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Sir Gawain is one of the more famous Knights of the Round Table in Arthurian legends. Various authors have written about Gawain including the anonymous author of "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell." The reader gets to know Gawain’s character through its development throughout the story. Gawain shows his virtue and courteous manner through his words and also through his actions. His physical appearance and dress are never mentioned so there are no clues to his personality in this regard. Gawain’s steadfast manner in the face of adversity is further testament to his worthiness as a knight.
The first glimpse we have of Gawain in the story is shortly after King Arthur returns from his hunt. Gawain is the only person to whom Arthur confides his misadventure with Sir Gromer Somer Jour. Arthur’s apparent trust of Gawain to carry his burden proves that he trusts Gawain’s counsel and that Gawain will be discreet about the king’s troubles. Gawain enforces this belief when he says, "I am not that man that wold you dishonor / Nother by evin ne by moron"(329). In contrast to Arthur who breaks his oath to Sir Gromer that "I shold nevere telle it to no wighte"(331) by hoisting his problems on another, Gawain’s character exhibits a more honorable disposition by immediately offering his assistance. The juxtaposition of these two contrasting characters, namely Arthur and Gawain, serves to display each of their attributes in a clearer, more defined light. Even though Arthur does not necessarily act in a cowardly manner, neither does he measure up to Gawain’s virtuous nature.
After Arthur’s encounter with Dame Ragnell later in the story, he returns to his home even more discouraged than when he set out. Gawain, upon meeting with the dejected king, swears that "I had lever myself be dead, so not I thee"(335) when he hears Arthur’s foreboding prophesy that he will surely die. Gawain backs up his loyalty not only with mere words but with his actions as well. When faced with the prospect of taking a hideous wife to save his lord’s life, Gawain does not hesitate but says that he will "…wed her and wed her again, / Thoughe she were a fend, / Though she were as foulle as Belsabub, / Her shall I wed, by the rood, / Or ellses were not I your frende"(335).
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When confronted with the awful visage of Dame Ragnell, Gawain does not waver in his decision. Even Dame Ragnell feels sorry for Gawain and wishes "For thy sake I wold I were a faire woman, / For thou art of so good wille"(339). His good character is fully appreciated by those around Gawain. On his wedding night, Gawain does not shirk from his duties as a husband just as he does not shirk from them in the public eye. Furthermore, he exhibits his courtly manner when he allows Dame Ragnell to do as she chooses after she poses her question, "Wheder ye wolle have me faire on nightes / . . . / Or els to have me faire on days"(343). Therefore, Dame Ragnell’s autonomy and independence are given to her freely by Sir Gawain.
The question concerning the sovereignty of women is also explored in the Wife of Bath’s tale with similar results. The knight in that tale exhibits a highly flawed visage when compared to Gawain whose behavior merits him near sainthood since he can seemingly do no wrong. Therefore, Sir Gawain comes across a character with less depth than does the knight in the Wife’s tale. Gawain’s reactions to events around him are not those of a normal person. Rather, his actions seem scripted to show him in the best light possible.
The characters for 'The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell" are memorable only if they come across as "real" or "human". For this to happen, the reader has to become familiar with them through such aspects as their speech, manner, and what other characters say about them. Gawain’s character is developed in this manner throughout the story. His loyalty, chivalry, and courteousness are on display throughout the story in promises that are later backed up by actions. He comes across as the epitome of the ideal knight as seen through fourteenth century perspective.
The story of "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell" was written around the fourteenth century, around the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Gawain has traditionally been depicted as loyal, courteous, and a near perfect knight in almost every respect. These attributes do not deviate from the traits found in Gawain's character in "The Wedding." The only point of contrast that lies between the Gawain in "The Wedding" to the traditionally depicted one lies in his relationship to women. Whereas, Gawain has always been depicted as a knight who ignores women, in this story, his love for the hag turned lady, never fully dies. Even as "Gawen was weddid oft in his days; / But so welle he nevere lovid woman always, / As I have hard men sayn"(346). The story also contains common literary elements such as the fairy and magical elements. These supernatural themes also appear in the Wife of Bath's tale and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The loathly lady that turns into someone else altogether is one such recurrent element.
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" and the story of Dame Ragnell are virtually identical in plot. The specifics might differ but both stories deal with the sovereignty of women. The major differences lie in the characterizations of the knight in each of the tales. Whereas the knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" is flawed and commits a crime at the very beginning of the story, Sir Gawain is introduced as the perfect knight in every respect and remains so throughout the story.
In both tales, there is little to no description of the physical characteristics or dress of the knight or Sir Gawain. Most details of appearance are reserved for the hags. Chaucer and the anonymous author seem to take relish in describing the loathliness of the hags. Therefore, the reader has to depend on the words and actions of the characters to get an idea of the kind of people they are. The actions of the knight in the Wife's tale, are motivated entirely on his baser urges. He never displays any hint of chivalry or valor until the very end when he seems to change personalities altogether. Near the conclusion, the knight answers his wife's question in a loving and accommodating manner, a marked difference to the harshness he has displayed towards her on previous occasions.
In contrast, there is no fluctuation in Gawain's character in the story of Dame Ragnell. Gawain never falters from his courteous and chivalrous manner even in the face of fulfilling his husbandly duties to the repulsive Dame Ragnell. "Sir Gawen said, 'I wolle do more / Then for to kisse, and God before!'" when Ragnell asks for a kiss only. The knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" hides from his future wife until the wedding night when he very reluctantly retires to his marriage bed. Instead of performing his duties as a husband, the knight complains bitterly about the hag's poverty, homeliness, and low social status.
Both women in the two stories want sovereignty and power over their husbands and offer a question to their spouse to accomplish this. The hag in the Wife's tale adds the further element of fidelity in her question: "To han me foul and old til that I deye / And be to you a trewe humble wif, / And nevere you displeses in al my lif, / Or elles ye wol han me yong and fair, / And take youre aventure of the repair / That shal be to your hous by cause of me-"(143). Eventually, their husbands leave this question to the discretion of their wives thus deferring power on them. In the end, however, a balance of power is achieved in the marriage of the knight and hag, "And she obeyed him in every thing, " and the marriage of Gawain and Ragnell who "In her life she grevid him nevere"(347).
At first reading, the Wife's tale might seem identical to Dame Ragnell's story, which is true in certain respects. However, if the plot is set aside for a moment, the characters, especially those of the knights, are truly disparate. Even the wives in the two stories differ in some ways. The hag's character in the Wife's tale is developed more thoroughly than Dame Ragnell. Her lecture given to her husband at the end allows the reader to see her views on social status and what it means to be noble. In contrast, we do not see this depth in characterization in Dame Ragnell.
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"The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell." In Middle English Verse Romances. Ed. Donald B. Sands. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966. 323-347.