‘But as your reputation, royal sir, is raised up so high, And your castle and cavaliers are accounted the best, The mightiest of mail-clad men in mounted fighting . . . Most valiant to view with in virile contests, And as chivalry is shown here, so I am assured, At this time, I tell you, that has attracted me here.’
The Green Knight explains why he traveled to King Arthur’s court at Camelot, namely, the court’s reputation in chivalry drew his interest. In the Arthurian romances, Camelot serves as the foremost representative of chivalry in Britain. In addition to being faithful Christians and excellent fighters, courtiers there practice the arts of wittiness, courtly romance, and hospitality. Of course, if the historical Arthur actually existed, he did so centuries before the chivalric code was invented around 1200; Arthurian romances thus suggest that King Arthur’s court invented the concept of chivalry centuries before the rest of Europe took up such a concept.
Each knight neared his neighbor and softly said, ‘Now we shall see displayed the seemliest manners And the faultless figures of virtuous discourse. Without asking we may hear how to hold conversation Since we have seized upon this scion of good breeding.’
Gawain arrives at the castle of Sir Bertilak, whose knights eagerly look forward to learning from him. Based on a fellow knight’s report, his reputation has preceded him. Even at this outpost in the wilderness, everyone knows that chivalry operates as the ideal code of behavior, that Camelot exemplifies its practice to the highest degree, and that Gawain excels as one of Camelot’s greatest knights. Knights expect that by watching Gawain they will learn how to behave in the most chivalric manner. Here, they are more concerned with witty conversation and proper manners than feats of arms, although they consider Gawain an exemplar in those, too.
I know the knight and the nobly pretty one Found such solace and satisfaction seated together, In the discreet confidences of their courtly dalliance, Their irreproachably pure and polished repartee, That with princes’ sport their play of wit surpassingly Compares.
The narrator observes Gawain and his hostess Lady Bertilak flirting in the chivalric way. In the code of courtly romance, knights were expected to pledge themselves in faithfulness to a lady, even a married one. This entails talking openly and often about love and romance while never behaving in a less-than-respectful manner. The ability to pledge love and devotion, discourse romantically including with love poetry and songs, and maintain sexual decorum represented the height of chivalry. The residents of Sir Bertilak’s castle believe they are witnessing such a courtly romance and thoroughly approve.
‘Indeed, dear lady, you did better,’ said the knight, ‘But I am proud of the precious price you put on me, And solemnly as your servant say you are my sovereign. May Christ requite it you: I have become your knight.’
Gawain responds to Lady Bertilak’s explicit sexual advances. She twists the rules of courtly love to suggest that Gawain violates his vow of faithfulness to her by not sleeping with her. However, Gawain knows that the chivalric code forbids him to sleep with a married woman—and especially his host’s wife. Gawain gets their relationship back into the “courtly” zone by pledging himself to be her knight while also mentioning that she made a “better” choice than himself already in choosing her husband.
‘It seems to me strange if, sir, you are Gawain . . . Yet nevertheless know nothing of noble conventions, And when made aware of them, wave them away! . . . I counselled you then about kissing,’ the comely one said; ‘When a favour is conferred, it must forthwith be accepted: That is becoming for a courtly knight who keeps the rules.’
Lady Bertilak once again tries to twist the rules of chivalry to get Gawain into bed. She claims he does not know the rules, but Gawain knows them better than anyone else. One of the rules states one should not disappoint one’s “beloved,” if possible. Gawain points out that although a kiss should be accepted, if he initiated further intimacy and were refused, he would be guilty of disappointing her. Gawain uses his wits and knowledge of the true code to get out of the situation in which he finds himself when Lady Bertilak deliberately misconstrues the rules for her own purposes.