Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (Revised for the 1990s and beyond)
Adapted by Susan Reed from original sources and from Caitlín Matthews’s retelling.
One day King Arthur went hunting in the forest of Inglewood with his retainers. At length he and his companions became separated and he found himself in an unfamiliar part of the forest. Abruptly, he found that his body was quite frozen and he could not move a muscle. A menacing figure, dressed in pitch-black armor approached him, saying, “Arthur, I have you in my power. You have wrongfully given my lands to Sir Gawain and for that, you will die unless you find the answer to a question I put to you.”
Arthur found that he could speak and asked, “Who are you, and what is this question you wish me to answer?”
“I am Gromer Somer Joure. If you would win your life, return here in a twelvemonth with an answer to this question: What is it that every woman desires most?” As suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone and the King found that he could move freely again. He returned to his court with a heavy heart.
Of all his retainers, only Sir Gawain asked King Arthur what sorrow he bore, and Arthur related the tale of his discomfiture in the forest. Sir Gawain then proposed that they ride forth and ask every woman they found what she most desires and collect the answers in a book.
They set out and asked women what they desired and soon they had a huge book of answers. But as many as they had found, they were still uneasy that any of the answers they had were the true one.
Shortly before the King had to meet with Gromer Somer Joure, he rode again through the forest of Inglewood and came upon a hideously ugly woman, one whose ugliness was so great that original texts go on for many a verse describing it. She stopped him saying that she had the right answer and could save his life, if he agreed to her terms. He asked was these were, and she replied, “I am Dame Ragnell and I want to marry one of your knights, Sir Gawain.”
King Arthur was horrified, and told her that he could not promise her Gawain without his consent and that he would return to her after speaking with Gawain. He returned to court and explained the situation to Gawain. Without hesitation, Gawain answered that he would marry her in a minute, even if she was a devil, if it would help Arthur.
Arthur returned to the forest where Dame Ragnell was waiting. He told her that Gawain had agreed to marry her if her answer was the one sought, but if one of the others they had collected was the one, the deal was off. Satisfied with this, she gave Arthur the answer.
On the appointed day, Arthur rode to meet with Gromer Somer Joure. Again Gromer appeared suddenly, demanding the answer to his question. Arthur gave him the book with the answers they collected. Gromer looked it over, laughed, and told Arthur to prepare to die. Arthur said, “Wait, I have one more answer,” and gave him that of Dame Ragnell.
Gromer roared in frustration! “Only my sister could have told you that! May she be burned in the fires of hell for her treachery! Go where you will, King Arthur, I will bother you no more.” So Arthur returned to Ragnell and brought her back with him to court.
Upon seeing her for the first time, Gawain looked stunned, but bravely assented to be married the next day. The ladies of the court wept to see such a kind and handsome knight to be married to such a hideous woman; the knights were glad it wasn’t any of them who had to marry her.
Ragnell demanded to be married publicly and to have a great feast with all the nobles attending. She was decked out in the most costly array, but her manners repulsed everyone there. Great was the pity felt for Gawain that day!
At last it was over and the couple led to their chamber. There Gawain gazed at the fire, reluctant to touch his bride, until she requested a kiss. Bravely, he acceded, only to find a most radiant woman in his arms. He stared speechless in wonder and, finally finding his tongue, asked her how could this be.
“I have waited in that shape until I found a man gentle enough to marry me. Now I offer you a choice: I can be fair by night and foul by day; or foul by night and fair by day. Decide which you want.”
Gawain thought for a while, pondering the events that had lead to this moment, and then it dawned on him what answer he must give. “I cannot make such a choice; that is for you to decide.”
She cried out in joy, “My lord, you are as wise as you are noble and true, for you have given me what every woman genuinely desires, sovereignty over herself. You will never see that hideous old hag again, for I choose to be fair from this time on.”