The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle: Introduction

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The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle: Introduction

The episode that makes up the plot of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is one of the most popular stories of late medieval England. The transformation of the loathly lady - a story common in folktales, and here combined with motifs of fairy tales like the frog prince and sleeping beauty - occurs in a popular ballad (see The Marriage of Sir Gawain, below), and in more polished literary renditions from the late fourteenth century by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. The story also served for the plot of an interlude performed at one of Edward I's Round Tables in 1299: a loathly lady, with foot-long nose, donkey ears, neck sores, a gaping mouth, and blackened teeth, rode into the hall and demanded of Sir Perceval and Sir Gawain (Edward's knights had assumed Arthurian identities for the occasion) that they recover lost territory and end the strife between commons and lords. The author of the interlude evidently assumed that Edward's court would recognize the story in its outlines.

Ragnelle may in fact have had its origins in some distant and lost Arthurian narrative, for both Chrétien de Troyes in the Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach in the Parzival describe a Grail messenger who is an ugly hag. A variety of early European vernacular stories retell the plot of a loathly lady who, in return for certain crucial information or power, demands some sign of sexual favor from a hero, and is then transformed by the hero's compliance. In the earliest Old Irish versions, the reward for the hero's offering his favor or making the right choice is kingship or political dominance; the late medieval English versions recast the tales' setting, from the realm of epic exploits to a domestic environment of personal love characteristic of romance. Sir Gawain's reputation as a chivalric hero rides to a large extent on his talent for "luf talkyng" (as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, line 927) and courtesy towards women, though according to Ragnelle these in turn are motivated by his fealty to the king.

At the heart of Ragnelle lies the question of how the unknown, the marvelous, or the threatening is brought into line with legitimate, normative, idealized chivalric society. Perhaps even more than the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gromer Somer Joure represents the forces of wildness and incivility: he appears suddenly in the midst of the forest, he behaves in ways that violate knightly protocols, and, most of all, he has a name that connects him with the licensed anarchy of Midsummer's Day. But Ragnelle represents these threats no less than her brother. Her seemingly omnivorous appetite marks her as an outsider, both sexually and socially, to the aristocratic court. Despite the counsels of her betters, she will have Gawain, and the entire court, led by Arthur and perhaps including Gawain, fears she is a sexual predator (lines 722 ff.). Her appearance and behavior - her raggedness, poverty, and general unkemptness, and her antisocial and indiscriminate consumption of vast quantities of food at the wedding feast - make clear that her repulsiveness is a function of her low estate and not simply a wild monstrosity. What brands Ragnelle as a hag is, in the terms defined by the central question of the poem, a form of desire or lack - a lack of manners, beauty, deference; what certifies her as a lady at the end is her possession of these qualities and of Sir Gawain. Though for the bewitched Ragnelle a good man is hard to find, once found he satisfies all her heart's desire.

The plot of Ragnelle, then, turns on the transformation of its heroine both physically and symbolically, from an ugly hag to a beautiful lady, and from an enigmatic threat to a fulfilled woman. Her double role - both Beauty and the Beast - endows her with a deep ambiguity, enmeshing both attraction and revulsion, fatal danger and life-giving knowledge; such worrisome duplicity often attaches itself to women (and to femininity generally) in popular romance, and throughout Western culture. The poem proceeds to establish a stable and benign identity for Ragnelle by providing a satisfying answer to Gawain's rather frantic question, "What ar ye?" (line 644). This inquiry unmistakably rephrases Ragnelle's pivotal question: "whate [do] wemen love best" (line 91), "whate [do] wemen desyren most" (line 406), what do "wemen desyren moste specialle" (line 465) - which itself uncannily anticipates the notorious formulation of Freud: "Was will das Weib?" - "What does Woman want?" It has sometimes been said that the fascination of this question and the wish to solve the enigma of Woman that it conveys express interests that are typically male (or, in more abstract, cultural terms, masculine). In the case of Ragnelle, the narrative unfolds in ways that have the heroine clearly serve the interests of the male chivalric society that the poem good-humoredly celebrates.

Through her relations with the various male characters - her kinship with Gromer, her compact with Arthur, her union with Gawain - Ragnelle literally holds the poem together, for she is their link with each other. She undoes the threat her brother poses for the court, and then reconciles him to the Round Table; she knows the answer to Arthur's problem and so saves his life and his kingship; she presents Gawain with opportunities to place his spectacular courtesy on display, first towards Arthur, and then towards women. Although Gawain performs his usual service as mediator, taming the strange (Ragnelle) and bringing it safely within the sphere of the court, even his success depends upon the more pervasive mediation of Ragnelle. By passing among these male characters, she becomes the nexus that ties them together and makes possible the fraternal and hierarchic bonds of chivalric solidarity.

Ragnelle explores the ties of chivalry through a structured repetition and variation of a fundamental pattern. This consists of a series of linked and interlocking oaths and commitments (a plotting device that distantly recalls the staggeringly complex interlacing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). In the first place, Arthur agrees (under duress) to a compact with Sir Gromer, though Gromer claims he imposes this trial because the king had already broken an obligation to him. Arthur then agrees with Ragnelle upon a second compact which will enable him to escape the first, though its fulfillment depends entirely upon Gawain's compliance. Gawain then agrees to the terms of the second compact, thereby obligating himself to Arthur and to Ragnelle. Ragnelle fulfills her promise, providing Arthur the knowledge that puts him out of Gromer's control (and puts Gromer in danger from Arthur and the court); Gawain fulfills his promise, marrying Ragnelle in a public ceremony and then agreeing to consummate the marriage. When Gawain, faced with what seems an impossible choice concerning Ragnelle's transformation, agrees to allow her to decide, he unwittingly fulfills the terms for setting her free from her enchantment. This outcome not only unites Ragnelle to Gawain, but to the King and Queen; she then uses this amity to bring Arthur and Gromer to reconciliation. Ragnelle ends therefore with everyone established in her or his proper place, and with courtesy restoring the Round Table's customary mutuality and hierarchy. Unmotivated marvels - meetings in the woods, monstrous apparitions, sudden transformations - work to bring about what everyone always wanted or expected, so that the link of fantasy and necessity seems (as it should in romance) inevitable.

Ragnelle deploys another common romance convention by setting the marvelous - especially the unanticipated but fatefully indispensable encounters and compacts that begin the poem - within a wood. The forest is a place for both recreation and mystery, where Arthur and his court go on holiday but where anything can happen. The hunt that starts the action constitutes a characteristic pastime for the English nobility of the late Middle Ages, an activity in which the necessities of survival are turned into a hierarchically nuanced display of strength and knowledge; the king is most a king when he sets off "wodmanly" (line 32) to stalk, kill, and then butcher the deer, conspicuously heedless of danger. Carlisle, Avowyng, and Awntyrs similarly begin with a hunt. The game or compact that Sir Gromer forces upon Arthur succeeds the chase. Though Sir Gromer's may seem an unchivalrous bargain, once Arthur has openly sworn his oath (line 99) he must abide by its rules on his honor, just as he must hold his word to Ragnelle (lines 294 ff.). In this way the romance orders events so that the force of civility and courtesy prevails, and the challenge of the wild is answered within the safe precincts of bedroom and court at the conclusion.
Although Sir Gromer alleges the justice of his complaint against King Arthur - like Sir Galeron in Awntyrs, he says that the king has unjustly stripped him of lands and given these to Sir Gawain (lines 58 ff.) - Ragnelle never stipulates the location of his estates. It does, however, identify the mysterious woods where he makes his appearance: he and his bewitched sister inhabit Inglewood Forest (lines 16, 152, 764, 835), the Cumberland setting for Avowyng, Awntyrs, and, by implication, for Marriage. In addition, the Round Table resides at Carlisle (lines 127, 132, 325), a center for Arthurian adventures in Carlisle, Avowyng, Awntyrs, Greene Knight, Marriage, and Carle. These allusions connect Ragnelle with other Gawain romances, and confer on the whole group a remarkable regional coherence.


The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle survives in a sixteenth-century manuscript now in Oxford (Bodleian 11951, formerly Rawlinson C.86). Madden, in 1839, characterized the text of Ragnelle as recorded "in a negligent hand," "very carelessly written" (pp. lxiv, lxvii). The scribe leaves unclear whether he employs a word-ending stroke simply as a flourish, or as indication of final unstressed -e. Even more confusing is his formation of i and y, which are often indistinguishable; the interchangeability of y for i in Middle English writing often makes it impossible or pointless to choose between them in a modern transcription of this manuscript. Earlier editions have varied considerably on this score. I have transcribed as y those characters that seem clearly y; when the letter form appears ambiguous, I have rendered it as i in conformity with standard conventions of modern spelling. I have usually transcribed the scribe's frequent use of "Ff" and "ff" as "F," though occasionally in mid-line I have given lower case. Capitalization and punctuation are almost entirely editorial.

In the manuscript, Ragnelle appears without stanza breaks. Nonetheless, the poem clearly employs a tail-rhyme stanza common to many other Middle English romances. This consists of six lines rhyming aabccb, with the a and c couplets written in longer lines (often containing ten syllables, usually four stresses), and the b-lines shorter (usually three stresses). The surviving copy of the poem lacks a significant number of individual lines (many of which are tail-rhyme c-lines), and these absences make stanza divisions irregular and uneven. It would be possible to maintain a format of six-line stanzas, and to suggest where omissions fall (as Hartwell does in his edition). However, both the convenience of the reader and the sense of narrative movement seem better served by an editorial division into twelve-line stanzas. This is the format I have chosen, though missing lines do produce several stanzas of irregular length. The manuscript seems also to be lacking at least one leaf (after line 628), but the progress of the story remains clear nonetheless.

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Oxford, Bodleian Library MS 11951.

Editions (arranged chronologically)

Madden, Frederic. 1839. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Sumner, Laura, ed. The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell. Smith College Studies in Modern Language 5, no. 4. Northhampton, Massachusetts: Smith College Departments of Modern Languages, 1924.

Saul, G. B. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1934. [Modernization with Introduction.]

Whiting, Bartlett J. The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell. In Sources and Analogues in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." Ed. W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster. New York: Humanities Press, 1958. Pp. 242-64. [Reprint of Summer's edition with "a few trifling misprints" corrected.]

Sands, Donald B. 1966. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Hartwell, David Geddes. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell: An Edition. Columbia University Dissertation, 1973. Dissertation Abstracts International, 34:3343A.

Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady. Retold by Selina Hastings. Illustrations by Juan Wijngaard. London: Methuen, 1981; Walker, 1988. New York: Lothrop, 1981; Lee and Shepard, 1985. [Children's version.]

Shibata, Yoshitaka. "The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell." Tohoku Gakuin University Review: Essays and Studies in English Language and Literature (Tohoku Gakuin Daigaku Ronshu, Eigo-Eibungaku) 72 (1982), 374-82. [Japanese translation.]

Garbáty, Thomas J., ed. Medieval English Literature. Boston: Heath, 1984. [Contains an edition of Ragnelle (pp. 418-39), based apparently on the published text of Whiting.]

Wilhelm, James J., ed. Romance of Arthur III: Works from Russia to Spain, Norway to Italy. New York: Garland, 1988. [Contains an edition of Ragnelle (pp. 99-116), apparently reprinted from Garbáty's text of Whiting.]

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell. Ed. J. Withrington. Lancaster Modern Spelling Text 2. Lancaster: Department of English, Lancaster University, 1991. [I have not been able to examine a copy of this edition.]

Shepherd, Stephen H. A., ed. Middle English Romances. New York: Norton, 1995. Pp. 243-67. [I have not been able to examine a copy of this edition.]


Boffey, Julia, and Carol M. Meale. "Selecting the Text: Rawlinson C.86 and Some Other Books for London Readers." In Regionalism in Late Medieval Manuscripts and Texts. Ed. Felicity Riddey. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991. Pp. 143-69.

Coomaraswamy, A. K. "On the Loathly Bride." Speculum 20 (1945), 391-404.

Crane, Susan. "Alison's Incapacity and Poetic Instability in the Wife of Bath's Tale." PMLA 102 (1987), 20-28.

Dannenbaum, Susan [Crane]. "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell: Line 48." Explicator 40 (1982), 3-4.

Eisner, Sigmund. A Tale of Wonder: A Source Study of "The Wife of Bath's Tale." Wexford, Ireland: John English, 1957.

Field, P. J. C. "Malory and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell." Archiv 219 (1982), 374-81.

Fradenburg, Louise. "The Wife of Bath's Passing Fancy." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 8 (1986), 31-58.

Griffiths, J. J. "A Re-examination of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson c.86." Archiv 219 (1982), 381-88.