the greenest color, pt 1

coming of age stories, chivalric romances, and making out in movie theaters

hi, ok, so remember last week when I was like “well I did an experiment with writing a big essay in several parts across a month or so and then pulling them together at the end of the month and it was too hard and I don’t think I’ll do it again?” Well, it turns I’m doing it again this month. I saw The Green Knight last week and I had a whole lot of thoughts and feelings about it that I still haven’t entirely parsed but which I immediately wanted to write about. I’ve been obsessed with the color green for a while (I wrote about it at length a few years ago in an essay for Hazlitt), and seeing the movie made me want to revisit that obsession.

So: This month, Griefbacon will be a series of pieces about green. At the end of the month, I’ll pull all of these pieces together into one big and hopefully coherent essay about the color green and The Green Knight. It’ll be sort of like the couch thing from last month but wilder and messier and greener. Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t, hopefully it’ll be fun either way.

The below post is really part two, since Monday’s subscriber post was also about green, but you’ll have to subscribe to read that one. Which it’s a great time to do right now, since Griefbacon is currently on sale for 40% off ($3/mo or $30/yr).

Ok. Let’s talk about green stuff. (spoilers follow for The Green Knight, I mean, I guess?)

The Green Knight is not really all that green. The movie is obsessed with color, repeating it and wrenching it into focus, discussing it and highlighting it and saturating it, using it as theme and motif. But most of the colors aren’t green, and the greens, when they come, come grudgingly. Every green is nervous and plausibly deniable. There’s green that is really black, and green that is really yellow. There are fallow, rotting brown-greens and spooky dead-neon horror movie greens. Green leaves are blotted out to shadow by the yellow light flooding through them. Certain shots suggest green but are actually orange, or gold, or blue, or grey.

The green knight rides into the court on Christmas Day on his horse, with his holly branch, with his wooden face creaking and sighing like an ancient tree, but he is a grey-ash aquatic oozing color, the hue of rot and winter. His enormous axe is not green, either, not really, but a grey metal rusting out to something else that might, technically, be green, a verdigris shade like the buildings east and uptown, the color of old money and old stories and conspicuous decay. But it does not read as green. It is only when he puts the axe down on the floor — grey, like most of the movie has been so far — that we get our first real glimpse of green. When the axe touches stone, moss sprouts in the cracks and begins to spread, the green world pushing through the grey one. Watching, I exhaled at the sight of it, like getting into a cold shower on a hot day. 

One of the simplest readings of the Green Knight — not the movie, but the figure himself, and the poem that generations of college freshmen are assigned and do not read — is that he represents the natural world, the lawless one that Arthur’s court, with its rules and structures and wars and chivalry, is trying to corral and to tame. Green pushes up through the stones imposed over it, it insists on itself, it cannot be made polite. It rides into court in the middle of Christmas, carrying a holly branch instead of a sword. When the axe touches the ground, moss spreads, green roaring back, pushing through what has been built over it. The knight is the green world that will always coming calling again, even in the dead of winter. 

“Christ is born,” are the first words of the movie, and the first conversation we hear between two people is about going to Mass. We are in a decidedly Christian world here, in this story, in this town set around a castle, where we begin. But Christmas, as that first utterance points out, is a holiday about rebirth: Christ is born once a year, in the dead of winter, new green life pushing up through the old grey flagstones, against the odds, even in the darkness, even in the snow. It is connected to something much older, and much greener, than the particular myth of a particular child. 

The Arthur myths sit on the seam between a pagan society and a Christian one. It is possible to read them as being about this more than anything else, the negotiation between an old world and a new one, the violent change from a society concerned with land and nature to one concerned with laws and rules and manners. In one shot early on in the movie, just after he sets out on his quest, Gawain rides across a denuded, grey-brown landscape where a forest is being cut down. His gold velvet cloak is the only color in the frame. Everything looks like waste and dead things. In the foreground, someone fells the last old huge tree; it falls in slow motion, creaking, much like the slow journey of the Green Knight’s body to the ground. All the green has already been eradicated. The men cutting down the trees and the men paying them to do so are making way for a newer world by tearing down the existing one. Christ is born. The sky and the ruined earth are all the same flat smoke color, rushed into decay. The chivalric code was—viewed one way, anyway— about building an artificial world, one that conquered the land rather than surrendering to it, the morality of churches and wars.

Christianity, new in that era, was a technology, and the changes it scourged across a landscape were technological, as much as the industrial revolution, and as much as the digital transformation at the end of the twentieth century. Sitting in the movie theater’s air-conditioning, which feels and smells the same as the air-conditioning in movie theaters when I was a teenager, I kept thinking of the seam across which I lived my adolescence and early adulthood. I don’t mean to compare the arrival of the internet and social media into a pre-digital and offline world with the arrival of Christianity into a pagan, ancient, green one, except that I absolutely do. 

Movie theaters make me feel young in a way that I no longer am. One of the simplest readings of the color green is about youth and newness. Green is the color of naïveté; the term “green” refers to someone with little experience, someone who doesn’t yet know how things work. Green is new beginnings, new growth in spring, potential struggling up in green grasping shoots through the cold and frozen ground. Everything new is green; green is starting out, rebirth and childhood, the part of the calendar where the earth starts over. Green is when anything feels possible, the green of planting season, when all the seeds could still take root, when all of the consequences of fall and harvest are still far off, and not yet threatening. Coming-of-age stories are green stories, a myth painted in bright shades of green. 

Coming of age stories often take place in what some literary scholars name “the green world.” This term traditionally refers to the forests in many of Shakespeare’s plays, inside of which the characters can live in a kind of fluid, experimental mode, and in which they often encounter and undergo personality- and morality-forming adventures. The green world is where young people learn how to be people; it is a place off the record, and without consequences, in which flirtation and clumsiness and magic and sex are allowed, and in which mistakes function as lessons. 

The green world part of the Gawain story, the section in which the movie revels and with which it is mostly concerned, is largely absent in the poem. Gawain’s exploits getting from one place to another are gestured at but not depicted in detail. The journey into green is largely left a mystery, but this is in some ways true to the idea of the green world as well. Nobody has to be perceived in the green world; everyone is mutable, human at one moment and horse-headed the next, trading out appearances and identities. A fox can talk; a saint without a head can stand up looking like a human girl, and then turn back into a decapitated skeleton. No identity or loyalty is fixed; no one reality is paramount.

At the beginning of the movie, Arthur asks Gawain to tell him a story, and, not having one, Gawain stands up and puts himself inside of one instead. That’s often how coming of age stories work, too: A young and inexperienced person hears about the way people become heroes, and tries to follow in those footsteps. A boy becomes a man, a commoner of mysterious parentage goes into the forest and emerges as the king. A child becomes a carpenter, and performs miracles, and teaches charity, and dies. 

Gawain isn’t a knight, in the movie. He’s just Gawain, an overgrown teenager, a trust fund kid flailing around unable to hold up his end of conversations, unable to stand anywhere or offer up a story of his own. This is one of Lowery’s major departures from the poem (people keep calling him “Sir Gawain” and sometimes he corrects them and sometimes he doesn’t and I kept thinking “oh I guess they’ve read the source text”). Perhaps Lowery makes this change because he wants his movie to be more clearly a coming of age story, to offer a better stage for an interrogation of that genre. The movie is about the stories and myths that bind and undergird societies, and the coming-of-age story is rooted more deeply in our culture’s myths than almost any other. Coming of age stories are a green world, but they are also a technology. Myths are a technology, or can be read that way. Individualist, personal-identity-creation ones in the Campbellian mode in which stories like this one — or at least stories with which this one is concerned — take place certainly are. They are a vehicle that gets us from one place to the next. They tell us why the king is the king; they tell us what kind of person counts as a person, and who gets to succeed or fail, who gets to move forward into churn and reward of the larger world, and who is left behind. 

Being in a movie theater will always make me think about a sordid and unheroic thread of my own coming-of-age story. I spent a lot of time, like many people I know who were young in roughly the same era I was, making out in movie theaters as a teen. Maybe teenagers still do this; maybe lots of people still do this. Maybe this particular coming-of-age tradition still exists, has carried on to the next generation and will carry on to the one after it, hand-jobs in movie theaters, world without end. Maybe that one Frank O’Hara poem will be relevant to everyone forever. I don’t know, and it’s good and correct that I don’t know. But to me it seems a particular relic of the pre-digital age, that moment at the seam between one world and the next, the landscape about to be riven by new technology. We went to the movies because we had nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do. It was a place where no-one was looking. The movie theater, in the big dark and the bigger air-conditioning, was a green world, where nothing counted, and nothing lived on the record, where the forest closed up around whatever experiments occurred within it. 

But because I lived at a technological seam, the land turning over from green moss to gray stone, the movie theater was not the only green world. There was a bigger, darker forest, one that led out toward the future in all its mysteries. Christ is born; new technology cutting through the green and into the season of harvest. The green world was a movie theater, but far more than that it was the internet, which took over and blotted out the silence and air-conditioning and lights-down permissiveness of the strange friend-group dates I went on to the movies in middle and high school. It offered the same clash of bright and dark, the same enveloping cover in which evidence might never emerge. 

That’s my real coming of age story: I went online. Online was the green world, the forest into which Gawain plunges, the mushrooms, the talking fox, the glimpse over the ridge of the giants in the world beyond this one, the murderous feral children in the forest, the saintly beautiful ghost with no head, the castle appearing out of nowhere in the cold rainy night in which the lord and lady are asking A/S/L/Cyber? For a brief period of time, the internet felt like the terrors and wonders of a chivalric quest out of myth, and like making out in a movie theatre, all at once, all layered over one another. None of this is the case now; our technologies betray and outgrow us. They use us and leave us behind. The land across which Gawain rides is the color of a dead campfire. All the felled trees have been cleared to make room for something less beautiful and less dangerous, with no space for the unexplained to lurk in green shadows. The internet has gone from pagan to Christian, the green world transforming into the grey and structured world of rules and laws, of chivalries and wars.

I think about this green world — the movies, and the internet, and the seam between the two of them, and the way that one bled into the other — every time I am in a movie theater, every time the lights go down and the air conditioning wraps me in its biting embrace, every time I sink into a plush, rented chair and become briefly unperceived, rustling leave shuttering around me. The movie wasn’t green enough, but it made the right kind of hushed and self-important sounds, ringing across the cavern of a big first-run cinemaplex, convinced of its own mysteries. The green world is about groping around in the darkness, trying to make our bodies connect to a legible story, trying to prepare for the light into which we will emerge in a few hours when the credits run over music and we stumble back outside, dazed and blinking, into a world full of consequences.

The internet doesn’t feel like a movie theater anymore, or like a green world, but maybe that’s my fault for coming of age in it, for trusting a technology that wanted to eat up the land beneath it. The colors in the movie — grey and brown, yellow and gold and a drowning, aching blue— are the colors of the harvest, consequences and not potential. That’s maybe why it never felt green enough, and maybe at the same time what made the whole thing into a story about green. Green’s absence is about green, too.

Does this essay feel like it maybe isn’t finished yet? That’s because it’s not! Tune in next week for the next part of this big weird essay about the green knight and green in general, or subscribe for the subscriber-only posts, which promise to be even weirder stuff about green. this is the weekly public edition of griefbacon, which is free for everyone. if you enjoyed this, maybe consider subscribing, especially since subscriptions are on sale right now.