitations of my own capacity. I also planned to make this model out of wood to give him the bulk and durability that his title as the “mightiest of mortals” (line 141) commands. However, a lack of resources and expertise led me to use crushed papers to construct the base – unfortunately, making my model extremely flimsy. Again, I faced limitations in what I was capable of creating. In this trial-and-error process, I realized that these were uniquely human problems that curtailed how large and sturdy I could make the model I created with my own hands. I doubt nature runs into such issues in creating features of the natural world. Thus, in this failed venture of recreating the physicality of the Green Knight, I paralleled the Arthurian knights in my realization that I could not recreate his build in the same way the knights could not match the Green Knight’s stature. 

The otherworldliness of the Green Knight lies in the striking feature of his greenness. This sets him distinctly apart from the other knights as the green hue demarcates him as a being not of the human realm but instead of natural earthen powers beyond human imaginaries. I used leaves in my model of the Knight’s armor to embody his extraordinary abilities. These leaves browned over the time I created the model, presenting me with a dilemma. Browning is normal for leaves, but in my pursuit to recreate the Green Knight in all his glory, I was left unsure of what to do. Was I to leave the browning leaves and lose the unique greenness of the character I was trying to bring to life? Or was I to paint over the leaves in green to honor his greenness and compromise my desire to incorporate wholly natural elements into my model? Leaving the leaves untouched and unpainted betrays the “entirely emerald green” (line 150) depiction of the Green Knight, but it would represent the strength of nature over man’s will. Human desire has to adjust around the state of nature: I could not alter the state of the leaves naturally unless I were to obtain evergreen leaves (another limitation of my capacities). This particular scenario seemed to parallel the absolute power the Green Knight yields by being a representation of the natural forces of the earth – the “force of [his] fist would be a thunderbolt” (line 201). I, however, chose to paint over the leaves, believing that not recreating the green tint of the Green Knight would be a higher opportunity cost. This desire to stay true to the Green Knight’s tint allowed me to find an answer to the question the Pearl poet poses: “what did it mean that human could develop this hue?” (line 234). The greenness is such a marvelous characteristic that it indeed acts as a distinguisher from the other humans of the Arthurian court for the Green Knight to have developed it. 

Unsettlingly, despite the features that make the Green Knight distinctly not human, his existence as the ‘knight’ who is ‘green’ portrays him as a human. This makes his existence paradoxical – he is a symbol of elemental forces, yet only ever referred to as a man or human. He might be a “mountain” but is still a “man”; a “hulk” but still a “human.” This paradox seems uncomfortable in that his supposed humanity exacerbates Gawain and the other Arthurian knights’ shortcomings in comparison to him. By being a human and still yielding such power in his immortality despite being beheaded, the limitations of the human condition are further exposed. I hoped to capture this disturbing dichotomy by using leaves to depict the “veritably verdant” (line 161) quality of the knight while using pieces of a green plastic bag as the model’s sleeves and pants. Plastic waste is a human creation that serves to destroy wildlife and natural habitats. Even placing the plastic beside the leaves seemed strange – I was juxtaposing an emblem of nature beside a token of the destruction that humanity is capable of. Meditating on this, I realized I wanted to nuance this dichotomy further. I took artistic liberty to include a braided red chain around the model’s waist to depict the holly sprig the Green Knight holds as a symbol of eternal life. The model is also headless – his head lies attached to his hand, wrapped in green plastic with the same red string tied around it. I particularly enjoyed the irony in this image: the plastic seems to be suffocating the knight’s head, mirroring dark and gruesome images of modern-day murders, in much the same manner that humanity is destroying the environment. The shoelessness of the model – the only depiction of vulnerability the Green Knight bears in the story – adds to the sense of hopelessness and fragility of the human condition. However, the red strings symbolize the eternal life of the Green Knight. Understanding his immortality against his portrayal as a human being allows for a deeper appreciation of his otherworldly powers far beyond human capacity. Creating these layers of paradoxes to emphasize the Green Knight’s powers above that of humanity proved to be a humbling parallel to Gawain’s fear in facing his mortality in his challenge with the Green Knight.

Ultimately, I believe this reflection has become a record of the questions I grappled with in trying to create this knight. There was a lot I wanted to do but could not end up doing, or I had to choose to do something over another. Mostly, it was out of my capacity to bring to life my ideas precisely as I envisioned them. At the end of this project, I now realize that this, in itself, is a lesson I’ve learned from the Green Knight. Embarking on this project led me to deep meditation on the limits of human capacity. In the same way that the Green Knight epitomized the shortcomings of Sir Gawain by constantly reminding him – taunting him even – of his mortality as a human, I now see that creating this model has taunted me with my own limitations as a human attempting to recreate the true essence of the mystical being of the natural world that is the Green Knight. 


Armitage, Simon, trans. (2009) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. W.W. Norton & Company.