Back to main

The Loathly Lady


The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle

The Marriage of Sir Gawain

The Wife of Bath’s Tale

1.  Hunt scene, Arthur is removed from the group and accosted by “Unfair Unknown”*

Sir Gromer Somer Joure comes to Arthur:  “Streyghte ther cam to hym a quaint grome / Armyd welle and sure,” (49-50).

Scene missing from mutilated Percy Folio

A Knight rapes a maiden along a riverbed in a scene reminiscent of Loathly Lady hunt scenes.

2.  The Unknown requires Arthur to find the answer to “What women most desire” under the threat of death

Gromer requires Arthur to “swere upon my sword broun,” reminiscent of fealty or homage.

Arthur agrees, “then held up his hand / According thene as was the law,” (16-17).  

In this story, the Queen decides the Knight’s fate.

4.  Arthur and Gawain go in search for an answer; find a hag

Arthur relates what happens to Gawain, they go in search of an appropriate answer (lines 194-198).

Scene missing from mutilated Percy Folio.

“Save on the grene he saugh sittynge a wyf— / A fouler wight ther may no man devyse,” (lines 989-999). 

5.  Hag provides the answer, requires payment (marriage to Gawain)

“…graunt me a knight to wed: / His name is Sir Gawen.”  Does not tell Arthur the answer until he returns with Gawain’s approval.

Hag does not ask for Gawain’s hand in this version, but Arthur volunteers it, “helpe me any thing, / Thou shalt have gentle Gawaine, my cozen, / And marry him with ryng,” (78-80).

Hag makes the Knight promise not marriage, but “The nexte thyng that I require thee / Thou shalt it do, if it lye in thy might” (1009-1010). 

6.  Hag asks Gawain a critical question: To have her fair during the day, or fair at night?  Gawain gives her sovereignty

Hag becomes beautiful before she asks the question, Gawain replies“ Do as ye list nowe, my Lady gaye”

“And because thou art my owne lady / Thou shalt have all thy will,” (169-170).

“I put me in youre wise governance; / Cheseth yourself,” (1231-32). The deal is sealed with a kiss.

7.  The Hag transforms into a beautiful woman

Hag stays beautiful. 

Hag becomes beautiful.

Hag becomes beautiful.

*The term “Unfair Unknown” is used to describe an outsider to the court, both in appearance (size, weapon used, etc) and in lack of courtesy. 

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle

TEAMs© Introduction

Manuscript: Bodleian 11951; 16th Century This tale is part of the “Loathly Lady Transformed” motif, wherein Gawain must aid Arthur in finding the answer to the question “whate wemen love best in feld and town,” (91). In this story, unlike Marriage, Arthur is reluctant to give his nephew’s hand without his consent. But Gawain is unfailingly courteous and promises to help Arthur, and exhibits an equivalent amount of courtesy during the bed scene with Ragnelle (which has many similar elements to the Beheading Game’s Bed Test, especially concerning the importance of fair speech). This story ends on a rather bizarre note, supplying a number of lines to Ragnelle’s death, “She lyvyd with Sir Gawen butt yerys five; That gravid Gawen alle his lyfe,” (820-21). I am unsure what effect Ragnelle’s death has on the story, but it may be connected with the later line, “Gawen was weddyd oft in his days,” (832). During the time of Gawain’s popularity, a number of romances were produced, many culminating in a marriage (ie., Turke, Carl, Marriage, Wedding). Perhaps the author is here referencing the hero’s almost serial marriage streak, and providing a feasible way in which Gawain could marry again in subsequent literature.

The Marriage of Sir Gawain

TEAMs© Introduction

Manuscript: Percy Folio, circa 1650

This tale employs the same structure as Wedding, with a few distinct variations. Arthur is less courteous in this story, and he volunteers Gawain to marry the hag without her asking. Gawain is also slightly less courteous, first answering that he would rather have the Hag fair during the night before allowing her to make the decision. Also the brother in this story is unnamed, although his sword is brown just like Gromer’s. The brother also issues an extremely harsh number of lines against his sister, who supplies Arthur with the answer to his question, calling her a “misshapen hore!” and promises “To doe her an evill turne,” (111-115). The explanation for the Hag’s appearance, and the brother’s churlishness, is attributed to an evil stepmother’s witchcraft. It is implied that Gawain helps to lift the curse.

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale

Version Cited: The Riverside Chaucer.

This tale never names the Knight or the Queen. While the tale is placed in Arthur’s Court (see the opening line of the tale), Chaucer does not choose to identify these two characters. The ‘Loathly Lady Transformed’ tale type is ingrained into the Gawain tradition, so it is plausible that Chaucer means for the Knight to be comparable to Gawain, if not Gawain himself. The Queen is unnamed as well, pointing perhaps to the fact that both Gawain and Guinevere’s reputations deteriorated over the years (see Jeaste of Sir Gawain and Gawain’s appearances in Malory; and Guinevere in Sir Launfal, Lanval, and the critical assumption of her adulterous relationship with Lancelot in Malory). Leaving two of the main characters without names allows the audience to inject their own feelings of who the characters are, without the questionable reputations of Gawain or Guinevere.

The outsider in this piece seems to be the Knight, who rapes a maiden and shows an extreme lack of chivalric, Christian virtues. In the Gawain tales of Wedding and Marriage, Gawain is always courteous and practices fair speech. In this tale, however, the Knight rapes and castigates the Hag for her looks, low birth and age. The Knight is, like the Turke and Carl from Beheading literature, in need of transformation. The threat of beheading is both explicit and implicit in the poem—the Queen threatens to behead him during the trail scene, and by implication the Knight will be castrated by marrying an old Hag, whose ability to give birth is questionable.

Both Wedding and Marriage place an emphasis on the legality of agreements. When Arthur promises the Baron or Sir Gromer to return in a year to give him an answer, he promises on their swords. Similarly, in Wife of Bath’s Tale, the Knight is put on trail for the rape, and legally bound to go in search for an answer to the same question posed to Arthur. In all three instances, the protagonists are bound legally to return with an answer. Also when Arthur meets the Hag and promises Gawain’s hand in marriage, a similar oath is pledged—Ragnelle requires a “covenaunt” with Arthur for the marriage to Gawain. Presumably a similar exchange of vows takes places in Marriage, but due to the unfortunate fate of the Percy Folio we can never be sure. But a second exchange, between the one questing for the answer to what women desire and the Hag, also takes place in Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Hag requires Gawain to “Plight me thy trouthe heere in myn hand,” (1008). At the end of each tale, the transformation is sealed with a kiss. At all three points in each story, a handshake, a promise on a sword, or a kiss seals the agreements—all physical manifestations of the abstract agreements into which they engage.

There is no question that the Wife of Bath’s Tale claims both Wedding and Marriage as analogues, but it is my argument that Chaucer meant for it to be read as part of the Gawain Cycle. By making changes to the basic story, like the introduction of the rapist Knight who needs transformation, Chaucer makes the story fit the character of the Wife of Bath. He also, however, incorporates important elements of the beheading tradition.

For more information about my theory read my paper, which will be updated as often as time allows.

Back to main