Then the lady had a longing to look on the knight; With her bevy of beauties she abandoned her pew. Most beautiful of body and bright of complexion, Most winsome in ways of all women alive, She seemed to Sir Gawain, excelling Guinevere. To squire that splendid dame, he strode through the chancel.
Having arrived unexpectedly at Sir Bertilak’s castle on Christmas Eve, Gawain attends Christmas Mass with the household. Here, the narrator describes how, as the service ends, the Host’s wife, Lady Bertilak, makes herself known to Gawain. Not shy, she shows her interest in him. Readers understand that he feels just as interested in her, as she seems to him the most charming woman he has ever met. He appears smitten or even bewitched by her beauty and charms.
You shall not budge from your bed. I have a better idea. I shall hold you fast here on this other side as well And so chat on with the chevalier my chains have caught. . . . My lord and his liegemen are a long way off; Others still bide in their beds, my bower-maidens too. . . . My young body is yours. Do with it what you will.
Lady Bertilak invades Gawain’s bedchamber during her husband’s absence and offers herself to Gawain for sex. By twisting the terminology of courtly love, Lady Bertilak puts Gawain in a pickle: As a paragon of chivalry, Gawain will not sleep with her, but at the same time he must not seem to be insulting or rejecting her. Not realizing her behavior serves as a test, he makes his choices and passes her test anyway.
[T]he beauteous one blessed him and brought out this argument: ‘Such a great man as again is granted to be, The very vessel of virtue and fine courtesy, Could scarcely have stayed such a sojourn with a lady Without craving a kiss out of courtesy, Touched by some trifling hint at the tail-edge of a speech.’
Lady Bertilak tempts Gawain to sin with her, manipulating the tropes of courtly love to do so. She insists that Gawain must not really know the rules of courtly love or he would kiss her. By questioning Gawain’s status as the foremost practitioner of chivalry, Lady Bertilak tries to make Gawain question, and then break, his own code.
Said the beauty to the bold man, ‘Blame will be yours If you love not the living body lying close to you More than all wooers in the world who are wounded in heart; Unless you have a lover more beloved, who delights you more. A maiden to whom you are committed, so immutably bound That you do not seek to sever from her—which I see is so. Tell me the truth of it, I entreat you now[.]’
Here, Lady Bertilak suggests that Gawain disobeys the chivalric code if he does not sleep with her. But then she gives him an escape route: If he already committed himself to someone else, he could not be with her. Though he might have been tempted to lie, Gawain admits he has made no such commitment and does not intend to. Lady Bertilak accepts this rejection, thus ending her pursuit and testing of Gawain.
‘If you reject my ring as too rich in value, Doubtless you would be less deeply indebted to me If I gave you my girdle, a less gainful gift.’ She swiftly slipped off the cincture of her gown When went round her waist under the wonderful mantle, A girdle of green silk with a golden hem[.]
After giving up on seducing Gawain, Lady Bertilak proposes that they exchange tokens of their love. Gawain protests that he does not have anything worth giving her. Lady Bertilak thus downgrades her own gift from a ring to her girdle. Gawain tries to refuse this gift too but accepts the girdle when he hears of its life-protecting properties. Readers may note that the girdle’s color hints at a connection to the Green Knight.