King Arthur’s court at Camelot is defined by a chivalrous code, in which fighting spirit, bravery and courtesy are vital to a man’s character and standing, and cowardice is looked down upon as a severe defect. The Green Knight's challenge is thus a challenge not just to each individual knight but to the entire Arthurian chivalric code, and that code is shown to be hollow when none of the knights accept the challenge until Gawain, who identifies himself as the weakest of the knights, finally does. The terms of the Green Knight’s game then force Gawain to seek out the Green Knight somewhere in the wilderness of Britain. As such, the quest presents another test of both Gawain and the chivalric code outside the confines of Arthur's court. Over the course of this quest, it becomes clear that the highly-formalized and by-the-book set of rules for living inherent in the chivalric code of Camelot does not stand up in the wildness of the real world.
The chivalric code is full of glitter and symbolic decorations, just as Gawain is dressed for his challenge with diamonds and a shield representing the values he is supposed to embody. But these values are merely painted on, they are all surface, revealing the lack of certainty that the men beneath the armor actually hold in their chivalry—Gawain chooses to hide the green girdle from Bertilak rather than reveal it as promised, all because he fears for his life. Gawain’s trials also reveal how the chivalric codes are themselves contradictory: Gawain is faced with the need to be chivalric need to be honorable toward his host Bertilak while also showing the utmost courtesy and charm to Bertilak's wife, even as she seems intent on trying to seduce Gawain. Here the chivalric codes are set against each other.
Gawain navigates these impossible situations as best he can, but ultimately fails to adhere to the rules of the game he agreed upon with Bertilak (he does not reveal the girdle). Yet Bertilak/the Green Knight ultimately spares Gawain with no more than a nicked neck, while it was in his right to chop off Gawain’s head. Bertilak's honor does not depend on a formalized chivalric code that completely defines him. He and his men still have their rituals, but they put on less of a show. They have more individual strength, are more adaptable, and can therefore be more merciful when they feel the situation warrants it. In short, theirs is a way of being that better operates in the real world. The green girdle Gawain wears becomes a symbol of this different, less formulaic way of being.
Chivalry Quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
After Britain was built by this founding father,
a bold race bred there, battle-happy men
causing trouble and torment in turbulent times.
And I’ll tell it as it's told in the town where it trips from,
and as it has been inked
in stories bold and strong,
through letters, which, once linked,
have lasted loud and long.
I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed
Some stood and stared then stepped a little closer,
drawn near to the knight to know his next move;
they'd seen some sights, but this was something special,
a miracle or magic, or so they imagined.
Yet several of the lords were like statues in their seats,
left speechless and rigid, not risking a response.
The hall fell hushed, as if all who were present
had slipped into sleep or some trancelike state.
I'm spoiling for no scrap, I swear. Besides,
the bodies on these benches are just bum-fluffed bairns.
If I'd ridden to your castle rigged out for a ruck
these lightweight adolescents wouldn't last a minute.
But it's Yuletine – a time of youthfulness, yes?
So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:
if a person here present, within these premises,
is big or bold or red blooded enough
to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,
I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver
and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.
By Guenivere, Gawain
now to his king inclines
and says, "I stake my claim.
This moment must be mine.
The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king's men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn't shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair.
So it suits this soldier in his spotless armor,
fully faithful in five ways five times over.
For Gawain was as good as the purest gold –
devoid of vices but virtuous, loyal
so bore that badge on both
his shawl and shield alike.
A prince who talked the truth.
A notable. A knight.
He rides the path and prays,
dismayed by his misdeeds,
and signs Christ's cross and says,
"be near me in my need."
No sooner had he signed himself three times
than he became aware, in those woods, of high walls
in a moat, on a mound, bordered by the boughs
of thick-trunked timber which trimmed the water.
The most commanding castle a knight ever kept,
As the cry went up the wild creatures quaked.
The deer in the dale, quivering with dread
hurtled to high ground, but were headed off
by the ring of beaters who bawled and roared.
The stags of the herd with their high-branched heads
and the broad-horned bucks were allowed to pass by,
for the lord of the land had laid down a law
that man should not maim the male in close season
Then the heads and necks of the hinds were hewn off,
and the choice meat of the flanks chopped away from the chine,
and a fee for the crows was cast into the copse.
Then each side was skewered, stabbed through the ribs
and heaved up high, hung by its hocks,
and every person was paid with appropriate portions.
"And I will give it all to you, Gawain," said the master,
"for according to our contract it is yours to claim."
"Just so," said Gawain, "and I'll say the same,
for whatever I've won within these walls
such gains will be graciously given to you."
So he held out his arms and hugged the lord
and kissed him in the kindliest way he could.
for when tales of truthful knights are told
in both title and text the topic they describe
is how lords have laid down their lives for love,
endured for many days love's dreadful ordeal
then vented their feelings with avenging valor
by bringing great bliss to a lady's bedroom –
and you the most notable of all noble knights,
whose fame goes before him ... yes, how can it follow
that twice I have taken this seat at your side
yet you have not spoken the smallest syllable
which belongs to love or anything like it.
"As an honest soul I swear on my heart,
you shall find the Green Chapel to finalize your affairs
long before dawn on New Year's Day.
So lie in your room and laze at your leisure
while i ride my estate, and, as our terms dictate
we'll trade our trophies when the hunt returns
I have tested you twice and found you truthful.
But think tomorrow third time throw best.
"Call yourself good Sir Gawain?" he goaded,
"who faced down every foe in the field of battle
but now flinches with fear at the foretaste of harm.
Never have I known such a namby-pamby knight.
Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe,
or carp or quibble in King Arthur's castle?
But no wonder if a fool should fall for a female
and be wiped of his wits by womanly guile –
it's the way of the world. Adam fell for a woman
and Solomon for several, and as for Samson,
Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David
was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief.
"Regard," said Gawain, grabbing the girdle,
"through this I suffered a scar to my skin –
for my loss of faith I was physically defaced;
what a coveting coward I became it would seem.
I was tainted by untruth and this, its token,
I will drape across my chest till the day I die.
Since fearless Brutus first set foot
on these shores, once the siege and assault at Troy
our coffers have been crammed
with stories such as these.
Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned,
bring us to perfect peace. AMEN.