Sir Gawain and the ‘loathly lady’ – How chivalrous are you?
The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is a mediaeval tale in which King Arthur is posed a question, the answer to which many men have sought in vain. The King is out hunting with a group of his knights when a white stag is sighted. Ordering his entourage to wait behind, Arthur rides off in pursuit. He corners the stag but takes his eye off it for an instant. When he looks again the stag is gone and in its place is a strange knight with his sword at Arthur’s throat. The knight claims to be one whose lands Arthur took from him and he has returned seeking revenge. The King says that there is no honour in killing him like this and the knight agrees, saying he will let Arthur go free if he swears to return in a year and a day with the answer to this question: ‘What do women desire most?’ Should he return without the correct answer his life will be forfeit.
When Arthur relates this encounter to his nephew Gawain they agree that it will be easy to find the answer. And so they spend the following year interviewing women throughout the land. They get a variety of answers and Arthur becomes increasingly certain that none will be the one the strange knight seeks. At the end of the year King Arthur, accompanied by his nephew, journeys towards his appointment with destiny. On the way they are briefly separated and Arthur meets a ‘loathly lady’ – a grimy, wart-covered hag, clothed in rags and with too many teeth and too much hair, except for on her head where there is too little. She is too hideous to look upon but she hails the King:
“I know that which you seek. I have the answer to your question.”
Arthur is inclined to ignore her. After all, what can this hideous creature know about women? But she is insistent and he asks her to tell him. She replies that she will tell him but only in return for Sir Gawain’s hand in marriage. He refuses; he cannot condemn his nephew to marriage with this loathsome creature merely to save his own life. So he rides away and says nothing to Gawain. Gawain, however, senses something has changed and prises the story from his uncle the King. Gawain will do anything to save Arthur’s life and so they return to the hag, the bargain is struck and the answer is given.
The two men continue their journey, rendezvous with the strange knight, give the hag’s answer which turns out to be correct: What women desire most is ‘sovereynté’, the ability to make their own decisions in all matters. The wedding is on.
It’s a subdued affair; no one is queueing up to kiss the bride and at the end Gawain and his new wife go to his bed chamber. Here she asks him to kiss her and treat her like he would his bride. He closes his eyes and kisses her. When he opens them, the hag has transformed into a beautiful woman and explains that her brother is both the strange knight with a grudge against the King and a powerful sorcerer. By marrying and kissing her, Gawain has lifted the curse, but only half lifted it. She can be a beautiful woman in the privacy of the bed chamber, and a hag by day in public. Or she can be a hag by night and a beautiful woman by day for all to see and admire. Gawain must choose.
Gawain ponders this, as do we, who listen to the story. And then, remembering the answer to the strange knight’s question, he tells her that he can’t possibly make that decision for her and that she must choose for herself which she would prefer. Of course, this is the correct reply and the curse is lifted fully.
The story is very much of its time, with ideals of chivalry at its heart. The set up is preposterous. With the transformation of the sorcerer from stag to knight at the beginning we know we are not in the real world. And who, now, would make the choices made by Arthur and Gawain, not to mention the sorcerer-knight? And yet the sorcerer knows that Arthur will be true to his word and so releases him. Rather like being bailed to return to court at a later date, perhaps. No surety is required because Arthur’s honour, his most valuable possession, is at stake.
Arthur has no choice but to return because to break his word is unthinkable. Once Gawain has become involved he is obliged to see the process through to its end and give whatever support he can. He is a knight of Arthur’s court and he cannot walk away without losing his honour, even if this means spending the rest of his life with a ‘loathly lady’. The three male protagonists are acting in strict adherence to the rules of chivalry.
Human nature being what it is, it is hard to believe the chivalric code always worked in practice. Even in mediaeval times, the court of King Arthur was held up as an ideal and its naivety had to be balanced by worldliness. And yet in those times reputation was of supreme import at every level of society. I would argue that it is still the case, despite the complexities of modern life: Despite the information overload where new events are reported on a daily, nay hourly, basis, so our transgressions are quickly forgotten. Despite the ease of travel and relocation, so our transgressions are left behind. Despite the anonymity of social media where people casually abuse others without consequence. Our reputation, and therefore our self-esteem, still matters.
It is not that Arthur or Gawain would die if they lost their honour. It is that their lives would be greatly diminished – they would find it far harder to live with themselves. For us, today, these knightly virtues hold true: Being honest and keeping our promises, even and especially in adversity, will improve the quality of our lives.