Saturday, July 7, 2012


The Marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell

            King Arthur, with a small group of companions, was out hunting in the forest.  As he was dressing his kill, he became aware that there was somebody watching; and when he lifted his eyes he beheld before him a well-armed knight of forbidding aspect, full strong and of great might.

            "Well met, king Arthur!" said the big man.  "Many years you have done me great harm, and now you will meet your death."

            Thus threatened with immediate death, the king was quick to respond with the reproach that there would be little honor for the other in such a deed, since he was unarmed. 

            The king's argument, however, had touched on a delicate point of knightly honor, and so the big man in armor was forced to relent a little - not entirely, but a little.  He required that his defenseless victim should swear to return to this same spot the same day the following year, unarmed as now - clothed in but his hunter's green - and bring as quittance for his life the answer to the following riddle:
            What is it that a woman most desires in all the world?

            The king gave his pledge and returned in great dejection to the company of his knights.  Sir Gawain, his nephew, noted the sorrow of his countenance and drew him aside to ask what had taken place.  The king explained in secrecy and after the two had deliberated together, they decided to ride off in different directions, and whatever lands they came to, they would ask men and women what they might answer to this riddle.  And so they prepared for their journeys and departed.

            They received many answers, which they put down in two books.  Some said that women desired to be well arrayed; some said that they loved to be fairly prayed; some said they loved a lusty man that hugged and kissed them.  Some said one thing, some said another.   But upon returning, Arthur was still uneasy with these answers.

            One month remained.  The king adventured into the forest of Inglewood, and there he met with the most ugly hag mankind had ever seen: face red, nose snotted withal, mouth wide, teeth yellow and hanging down over the lip, a long thick neck, and hanging heavy paps.  A lute she bore upon her back, and she was riding a richly saddled palfrey.  It was an unseemly sight to see so foul a creature ride so gaily.

            She rode directly to the king, gave him greeting, and told him, without ado, that none of the answers he and Gawain had found would be a bit of good to him.  "If I help thee not, thou art but dead," she said.  "Grant me, Sir King, but one thing, and I shall make warranty for thy life; or else thou will lose thy head."  "What do you mean, Lady?" asked the king.  "Tell me what you mean, and why my life is in your hands, and I will promise you anything you ask."  The hideous old creature replied, "You must grant me a knight to wed; his name is Sir Gawain.  I promise that if your life is not saved by my answer, this desire of mine will be in vain; but if my answer saves you, you will let me wed Gawain.  Choose now, and quickly, for it must be so, or you are dead!"  The king was greatly dismayed and replied that it was not for him to decide this, but Gawain.  And the lady replied, "Well, go home now and speak fair words to Sir Gawain.  Though I am foul, yet am I gay!"

            The king returned to the castle, and when he told Gawain of the lady's demand, Gawain answered courteously that he would rather marry her than see Arthur dead.  And Arthur replied that Gawain was indeed the flower of knightly virtues.

            Dame Ragnell was the name of the hag.  When King Arthur returned to her and gave her his promise and that of his nephew, she replied, "Sir, now you will know what women desire most of high and low.  This is one thing in all our fantasy, and that now you will know: We desire of men, above all manner of thing, to have the sovereignty."

            Of course, this was the only answer that would save the king's life, and when he told it to the big knight, he had to spare the king's life.

            Now king Arthur had to give Dame Ragnell as wife to Sir Gawain.  As they rode into the courtyard together, Arthur was greatly ashamed of her.  But as all there wondered where so foul a thing had come from, Sir Gawain stepped forth without any sign of reluctance and pledged his troth.  Dame Ragnell said, "God have mercy.  For your sake, I wish I were a fair woman, for you have such good will."

            All the ladies of the court and the knights were in great sorrow for Sir Gawain, for his bride was so very ugly.  And she insisted that the wedding take place at once.  Nor was she to be put off with a quiet little wedding, but insisted upon a high mass and a banquet in the open hall with everybody there.  At the banquet, she gobbled up all the meat!

            That night, in bed, Gawain could not at first bring himself to turn and face her unappetizing snout.  After a time, she said to him: "Ah, Sir Gawain, since I have wed you, show me your courtesy in bed.  It may not be rightfully denied.  If I were fair, you would not behave this way; you are taking no heed of wedlock.  For Arthur's sake do kiss me at least; I pray you, do this at my request.  Come, let us see how quick you can be!"
            Gawain collected every bit of his courage and kindness.  "I will do more," he said in all gentleness, "I will do more that simply kiss, before God!"  And he turned around to her.  And he saw her to be the fairest creature that ever he had seen without measure.

            She said: "What is your will?"

            "AH, Jesu!" he said, "what are you?"

            "Sir, I am your wife, securely; why are you so unkind?"

            "AH, lady, I am to blame; I did not know.  You are beautiful in my sight - whereas today you were the foulest sight my eyes had ever seen!  To have you thus, my lady, pleases me well."  And he embraced her in his arms and began kissing her, and they made great joy.

            Later she said, "Sir," she said, "my beauty will not hold.  You may have me thus, but only for half the day.  And so it is a question, and you must choose whether you would have me fair at night and foul by day before all men's eyes, or beautiful by day and foul at night."

            "Alas," replied Gawain, "the choice is hard.  To have you fair at night and no more, that would grieve my heart; but if I should decide to have you fair by day, then at night I should have a scabrous bed.  Fain would I choose the best, yet know not what in this world I shall say.  But since this involves you more than anyone else, my dear lady, let it be as you would desire it; I rest the choice in your hand.  My body and goods, my heart and all, is yours to buy and sell; that I avow before God."

            "AH, sweet mercy, courteous knight!" said the lady.  "May you be blessed above all the knights in the world, for now I am released from the enchantment and you shall have me fair and bright both day and night."

            And then she recounted to her delighted husband how her stepmother had enchanted her; and she was condemned to remain under that loathsome shape until the best knight in the land should wed her and yield to her the sovereignty of all his body and goods.  "Thus was I deformed," she said.  "And you, courteous Gawain, have given me the sovereignty for certain.  Kiss me, my dear, even here and now; be glad and of good cheer."  And there they made joy out of mind.  1

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