That Gawain is Mary’s Knight is made clear as he is robed for battle; the pentangle represents the five joys of Mary, and he has “that queen’s image / Etched on the inside of his armored shield” (648-649). As long as he is solely focused on his quest for the Green Knight, he derives his prowess and courage from his special relationship with Mary. On his journey to look for the Green Knight he is beset by a number of hardships, and is finally brought to the point of despair. Alone and freezing in the forest, he prays to Mary for shelter and a place to say mass on Christmas Eve.
She answers his prayers and leads him to Bertilak’s castle; however, his arrival at Bertilak’s court throws him into a totally different world. Here, Gawain impresses courtiers of Bertilak’s castle with his prowess in the field of courtly love rather than the feats of daring or his upholding of his honor, traits that would draw compliments in Arthur’s court. Camelot is portrayed in its youth, long before it too is tainted by Lancelot and courtly love; Arthur is young, “child-like (86)” and the “fine fellowship of Camelot was in its fair prime.” The analogy is obvious: Arthur’s court embodies chivalry’s pure roots, where martial exploits were the primary subject of interest, whereas Bertilak’s castle represents the low point of the degeneration the poet perceives chivalry to have undergone. The Lady’s association with courtly love also ties this aspect of chivalry with degeneration and sin. Immediately upon his arrival in Bertilak’s court, the separation between courtly love religion is clear: Gawain at Mass is “in serious mood the whole service through”(940).
This serious mood is immediately forgotten with the sight of the Lady, whom he immediately focuses on at the expense of Christmas’ meaning. Instead of finding solace in the meaning of Christmas, Gawain and the Lady “found such solace and satisfaction seated together, in the discrete confidences of their courtly dalliance” (1011-12). When Gawain was alone in the forest, fearing death, he could only think of one thing, that Mary should lead him to a place to say mass on Christmas. Now, instead, the Lady has drawn him away from Mary and made him forget the significance of the day. The bedroom, however, is the true testing ground. From the first day of their bedroom sessions, the Lady subtly establishes a bargain of her own with Gawain; one based on his prowess in courtly love.
By becoming her knight Gawain has entered into another bargain, but now Gawain’s bargain is with a woman rather than a man, and his ability to please her with his talk is being tested rather than a “true” chivalric value such as loyalty, valor or truthfulness. This bargain, compared with Gawain’s exchange of winning bargain with Bertilak and beheading game Bargain with the Green Knight, highlight the conflict of values in chivalry. In contrast to Arthur’s classic values, the Lady believes that “the choicest thing in Chivalry, the chief thing praised, / is the loyal sport of love” (1512-13). This points out a serious conflict; in the game of courtly love, a man is forced outside of the traditional male hierarchies, placed on equal footing with a woman, and not subject to the feudal loyalty system.
Above all, unlike the other contests established by men where the rules are clearly defined, the Lady’s game is ambiguous. It is meaningful that the bedroom scenes are juxtaposed with scenes from Bertilak’s hunts. It seems as if this is what the Gawain poet intended to suggest when he positioned the bedroom scenes within the hunt scenes. The hunt scenes show an unambiguous world of men and an appropriate venue for male chivalric action.
The men are outside, in vigorous, heroic, manly pursuit, training for what is really the purpose of chivalry–the defense of the land and the service of the Church. Clear hierarchies and rules are meticoulously explained; the lord is in the lead, the boldest and most active, and detail is spent in each hunting scene describing the rules of carving and distributing the days spoils. While the hunt is