One day, King Arthur was out hunting a great white stage at the edge of the oak woods when he looked up and found himself confronted by a tall, powerful chieftain, swinging his sword and appearing as if he would cut down the king on the spot. This man was Sir Gromer, who declared that he was seeking revenge for the loss of some of his northern lands to Arthur. Since Arthur was unarmed, Sir Gromer showed the king mercy and gave him a chance to save his life.
Gromer issued a challenge: the king had one year to return unarmed to this spot with an answer to the question, What do women desire above all else? If Arthur answered the question correctly, his life would be spared: if not, he would lose his head. Arthur agreed, but he was very discouraged. This must be a trick question, he thought. He felt certain that no one knew the answer. Back at the castle Arthur told the entire story to his nephew Sir Gawain, who was known as the wisest, bravest, most compassionate and courteous of all the Knights of the Round Table. The young knight, in contrast to the king, was hopeful. He and Arthur had a year to search the kingdom, and he was certain they would find the right answer.
Almost a year passed, and Arthur and Gawain collected many answers, but not one had the ring of truth. The appointed day was almost upon them when one morning Arthur rode out alone through the purple heather and golden gorse, deep in thought about his predicament. At the edge of the oak woods, he was suddenly confronted by a large, grotesque woman who was covered with warts and almost as wide as she was tall.
Her eye met his fearlessly as she declared, “You are Arthur, the king, and in two days you must meet Sir Gromer with an answer to a question.
“Yes,” Arthur replied hesitantly, “But how do you know about this?”
“I am Lady Ragnell, and Sir Gromer is my stepbrother. You don’t have the right answer, do you?”
“I have many answers, and I don’t see how it concerns you,” Arthur retorted, gathering his reins to turn and ride home.
“You do not have the right answer,” said Ragnell with a confidence that filled Arthur with gloom. “I have the answer.”
Arthur turned and leaped off his horse. “Tell me the answer and I will give you a large bag of gold!”
“I have no use for gold,” Ragnell replied calmly.
“Nonsense, woman, you can buy anything you want with it! What do you want, then? Jewelry, land? Whatever you want, I will pay you- that is, if you have the right answer.
“I know the answer, I can promise you that,” responded Ragnell.
After a slight pause she added, “I demand in return that Sir Gawain become my husband.”
Arthur gasped. “Impossible!” he shouted. “You ask the impossible, woman. I cannot give you my nephew. He’s his own man, not mine to give!”
“I did not ask you to give me the knight Gawain. If Gawain agrees to marry me of his own free will, then I will give you the answer. Those are my terms.”
“Terms! What right do you have to give me terms? It’s impossible! I could never bring him such a proposal.”
Ragnell stared calmly at the king’s face and simply said, “If you should change your mind, I will be here tomorrow.” Then she disappeared into the woods.
Shaken from this strange encounter, Arthur road home at a slow pace, thinking to himself that he could never speak to Gawain of this matter. The loathsome woman! How dare she ask for the finest knight in marriage! But the afternoon air was soft, and the fateful meeting with Gromer weighed heavily on Arthur. When the king returned to the castle, he found himself telling his nephew about his adventure, concluding, “She knows the answer, I’m sure of it- but I didn’t intend to tell you any of this.”
Gawain smiled sweetly, not yet knowing Ragnell’s specific proposal. “But this is good news, Uncle. Why do you sound so discouraged?”
With his eyes averted, the king reported Ragnell’s demand, along with a detailed description of her grotesque face, warty skin, and bulging size.
“How fortunate that I can save your life!” replied Gawain immediately. Over his uncle’s protests Gawain stated, “It is my choice and my decision. I will return with you tomorrow and agree to the marriage, on the condition that her answer saves your life.” Early the next morning Gawain rode out with Arthur to meet the Lady Ragnell. Even seeing her face-to-face did not shake Gawain’s resolve. Her proposal was accepted, and Gawain bowed to her courteously. “If tomorrow your answer saves the king’s life, we shall be wed.”
On the fateful morning Gawain rode out part of the way with Arthur, who assured the knight that he would try all the other answers first.
The tall powerful chieftain was waiting for Arthur, his broadsword gleaming in the sun. As Arthur read out one answer after another, Gromer shouted, “No!No!No!” until at last he raised his sword high above his head. “Wait!” the kind cried. “I have one more answer. What a woman desires above all else is the power of sovereignty, the right to exercise her own free will.”
With a loud oath Gromer dropped his sword to his side. “You didn’t find that answer on your own! My cursed stepsister Ragnell gave it to you! I’ll cut off her head. I’ll run her through with my sword!” He turned and plunged back into the forest, a string of curses echoing after him.
Arthur returned to where Gawain waited with the Lady Ragnell. All three rode back to the castle in silence. Only Ragnell seemed in good spirits.
The news spread quickly through the castle that a bizarre wedding was to take place between an ugly hag and the magnificent Gawain. No one could imagine what had persuaded Gawain to marry this creature. Some thought she must possess great lands and estates. Others thought she must have some secret magic. Most were just stunned at the fate of poor Gawain.
King Arthur drew his nephew aside. “A postponement might be in order,” he said.
“I gave her my promise, Uncle. Would you have me break my word?” Gawain replied.
So the wedding took place in the abbey, and the strange wedding feast was held before the entire court. Throughout the long day and evening, Gawain remained pleasant and courteous. In no way did he show anything but kind attention to his bride.
At last the wedding couple retired to their chamber. “You have kept our promise well and faithfully,” Ragnell observed. “You’ve shown me neither pity nor revulsion. Come kiss me now that we are wedded.”
Gawain went to her at once and kissed her. When he stepped aside, before him stood a serene, beautiful woman with gray eyes and a smiling face. His scalp tingled with shock, and he jumped back. “What manner of sorcery is this?”
Ragnell replied, “Do you prefer me in this form?” as she turned slowly in a full circle.
“Yes, of course, but I don’t understand,” stammered Gawain, confused and frightened.
“My stepbrother Gromer has always hated me. He obtained a knowledge of sorcery from his mother and used it to change me into a monstrous hag. He commanded me to live in that shape until the finest knight in Britain willingly chose me as his bride.”
“But why did he hate you so cruelly?” asked Gawain.
With her lips curled in amusement, Ragnell stated, “he thought me bold and unwomanly because I refused his commands, for both property and my person.”
With great admiration Gawain said, “Then you have won the impossible condition, and his evil spell is broken!”
“Only in part, my dear Gawain.” Her eyes held his steadily. “You have a choice which way I will be. Would you have me in this, my own shape, at night in our chamber? Or would you have me grotesque in our chamber at night and my own shape by day in the castle? Fair by night, or fair by day- think carefully before you choose.”
Gawain knelt before his bride and responded at once. “It is a choice I cannot make. It concerns you, my dear Ragnell, and only you can choose. Whatever you choose, I will willingly abide by it.”
Ragnell released a long, deep breath. The radiance in her face overwhelmed him.
“You have answered well, dearest Gawain. Your answer has broken Gromer’s evil spell completely. The last condition he set was that, after the marriage, the greatest knight in Britain, my husband, must give me the power of sovereignty, the right to exercise my own free will. Only then would the wicked enchantment be broken forever.”
And so in wonder and joy began the marriage of Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell.
From Women and Desire – by Polly Young-Eisendrath