King Arthur and the Riddle: The Wedding of Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell ~ Legend Stories for Kids
This is the Tale of King Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell, also known as the Loathsome Lady. It is one of the many tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It is adapted and brought to you by Stories to Grow by.
One day King Arthur was hunting in Inglewood Forest with his men. All of a sudden, in the distance a deer stepped into view. "Hold still, everyone," said the king, "I'll stalk this deer myself." Holding his bow in one hand and his last arrow over his shoulder, the king crept upon the deer. Then he slayed the deer with one shot. As the animal fell, a tall figure stepped from the shadows.
"How lucky for me that we meet this way, with your arrow released from your hand," boomed the voice of a strong and mighty knight. "King Arthur, for many a year, you have done me wrong. Now it is time for me to quiet you."
"Sir Gromer!" said King Arthur, and he thought to himself, "I meet my old enemy here in the woods, with no weapon to defend me. Where are my men?" Thinking quickly, the king said, "To slay me here, armed as you are and I clothed but in my greens, would bring you no honor. All the knights will refuse to sit by you, and shame will follow you evermore. I'll grant you anything - name it - land or gold, to spare my life."
"There is no land or gold that I desire," said Sir Gromer. "However I will get what I seek in an honorable way. I'll give you a chance to solve a riddle. One year and a day from now, you must appear before me, here in the woods as you are, without friends to come with you and with no weapon. If at that time you are unable to solve this riddle, no man will object that I will take your life. But if you answer the riddle correctly, there will be no battle. You must swear on your honor that you will return in one year and a day, as I have said."
"Lo, I agree," said the King. "What is the riddle?"
"You must tell me what it is that women desire most, above all else."
"I assure you," said King Arthur, "as I am the true king, that I will come again in one year and a day and bring you the answer that you seek."
And so Sir Gromer left. The King blew his bugle and his hunting companions found him with the slain deer at his feet. Yet instead than finding their ruler in good spirits as they would expect, his companions saw heaviness in their king's face. They realized some trouble must have come about. But when they asked him what could be the matter, he did not say.
Only to his nephew, the gentle knight, Sir Gawain, did King Arthur share what had really taken place.
"Sir, be of good cheer," said the youthful knight, after he heard full through the curious demand of Sir Gromer. "Let's ready your horse. Together we will ride through country after country. Wherever we go, we will ask every man and woman for the correct answer. We are bound to find it before long."
So the king and his nephew Sir Gawain rode away. Everywhere, they inquired what it is that women desire above all else. All the people who answered were certain their answer was correct, yet each answer was different. Some said women loved best to be well adorned. Others said they wanted a life free of scorn. Some said women want a husband who is handsome and strong - others that they want a man who will not prove them wrong. And so King Arthur and Sir Gawain collected many an answer, yet none that seemed right. They returned home to sort it all out, since only a month remained.
King Arthur decided to return to Ingleswood Forest, and perhaps he could make sense of it there. While riding his royal horse along a forest trail, as foul a lady as King Arthur ever saw rode up to him. She was covered with gold and many a precious stone, but that could not cover her red face, runny nose, mouth that was entirely too wide, teeth that were yellow and hanging. Her eyes were bleary, her neck too long, and she was shaped like a barrel.
"Good day, King Arthur," said she. "Think of me what you will, but your life is in my hands."
"What do you mean?" said the King.
"Of all the answers you have been told," said the loathsome lady, "none of them will help you. Only I know the correct answer. Grant me but one thing, Sir King, and I shall tell it to you. But if not, you will face Sir Gromer and no doubt, you shall lose your head."
"You know Sir Gromer?" said King Arthur.
"He is known," said the vile lady. "And he has bragged to many that he has you all but conquered. What Sir Gromer does not know, however, is that I, and only I, have the answer that you seek."
"Tell me the one thing you seek from me," said the King. "If I can grant it, I will."
"Very well," said she. "There is a certain knight I wish to wed. His name is Sir Gawain. Either I marry the knight Sir Gawain, or you must lose your head."
"Alas!" the king thought to himself, "woe is me, that I should cause Gawain, my own dear nephew, to thus be wed!" He said aloud, "Then we must part, lady. But do tell me, before I go, what is your name?"
"Sir King, I am the Lady Ragnell."
And so they parted. The King returned to his castle where he found his nephew, Sir Gawain. The King told him everything except the demand of the loathsome lady to marry Sir Gawain. King Arthur said instead that the Lady Ragnell would share the secret for the promise of a husband.
"Is that all?" said Sir Gawain. "Then I will marry her and marry her again. For you are my king and my liege. To save your life, my lord, I will do whatever I can or I would be false and a great coward."
With the promise of his nephew, and since the next day was the very day the King was to meet Sir Gromer in the woods, the King rode with haste to Ingelwood Forest, to the spot where he had met the Lady Ragnell before. But what if she wasn't there, he worried? Then the loathsome lady rode up to him. The King told her that her request would be granted and she could marry the Knight Sir Gawain. "Therefore tell me now, quickly my lady, the answer to the riddle."
"Sir," said Lady Ragnell, "now you will know what it is that women desire above all else. Some men say we desire to be beautiful, or that we desire attentions from many men, or that we desire to be married well. Thus, these men do not know the truth. What we desire above all else is to have sovereignty, to rule our lives as we see fit, to not be beholden to another. Go forth, Sir King, for now your life is assured."
The king rode as fast as he could to the spot where he had met Sir Gromer. He started by giving one of the answers he had been given earlier. Then another, and another, and yet another. To each one, Sir Gromer shook his head with glee.
"Nay, nay," said Sir Gromer, "you are as good as a dead man. Prepare to bleed."
"Abide, Sir Gromer," King Arthur said. "I have one answer left."
"Very well then," said Sir Gromer, "or else so help me, your death will be upon you."
"Now here it is," said the king. "Above all else, women desire sovereignty, to rule their lives as they see fit."
"And who was it that told you this?" roared Sir Gromer. "No doubt it was my sister, the Lady Ragnell! May she burn on a fire! Yet now I am compelled to release you - So go!"
"Farewell," said King Arthur, and he quickly turned around his horse. Then he sped to the Lady Ragnell. He must bring her back to his castle for the wedding. Yet so unpleasant was the prospect of holding a public wedding with such a bride that he told her the ceremony would take place in the morning, knowing that meant there would be few guests or even none to attend, and his nephew Sir Gawain would not have to suffer the public embarassment of wedding such a loathsome lady. But this the Lady Ragnell would not allow.
"Nay, Sir King!" said she, firmly. "Openly I must be wed, with a full wedding feast for dinner, and guests aplenty in attendance."
After the marriage ceremony, when all were gathered for the wedding feast, the Lady Ragnell carefully watched her groom. Was he disgusted by her? Would he turn his back and ignore her? Strangely, this he did not do. The knight behaved as if he cherished his hideous bride.
Later that night in their wedding chambers, the Lady Ragnell said, "Sir Gawain, now that we have wed, give me a kiss. If I were young and beautiful looking, you know very well you would not delay. I urge you to do this right now."
Sir Gawain said, "I will at once, that and more!" As he sped around to kiss his bride, he saw before him not the loathesome lady he had married, but the fairest creature he ever did see.
"Aye!" he cried out. "What magic is this? Are you a witch?!"
"I am your wife," said she, "that and securely."
"Ah lady, then I must not be in my right mind," said the confused Sir Gawain. "Pardon me for saying so, earlier today you were the foulest sight a man ever did see. And now, it seems none is more fortunate than I to have you as my bride!" And he rushed into her arms, giving her many kisses.
"Sir," said she, pulling away for a moment, "There is more you must know. Several years ago I was deformed by enchantment by my brother, the terrible Sir Gromer. The way you see me now, this appearance cannot stay. You have a choice. You need to choose whether you will have me in my natural form as you see me know, by night and hideous, as you have seen me before, by day, or have me in my natural form by day and hideous at night. With the enchantment, it cannot be both. What do you choose?"
"Alas!" said Gawain, "the choice is hard. To be with you as you are now at night but not any more, that would grieve my heart right sore. But if by day you were as you seem now, then the nights would be hard, and how. So I must put the choice in your own hands. Whatever you choose, as your husband that choice will be mine as well."
"Mercy, courteous knight! Of all earthly knights I am truly lucky you are the one who ended up as my husband, for now the evil enchantment is released completely! I can stay in my natural form both day and night. For the only thing that could release me from Gromer's spell was if a husband granted me, of his own free will, sovereignty to choose what I wish for myself. And now, Sir Knight, courteous Gawain, you have done just that. You have granted me sovereignty, that which every woman wants above all else. Kiss me, Sir Knight!"
"Aye," said Sir Gawain, "that I am glad to do!"
And so the Lady Ragnell could stay in her natural form both day and night, and she and Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, lived happily ever after.
"The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell," a poem from a 16th century manuscript that is currently located in Oxford, England (Bodleian Library MS 11957).
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2005. All rights reserved.
This anonymous ballad of Sir Gawain and the Loathsome Lady was one of the most popular stories of late medieval England.
Sir Gawain remains one of the great heroes in Arthurian legends. No other Knight of the Round Table appears in more tales, yet Gawain is not often the chief hero in most of these medieval romances (another exception is "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"). Gawain is often portrayed as the ideal knight, a noble and honest warrior who is fiercely loyal to his uncle, King Arthur.
In one story, an explanation is provided for how the feud between King Arthur and Sir Gromer came about. In the tale, King Arthur gave a piece of the forest of Ingleswood to his nephew, Sir Gawain.
"The Wedding of Sir Gawain and the Dame Ragnelle" is often compared to Geoffrey's Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales.