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.
There is a lengthy description of this woman in the most unflattering terms: red-faced, snot-nosed, with yellow teeth and bleary eyes, a knotted tangle of hair and a humped back. As if in contrast, she is exquisitely dressed and seated on a beautiful palfrey. The lady greets Arthur composedly and tells him that his life lies in her hands, which naturally gains his attention. The deal is simple enough. The lady will answer the riddle and save Arthur’s life in exchange for Gawain’s hand in marriage.
Arthur earns brownie points by refusing to commit Gawain to the marriage without his informed consent, insisting that the decision rests with Gawain himself, but promptly loses them by calling the lady ugly to her face, as if that is a remotely chivalrous thing to do. The lady, who is of course Dame Ragnelle, merely replies that even an owl may choose its mate, and that she will wait on Gawain’s response.
Gawain says yes. No sooner has Arthur explained the meeting and Ragnelle’s terms and conditions, making sure to describe the lady in disgusted detail, that Gawain is getting ready for a wedding. He says that he does not care if his bride-to-be looks like Beezlebub if it means protecting his king. Arthur, having showered Gawain in eager gratitude, rides to meet Ragnelle again so that she can cough up the answer to the riddle. What do women love best? Is womankind a secret hivemind after all?
Ragnelle remarks that women want a lot of things – to have people call them pretty, to bang hot men, to get married – possibly these examples all come from Ragnelle’s own to-do list. But what women really wants, above all other things, is sovereignty. That is, women would like to make their own choices freely instead of being dictated to. SHOCKER. Ragnelle warns Arthur that Gromer Somer Joure will curse her name, but well, whatever. That’s his problem.
Spoiler alert: I like Ragnelle.
She’s right. When Arthur gives Ragnelle’s answer to Gromer Somer Joure, completely throwing off his Mysterious Dread Knight routine, the knight rages about how he wants to set Ragnelle on fire. She, it turns out, is his sister. Clearly she has quite different Gawain-related feelings.
Arthur has some hope of concealing her presence and maybe hiding the marriage altogether, but Ragnelle’s having none of that and enters the court with every ounce of pomp and ceremony she is entitled to. She demands that her handsome knight be brough before her ASAP. It’s all a bit of a song and dance until Gawain arrives and courteously agrees that he is ready to fulfill his side of the arrangement. Ragnelle seems a little struck by that, commenting that she wishes she was a beautiful bride for him. Of course, she is not, and the entire court are taking it VERY PERSONALLY. They seem under the impression that Gawain is entering living death. The queen is in tears. Her ladies all follow suit. Arthur has nasty things to say about Ragnelle’s teeth.
And while YES, it is awful that Gawain is being married against his will to a woman he neither knows nor desires, it is as though no one has ever heard of an arranged marriage before. Perhaps Arthur should consult his mother on the definition.
Guinevere tries to convince Ragnelle to marry early in the morning, to avoid too many horrified eyes watching on, but Ragnelle won’t hear of it. She gets her big glamorous wedding, followed by a feast. Ragnelle has a tremendous appetite and atrocious table manners, which seem to be equal offences to the whispering court – though it seems dubious that they would have liked her any more if she’d eaten with the daintiest of delicacy. At the end of the festivities, Ragnelle and Gawain are left inevitably alone in their bedchamber to get started on their wedding night.
Gawain can’t seem to look directly at her. It would appear that the consequences of agreeing to an arranged marriage have well and truly caught up to him, and he doesn’t like them. Ragnelle notes that Gawain would be quite the different newlywed if she was a beautiful young woman and asks if he will at least kiss her. Gawain turns, stung into making good on his very reluctant vows – only to find a beautiful young woman seated beside him.
Gawain blurts out the obvious question: what is she? Ragnelle drily replies that she is his wife. The ‘duh’ is implied. Gawain is left flustered, groping around for some certainty. He points out, with some lack of tact, that she was fairly hideous a minute ago and now she is…not that…so what’s up? Not that he cares. Those vows are a much more appealing deal now! He seizes Ragnelle in his arms to give her a very enthusiastic kiss.
Ragnelle stops him there. Will he have her like this, youthful and lovely, by night or by day? The choice is in his hands. By day, of course, she will be on his arm for the whole court to see, while by night, she will share his bed. Gawain is torn. So torn, in fact, he refuses to decide at all but returns the power of choice to Ragnelle, and by doing so breaks the enchantment on her.
It turns out that her stepmother was a necromancer who transformed Ragnelle until the best knight in England would take her as his wife and grant her the sovereignty ‘of alle his body and goodes’. Which Gawain did. They celebrate by banging all night like a screen door in a hurricane. I mean, how else do we interpret ‘He made myrthe alle in her boure’? They sleep late the next day, which causes Arthur to jump to anxious conclusions. He goes to check on Gawain, demanding to know why he’s still in bed, a question that is answered when Arthur sees Ragnelle standing by the fire in her smock, red hair hanging to her knees. Gawain and Ragnelle take turns explaining to the court about the curse. Guinevere, deeply relieved to see Gawain not only safe but happy, calls Ragnelle the most beautiful woman at court. “My love, Lady, ye shalle have evere,” she announces. “For that ye savid my Lord Arthoure,/As I am a gentilwoman.”
Gawain declares his love for Ragnelle and she declares her obedience to him – a theoretical obedience that in their subsequent relationship, does not appear to ever be tested. He more or less gives up jousting to spend more time with her. Look at that, Geraint. Ragnelle makes peace between Arthur and Gromer Somer Joure and becomes popular at court, but sadly there is no happy ending for her. She lives only five years as Gawain’s wife before an untimely death. Her loss grieves Gawain for the rest of his life.
What a lady; what a loss. Would Camelot have fallen if she had lived, and Gawain had her voice in his ear instead of Mordred’s? Maybe. Was it a lesser place without her either way? Unquestionably.