The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle

The Text: This poem has only one surviving MS witness, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS 11951Unfortunately, it is missing one leaf (2 pages) but the missing events are fairly easy to infer, especially by comparison with Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and "The Wedding of Sir Gawain," which are clearly related narratives.  Thomas Hahn believes the MS was copied around in the sixteenth century, but he believes the tale, itself, is older.

The Tale:   Arthur goes hunting and encounters a "quaint grome" or odd-looking man, Sir Gromer Somer Joure.  The knight accuses the lightly armed Arthur of having offended him by giving away his lands to Sir Gawain.  Arthur bargains with him, offering a boon of whatever he desires, and the knight demands that Arthur swear to meet him at that spot in a year and a day with the answer to a single question: "shewe me att thy comyng whate wemen love best in feld and town" (l. 91).  Gawain offers to accompany the king as they search separately for the answer.  Arthur encounters an extremely ugly damsel who tells him she can answer his question if he will wed her to Gawain.  When asked, Gawain, paragon of courtesy and knightly loyalty to his king, agrees without hesitation.  The lady (Ragnelle) tells Arthur women most desire "sovereynté," and Arthur repeats this message to his challenger, who curses the lady and admits defeat.  Ragnelle marries Gawain, and on their wedding night, changes shape to become a beautiful young woman.  She asks him to choose between two seemingly unpleasant alternatives, he yields to her, and they live happily (but not "forever after"!).

Study questions—

1) Your first move probably will be to compare this tale with Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale."  Think of this as an opportunity to get a sense of how two writers adapted a pre-existing tale type.  Think about characterization, the use of details in setting, and deft use of Middle English to tell the tale.  What values does each tale seem to emphasize differently from the other?  What effect does Chaucer achieve by "spinning" this tale via assigning it to the  Wife of Bath, instead of telling it in his own narrator's persona?

2)  Like all tales in the Gawain-romance group, this narrative assumes Gawain is the most courteous man in Arthur's court.  How does the tale demonstrate that, especially by its use of other characters' behavior as foils?  What is "courtesy" to this poet and his audience?

3)  The previous item assumed a male poet.  Make the experiment of assuming this poem was written by a woman.  Is that plausible?  Why or why not?  Especially consider Judith Fetterly's notion of "immasculation," the female reader's coerced assumption of a male reading persona in order to successfully perform literature.  Do you sense any pressure toward that effect for a female reader?

4)  The author adds a "signature" in the concluding verses, giving us details of his life.  What effects does this have upon his relationship with his readers/hearers?  How does the later performer of this poem relate to its author's intentions?  P. J. C. Field has suggested, on the basis of some knights' names and the authorial signature, that "Wedding" might be the work of Sir Thomas Malory.  When you have read a little Malory, come back to "Wedding" and see if you can determine whether this is a likely thesis.

5)  This kind of "folk-literature" lends itself especially well to Structuralism's search for cultural values which drive the narrative by appeals to binary oppositions in which those values are anchored.  What are the rules for "wild" behavior in this narrative, and what specific gestures, words, restraints construct its "courtesy"?  Can you derive a set of rules from this narrative which might suggest the structuring principles of the court-culture for which it was composed?  Comparisons with the Middle English Breton lais might enable you to extend your analysis to the extent that all these tales appear to be produced and consumed originally by courts of the lower aristocracy far from London.  The Gawain-romances, in particular, appear to feature a structuring binary association which opposes the values of the Arthurian court with those of the western provincial courts, embodied in the challenges posed by male and female characters from the Welsh border.

6)  Despite the fact that the manuscript probably dates from the sixteenth century, its editor believes the tale is Medieval.  What evidence is there that the tale is not Early Modern and what evidence is there that it is Medieval?  Remember you can consider both the content and form of the tale, including the way it is recorded in the MS.

7)  This tale appears to belong to a sub-genre of romances featuring Gawain as Arthur's chief knight (vs. Lancelot) and as an exemplar of "courtesy" or behavior the poems often call "hende."  For a summary and analysis of the plots of these tales (including Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale"), see Joe Turner's (Goucher '05) web page, "'His name was Syr Gawene': The Flower of Wales." 

Research Sources--

Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales.  Ed. Thomas Hahn.  Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute / TEAMS, 1995.

Warren, Michelle.  History on the Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100-1300.  Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2000.  941.02 W291h