Still, he was stirred now by something else: His noble announcement that he never would eat On such a fair feast-day until informed in full Of some unusual adventure, as yet untold, Of some momentous marvel that he might believe, About ancestors, or arms, or other high theme; Or til a stranger should seek out a strong knight of his, To join with him in jousting[.]
The narrator explains that King Arthur won’t feast until entertained with a story or a contest of arms. In this way, Arthur encourages his court to keep him—and themselves—entertained, because courtiers know they must keep providing him with new and exciting tales. Of course, this policy also creates the premise for the events that soon take place: The Green Knight’s visit counts as both a marvel and a challenge to a contest.
‘By heaven,’ then said Arthur, ‘What you ask is foolish, But as you firmly seek folly, find it you shall. No good man here is aghast at your great words. Hand me your axe now, for heaven’s sake, And I shall bestow the boon you bid us give.’
King Arthur accepts the Green Knight’s challenge of a blow for a blow, with an axe. Not surprisingly, none of his knights steps up on King Arthur’s behalf, so the Green Knight here accuses King Arthur’s court of cowardice. King Arthur assumes correctly when he thinks the Green Knight plays by normal rules, even while he considers the Green Knight’s proposition foolish. But King Arthur also must protect the honor of his court and, by extension, his own honor. Out of pragmatism, not bloodthirstiness, he accepts the challenge.
Though honored Arthur was at heart astounded, He let no sign of it be seen, but said clearly To the comely queen in courtly speech, ‘Do not be dismayed, dear lady, today: Such cleverness comes well at Christmastide, Like the playing of interludes, laughter and song, As lords and ladies delight in courtly carols.’
After the Green Knight rides out of Camelot holding his own head, King Arthur—although frightened—knows he must lead by not showing fear. He downplays the ominous event to his queen and by extension his court so that everyone can return to having fun. Providing good cheer at feast times, and thus promoting loyalty and cohesion, was an important aspect of a medieval king’s job.
‘Look, my lord,’ said Gawain, the lace in his hand. ‘This belt confirms the blame I bear on my neck, My bane and debasement, the burden I bear For being caught by cowardice and covetousness . . . ” First the King, then all the court, comforted the knight, And all the lords and ladies belonging to the Table Laughed at it loudly, and concluded amiably That each brave man of the brotherhood should bear a baldric A band, obliquely about him, of bright green[.]
Upon returning to Camelot after his second encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain reveals to others that he wears Lady Bertilak’s girdle to remind himself of his shameful behavior in concealing the gift of the girdle from his host out of fear for his life. But King Arthur rejects Gawain’s self-recrimination, and the court follows suit. Not to mock Gawain but instead to express solidarity with his understandable moment of weakness and recognition of their own, they will wear green sashes from that moment forward.