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In the romantic story The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, by an anonymous writer, the readers see how sovereignty plays an important role in male and female relationships in romances of the medieval period. Throughout the story, we see Sir Gawain as a charismatic, willing and noble knight who will do anything for his king. We also see Dame Ragnell as the "loathly lady" who asks from King Arthur for Sir Gawain to marry her. Dame Ragnell sees that Sir Gawain is the best and most handsome knight in King Arthur's court and would like to marry only him.
The story begins with King Arthur hunting in the forest of Ingleswood. He strays away from all of his knights and is in the middle section of the forest by himself. There he sees a deer and begins to run after it. After a few attempts, King Arthur finally kills the deer: "He took his arrows and bow and stooped low like a woodsman to stalk the deer. But every time he came near the animal, it leapt away into the forest. So King Arthur went a while after the deer, and no knight went with him, until at last he let fly an arrow and killed the deer." (Hearne, 2)
At this point King Arthur hears the voice of Sir Gromer who seeks battle with him:
Welle y-met King Arthur!
Thou hast me done wrong many a yere
And wofully I shalle quit thee here.
I hold thy life days highe done;
Thou hast gevin my lands in certain
With great wrong unto Sir Gawen. (327, lines 54-59).
This threat makes King Arthur very frightened. He turns around to see the strange knight who is fully armed and ready for battle, standing only a few yards away from him. Then King Arthur asks him his name and finds that he is Gromer Somer Joure. Sir Gromer wants to fight King Arthur at this moment, but King Arthur pleads for his life since he is only in his hunting clothes and not wearing his war gear. During this encounter, King Arthur is given one year to find out what it is that women most desire and is to return with the correct answer for Sir Gromer. If he does not find the correct solution to this riddle, then Sir Gromer is obligated to take the king's life:
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First thou shalt swere upon my sword broun
To shewe me at thy coming whate wemen love best in feld and town;
And thou shalt mete me here withe outen send
Evin at this day twelve monthes end;
And thou shalt swere upon my swerd good
That of thy knightes shalle none com with thee, by the road,
Nouther frende ne freind. (328, Lines 90-96).
Upon his return to his knights, King Arthur is very disturbed. They believe that their king has met with some disturbing encounter, but none of them knows of his encounter. They are all afraid to ask him what is troubling him: "In this hevinesse he did abide That many of his knights mervelid that tide."(329, Lines 135-136).
Sir Gawain then asks the king what he is sorrowing about and what he can do to help him. At this point the king tells Sir Gawain of his predicament and what has happened to him in the forest of Ingleswood and his encounter with Sir Gromer. Sir Gawain, the noble knight, is proud and willing to help King Arthur in response to King Arthur's trouble:
Ye, Sir, make good chere;
Let make your hors redy
To ride into straunge contrey;
And evere wheras ye mete outher man or woman, in faye,
Ask of them whate they ther to saye. (330, Lines 182-186).
At this point, they both get two blank books, and they make preparations to leave Carlyle immediately in order to find an answer to Gromer's riddle of "what it is that women most desire." They search all the lands and countries, but they never find an answer that matches. This makes King Arthur very sad and disappointed. He now fears that he will have to return to the forest of Ingleswood to face Sir Gromer without a correct answer.
However, before giving up, King Arthur decides to visit the forest of Ingleswood once again, and this is when he meets "the loathly lady." At the sight of Dame Ragnell, which he later learns is her name, King Arthur marvels at her, for she is the ugliest creature that he has ever seen: "Her face seems almost like that of an animal, with a pushed-in nose and a few yellowing tusks for teeth. Her figure is twisted and deformed, with a hunched back and shoulders a yard broad. No tongue could tell the foulness of the lady." (Hearne, 3)
Although she is so ugly and monstrous, she rides on a horse, "a palfrey" that is dressed in gold and precious stones, and when she speaks, her voice is "sweet and soft." On seeing King Arthur, she knows his reason for being in Ingleswood and declares to him:
God spede, Sir King, I am welle paid
That I have withe thee met;
Speke withe me, I rede, or then go,
For thy life is in my hand, I warn thee so;
That shalt thou finde, and I it not let. (332, Lines 253-257).
At this point King Arthur is bewildered. He asks her why his life is in her hands and what she wants of him. She explains to him that only she knows the answer to the riddle of what women most desire, and that in return for giving him the answer, he will have to grant her Sir Gawain to wed her. At this, King Arthur returns to his court and tells Sir Gawain of Dame Ragnell's desire. With this explanation, Sir Gawain courteously replies:
'Is this alle?' then said Gawen;
'I shalle wed her and wed her again,
Thoughe she were afend,
Thoughe she were as foulle as Belsabub,
Her shalle I wed, by the road,
Or elles were not I your frende;
For ye ar my king with honour
And have worshipt me in many a stoure.
Therfor shalle I not let.
To save your life, Lorde, it were my parter
Or were I false and a great coward;
And my worship is the bet.' (334, Lines 342-352).
Sir Gawain completely gives King Arthur his loyalty and will even marry the foulest woman that exists on earth in order to save his life. With this promise from his favorite and finest knight, they both return to Ingleswood. But before they are almost there, King Arthur bids farewell to Sir Gawain and proceeds into the forest by himself. King Arthur thanks Sir Gawain and tells him that he is the finest knight and that he loves him even more because he has saved his life. Finally, the day arrives when King Arthur has to face Dame Ragnell again and to learn what it is that women most desire. He bids her to tell him the answer that will save his life and also informs her that Sir Gawain has agreed to marry her in return for helping him. With this, she replies to the king:
'Here is oure answere, and that is alle,
That wemen desiren moste specialle,
Bothe of free and bond.
I saye no more, but above all thing
Wemen desire sovereinte, for that is their liking;
And that is ther moste desire;
To have the rewlle of the manliest me' (337, Lines 464-470).
Knowing the answer to Sir Gromer's riddle, King Arthur rides off in great haste to meet him at the same place they once met earlier in the story. When Sir Gromer sees King Arthur coming, he is eager to get this "incorrect answer" because he wants to defeat him and take over his land and court. He demands the answer, and the king pulls out the two books with the answers he and Sir Gawain have retrieved throughout their search. Sir Gromer looks over the contents of the two books and replies "nay" to King Arthur, because the correct answer is not within the books. He is now ready to kill King Arthur, but the king stops him for a minute and tells him that he has another answer that is not within the books. King Arthur tells Sir Gromer that the answer to his riddle of "what it is that women most desire" is sovereignty, which angers Sir Gromer. Therefore, the king wins victory over Sir Gromer and is able to return to his court a happy king, leaving Sir Gromer miserable and angry.
However, the tale does not end here, because the big wedding has to take place between Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell. On his way back, King Arthur meets Dame Ragnell, who is waiting for his return from Sir Gromer. He is ashamed to bring the "loathly lady" back to the court openly, but she rides with him back to Carlyle. On their arrival, all the country are amazed. The people wonder where this woman comes from because they have never seen so foul and ugly a creature in their lifetime. But she is not afraid and demands that Sir Gawain, "her love," should come out to meet her. At the sight of Sir Gawain, she is amazed. He is handsome, and she is in love with him the moment her eyes meet him. Dame Ragnell demands to be married at once where everyone can see them wed. She is not ashamed and is very happy to marry the noblest knight of King Arthur's court.
At the wedding feast, Dame Ragnell is arrayed in the richest and most glamorous manner. She is looking even more glamorous than Queen Guinevere. However, all the richest and most precious clothes cannot hide her foulness. Indeed, all the lords and ladies are there to see this wedding of Sir Gawain and the foul lady. During the feast, it is only Dame Ragnell who eats heartily. Every one sits and watches her in amazement. She eats like a pig, as if she has never eaten before. Dame Ragnell is not afraid or ashamed because she is happy.
After the feast is over, Dame Ragnell and Sir Gawain retire to their chamber which is prepared for them. Now she speaks with Sir Gawain to come to bed with her since they are now married. She wants him to show her his courtesy, because if she is fair, he would gladly and joyfully come to her. However, at this moment, Sir Gawain kisses her, and she becomes the most beautiful woman he has ever seen in his entire life. He is indeed very happy and kisses her again and again.
Geoffrey Chaucer [The Wife of Bath's Tale]Abrams, M. H. et.al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
Anonymous. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell. Handout.
Sumner, Laura, ed. The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell. Smith College Studies in Modern Language 5, no. 4. Northampton, Massachusetts: Smith College Departments of Modern Languages, 1924. Hearne.