There hurtles in at the hall-door an unknown rider,
One the greatest on ground in growth of his frame:
From broad neck to buttocks so bulky and thick,
And his loins and his legs so long and so great,
Half a giant on earth I hold him to be,
But believe him no less than the largest of men,
And the seemliest in his stature to see, as he rides,
For in back and in breast though his body was grim,
His waist in its width was worthily small,
And formed with every feature in fair accord
Great wonder grew in hall
At his hue most strange to see,
For man and gear and all
Were green as green could be.
This quotation from Part 1 describes the Green Knight’s first appearance in Arthur’s court, and it serves as our introduction to the mysterious character as well. The Gawain-poet’s description employs hyperbole, as in the superlatives “greatest,” “largest,” and “seemliest.” The poet’s repetition of the word “so,” and his insistence that the knight stretches the limits of ordinary reality—he is “[h]alf a giant on earth”—reinforce this hyperbole and contribute to our sense that the Green Knight is larger than life. The poet’s comparison of the Green Knight to a half-giant may be an allusion to a passage in Genesis just before the story of Noah that claims that fallen angels and human women mated together to produce superhuman, wicked children, precipitating God’s punishment in the form of the flood (Gen. 6:1–4).
After claiming that the Green Knight looks like a giant, the poet goes on to reassure his audience that the Green Knight is in fact a human being, even an extremely good-looking one. With fair features and a form composed of clean lines (broad shoulders tapering into a thin waist), the Green Knight cuts a beautiful figure. The description builds up to the bob—“was he”—with increasing suspense, and not until the wheel do we learn that the beautiful knight is green. In this passage, the poet uses the bob and wheel as a tension-creating device, snaking us through a lengthy description before we get to the important revelation of the knight’s green color in the last quatrain. This style also lends a sense of foreboding to the Green Knight, who looks almost human, but whose gigantic stature and green complexion seem to associate him with the supernatural—and, worse still, with some kind of primitive evil.