Reading the Wife of Bath’s Tale often prompts a familiar question: What kind of tale am I reading? While many folk tales and romances contain the familiar “Loathly Lady Transformed” motif, Chaucer has another formula operating covertly. A large portion of analogues listed by previous critics for the Wife of Bath’s Tale, like the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle and The Marriage of Sir Gawain, belong to a set of tales called the Gawain Cycle. This cycle contains two main branches of motifs, the familiar “Beheading Game” from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Loathly Lady Transformed. By providing a mutually beneficial double transformation at the end of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, I contend that Chaucer is offering this tale as a part of the Gawain cycle—meant to supply an outward transformation as the outcome of the Loathly Lady motif, and an inward transformation as a result of the Beheading Game motif.
Helen Cooper, in her extremely thorough and well-researched book The English Romance in Time, includes in her “Appendix: Medieval Romance in English after 1500” sources for The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle as “folktale; some influence from Wife of Bath’s Tale”. This reference is the only appearance of the Wife’s tale under the Gawain heading, marking the common critical analysis that the tale is distinct from the Gawain Cycle. While Chaucer definitely drew on folk traditions when composing the WoBT, there are too many similarities with Gawain tales to not include it in the tradition. The Loathly Lady Transformed motif is blatantly obvious in the text, but the Beheading game takes some explication before it becomes apparent.
This tale opens with something reminiscent of a hunt scene; the Knight is walking alone along a riverside, when he comes across a young maiden. The Knight rapes the maid, “maugree hir heed, By verray force” (887-88). The rape is a symbolic act of power, wherein the Knight asserts his power over the maid through physical force. Much in the same way, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle opens with Arthur stalking a hart when he becomes removed from his hunting party. He is cleaning his kill when, “As the Kyng was with the dere alone, Streyghte ther cam to hym a quaint grome, Armyd welle and sure,” (49-51). The ‘grome’, identifying himself as Sir Gromer Somer Joure, promises not to kill Arthur if he can provide him with the answer to “whate wemen love best in feld and town,” (91). Sir Gromer is asserting martial dominance over Arthur in the same way the Knight asserts sexual dominance over the maid. Sir Gromer does not “rafte hire maydenhed,” but does require Arthur to make an oath to fufill Gromer’s request, denying him any power in the exchange.
A similar pattern presumably occurs at the beginning of The Marriage of Sir Gawain, but the Percy Folio is missing the pages on which this part of the tale appears. The fact that Chaucer inverts the sequence is significant. Robert Roppolo, in his essay “The Converted Knight in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale”, argues, “It is obvious that Chaucer’s story does not parallel the analogues closely. Chaucer has made extensive changes, and frequently the change clearly affects the character and motivation of the Knight.” Roppolo speaks a fundamental truth about Chaucer’s text, especially in regards to the inversion of the hunt scene. By having the Knight assert power in the same manner as Sir Gromer or the Baron marks an intentional move to identify the Knight with the outsider in Gawain literature—the outsider who is fundamentally deficient in courtly virtues, especially in respect to the assertion of power.
Chaucer intentionally leaves the Knight without a name. The Loathly Lady cycle, however, was so deeply intertwined with Gawain literature, especially when set in Arthur’s court, that it is unlikely that medieval audiences could hear the story without thinking of Gawain. One option for the absence is simple: that Gawain, the chivalrous, courteous, nigh perfect knight of previous romances never required transformation. The option I offer, however, has to my knowledge not been attempted by any other critic: that medieval audiences would see in the Knight the same necessity for transformation present in transformed characters like the Turke (from The Turke and Sir Gawain) and the Carl (from The Carl of Carlisle). With the hunt scene, Chaucer has already introduced the Knight as a character like Sir Gromer and the Baron from Loathly Lady Transformed literature. By making ‘extensive changes’ to the genre, as Roppolo suggests, is it possible that Chaucer is fusing the two genres in an attempt to construct a Loathly Lady who transforms only because the ‘Hero’ transforms?
Sir Gromer and the Baron are not entirely dissimilar from the Carl of Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle. This work represents a portion of the Beheading Game that operates under slightly different rules. While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Grene Knight, and their Irish analogue Bricriu’s Feast require the hero to receive a return blow, Carl does not. This mutation of the traditional Beheading Game incorporates a different formula, wherein the hero (Gawain) must help the outsider transform into a courteous, Christian knight. When Gawain hits The Turke and Sir Gawain’s Turke for the second time, he breaks the enchantment, restoring his status as a Knight of the Round Table. He is even made King of the Isle of Man, a symbolic triumph over the ‘Heathen King’ he and Gawain toppled.
The Carl is more complex—he has compiled “ten fodir of dede menn bonys” during the years of his self-imposed enchantment. The Carl