Arthurian legend has a vast and varied dramatis personae, but one of the reliably featured core cast in Round Table shenanigans is Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, son of King Lot of Orkney and Queen Morgause, Arthur’s half-sister. Gawain’s previous appearance in Year of the Quest was in Chretien de Troyes’ Lancelot, where he was an advisor to Arthur, a friend to Guinevere and Lancelot, a knight of the realm known for his honour and strength and a much needed voice of reason. He was also literally drowning in the background while Lancelot agonised over Honour and Forbidden Love. This time, he is centre stage, sharing the limelight with one of my favourite Arthurian characters ever: Ragnelle.
For this month’s story, I am referring to ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle’ from Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, edited by Thomas Hahn. It kicks off by telling us all about Arthur’s riches and chivalry, before following him on a hunt in the Ingleswod. He sees a remarkable stag and orders his knights to remain behind as he stalks the beast himself. There’s some praise for Arthur’s skill as a woodsman, culminating in his killing of the stag. While he’s standing there alone with the dead animal, presumably proud of himself, a strange knight approaches. Strange as in Arthur does not know him, also strange as in murderous. He claims himself to be the victim of royal nepotism, cheated of lands that were given instead to Gawain. His name is Gromer Somer Joure and he’s in the mood to kill a king.
Arthur assures him that this is not a good idea; the dishonour of it would follow the knight and ruin his life too. Being unarmed, Arthur cannot fight his way out of this, so he offers to grant Gromer Somer Joure whatever favour he requires to let Arthur leave the wood alive. Gromer Somer Joure dismisses gold and land, despite JUST complaining about losing his land, and demands that Arthur return to meet in this place at the end of twelve months, with the answer to a riddle: what do women love best? Arthur must swear to come alone, and he reluctantly does so.
Arthur is understandably troubled upon his return to Carlylle. His knights observe the change in him with silent concern until Gawain decides to bite the bullet and ask what’s going on. Arthur has to be coaxed a little, his honour requiring that he does not betray Sir Would-be-Regicide, but Gawain is persuasive and Arthur soon spills the story. He is assuming that he will die within the year – it has apparently not occurred to him that the riddle is answerable. Or that he could show up armed to the teeth and win in combat. Or literally anything but passively riding to his death. Honour, you know.
No such gloom descends on Gawain. He immediately takes charge, riding off one way and sending Arthur another to start canvassing women’s opinions on what it is they love best. Unfortunately, the ladies of the kingdom are not obliging enough to be a hivemind. Some women want lovely clothes the most, others want to hear sweet words (ah, the days before the love languages test), yet others are into a ‘lusty man’. Gawain gets enough different answers to write a literal book of them by the time he returns to Carlylle. Arthur has had the same experience. In despair, with only a month to go before he must meet Gromer Somer Joure, Arthur goes to the wood in the vague hope of inspiration or luck or something.
What he gets is a lady.