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The Tale of Dame Ragnell
Many tales have been told about the noble Guinevere, the innocent Lily Maid Elaine, the wise and determined Elayne of Carbonek, and the devoted Iseult of Brittany. But none compares to that of the Loathly Lady, who touched King Arthur’s life in a way that no other woman ever did. Hers is a tale of mystery and of magic, of hope and of horror, of deception and of perception, which occurred once upon a time, long ago. It is her tale that I now tell.
There was no season in England more wondrous than spring; and nowhere in all of the British countryside was spring more beautiful than in Camelot. As crocuses and violets bloomed amidst the melting snows on the far hills, the dogwood trees unfurled their buds like pennants along the roadside; and soon patches of golden daffodils, blue harebells, apricot-colored pansies, and yellow primroses—blending like the many threads of a fine tapestry—dotted the newly green fields.
Even King Arthur was not immune to the charms of spring. One morning, as gentle winds diffused the rich scent of lilacs and sweet lavender throughout the castle and nesting robins made a sweet chorus in the trees beneath his chamber windows, he called to his favorite squire John.
“These wonderful sensations are assaulting my senses!” Arthur said. “I am heady from it all—too heady to conduct any serious business. Let us steal away, like naughty schoolboys, and savor this marvelous day. We can ride into the hills, following any trails that we choose. And to heighten the adventure, we will tell no one our intention!”
So John prepared the King’s armor and helped him dress; then he brought their horses around to a private corner of the courtyard. Undetected, they passed through the portcullis and the castle gates and spurred their steeds across the fields of wildflowers.
They rode full out for more than an hour, and when they finally halted, it was in the shade of a wide-leafed oak tree. While their horses grazed, the King and his squire lay singing and joking and making merry. And once the King felt rested, they rode even further, this time into the heart of the woods, where they continued to follow whatever paths struck their fancy.
Several hours later, Arthur stopped again to lie in the tall grass, which had been warmed by the noonday sun. Soon he fell asleep and dreamed pleasant dreams—dreams of his childhood, and of his beloved mother Igraine, and of his wife the fair Guinevere. When he awoke, the sun had already started to set, its honeyed yellow brightness transformed into the red-orange blush of dusk. “Although I am quite content to linger in this peaceful spot,” said the King. “I fear that the Queen will be worried about me. We should begin our journey back to Camelot.”
But, try as they might, neither Arthur nor John could find their way out of the woods. It was as if they had entered into a maze and gotten caught in its labyrinthine twists and curves. So they kept wandering in circles, retracing their original paths, until nightfall.
Only then did Arthur notice a few wisps of smoke rising above the tree tops. Riding toward the smoke as he would toward a beacon, he ultimately emerged into a clearing. There he beheld a castle with four towers so imposing that he chided himself for not spying it sooner.
At Arthur’s command, John approached the gate and rapped loudly, three or four times, with the large iron knocker. When no one responded, he rapped again—and again—until a sullen porter appeared at last.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “What do you seek here?”
The squire replied, “Sir, we are good men who have lost our way in the woods. We ask only for a bed for the night, and tomorrow we will be on our way.”
“If you are truly what you say you are,” snapped the porter, “you will seek lodging elsewhere. This castle is no place for good men. Better that you sleep overnight under the trees, among the wild animals and restless spirits, than ask for shelter here.”
So cryptic a warning aroused Arthur’s curiosity. He edged past his squire and insisted that they be allowed entrance.
“You have been forewarned,” glowered the porter. And, with a shrug, he opened the large wooden gate.
Inside the courtyard, a young page attended to the horses. Several other servants prepared large bowls of water so the King and his squire could wash their hands and faces, which were stained a green-brown from the thick grass where they had dozed. Then Arthur was escorted into the Great Hall, a magnificent and imposing chamber lit by scores of torches that cast dark, ghostly shadows on the walls. Immediately he sensed something was wrong, something strange and sinister and foreboding.
His host, an elderly nobleman with bushy white eyebrows and a long bristly beard the color of newfallen snow, leapt up to greet him. Arthur could see that, despite his age, he possessed both a sturdy constitution and an enormous strength.
“Welcome!” the nobleman shouted in a booming voice. “Welcome to my castle!”
Seating King Arthur at the head of the table, he ordered food to be brought for his guests. The banquet that followed was rich, with multiple platters of boar, venison, rabbit, goose, and duck, and various kinds of fruits and ales. Hungry from his long ride, Arthur ate ravenously. Although clowns and tumblers and acrobats performed their entertainments nearby, he paid little attention to anything except the delicious dishes that were set before him.
When Arthur had finished, his host laughed approvingly and remarked, “I see by your appetite that you are hale in body and lusty of spirit. I must assume that you are also a man who welcomes a challenge. If so, I propose a small sport between us. What do you say to that?”
“Which sport do you suggest?” wondered the King.
“Not the usual ones,” replied his host, his eyes shining deviously, “but something that will measure our courage.”
“By all means, let me hear more,” said Arthur.
His host continued. “We shall stand in the middle of this hall; and I will give you leave to strike off my head. Yet mark this well: you shall have one and only one blow. I will make no attempt to shrink from your weapon. If, however, I receive that blow without dying, then it will be my turn. I will have leave to strike off your head in like manner.”
“Where is the sport in this action?” asked Arthur. “After my blow, you will be dead. You shall have no opportunity to reciprocate.”
At the King’s words, the whole hall exploded in laughter. The more Arthur protested, the harder the guests laughed. Only when the nobleman raised his hand to quiet the assembly did they fall silent again.
“Perhaps I was wrong in my assessment of your courage,” he said to Arthur. “I thought you were a man who was worthy of a challenge. Now I see that you are frightened for your life and unsure of your own stroke. So I must rescind my offer: I battle only men, not fearful boys.”
The King was infuriated, for while many men may have had quarrels with him in the past, none had ever accused him of cowardice. “Give me my sword,” he shouted, “and I will show you what kind of a man I am! With your last breath, you will be forced to acknowledge my strength and bravery.”
John tried to dissuade Arthur from his hasty course—or, at the least, to recall the custom that allowed a squire to act on the King’s behalf.
But Arthur would not listen. “No man will take my danger upon himself,” he said emphatically. “The contest is mine and mine alone.”
Then, turning to his host, King Arthur announced, “I am ready to begin the sport that you have proposed. Shall we draw lots to determine which of us will have the first stroke?”
“On the contrary,” he replied. “There is no need for lots. You are my guest. So naturally the first stroke shall be yours.”
Rising, the nobleman removed his black robe. Underneath he wore a linen undergarment and a shirt made of fine Oriental silk, which he pulled open at the collar. With his throat and neck exposed, he knelt on the ground and awaited Arthur’s blow. “Strike whenever you choose,” he said. “But make your blow precise. I remind you once again that you have only a single chance, and then it will be my turn.”
Arthur pulled his trusty sword from its scabbard. He knew he could rely on Excalibur, which had never failed him before. But, by the dim light of the torches, it caught the sinister reflection of the old knight, which seemed to portend evil.
Measuring his distance, Arthur lifted the sword and brought it down with full force on the neck of his host. The blade cut with ease, slicing cleanly the flesh between the nobleman’s head and shoulders. As the severed head rolled between Arthur’s legs and under the banquet table, John cried out in horror. But none of the other guests even stirred. Instead, they sat like a happy audience awaiting the conclusion of a dumb show.
To Arthur’s astonishment, the headless torso remained upright. Not a single drop of blood dripped from the site of the blow. Suddenly, the body lurched forward past the King and moved toward the table, whereupon the decapitated figure reached down to the floor, picked up his head, and set it back atop his neck. In an instant, the nobleman was sound and whole again. Arthur could not believe his eyes: although Excalibur had exacted its toll, now he could discern no evidence of his stroke. It was as if the blade had never even touched its target.
The guests in the Great Hall seemed utterly unsurprised by the outcome of the contest. They applauded their host, and some of the knights lifted their glasses in a kind of salute.
“And now,” the nobleman announced loudly, “it is my turn.”
Without argument or delay, Arthur complied. Unfastening his cloak and loosening his shirt at the throat, he prepared to receive his host’s return blow.
“Do you feel the fear of a man who is about to meet his death?” the nobleman asked. As he spoke, he waved his sword back and forth, menacingly, several times in the air.
“What is there to fear?” replied Arthur. “All men must die. None can escape it. The time of my death, it seems, is nigh. Get on, then, Sir, with your sport.”
Arthur positioned himself in the center of the hall and waited as the nobleman kept swinging his sword without striking. Each time Arthur heard the swoosh of the blade near his body, he felt sure that the blow was imminent; and he drew his breath in expectation. But each time the nobleman merely teased him, laying the steel edge along the King’s neck so that he could sense its sharpness and cold strength before removing it again.
Finally, Arthur cried out, “You have won the right to administer the blow but not to taunt me in such an ungentlemanly manner. Take your blow, and make it swift.”
“You are wrong, my friend,” responded his host. “It is my right to strike whenever I choose. And if I decide to delay a minute or an hour, then so be it: distress and torment will be your lot. Such is the agreement we made.” Again and again, to make his point, he laid the sword’s blade against Arthur’s neck.
The King waited in silence and offered no further protest.
Then, with a heave and a grunt that resounded throughout the room, the nobleman raised his arm and took aim. Arthur closed his eyes, certain that this time the death blow would follow.
But the nobleman stopped suddenly in midstroke. “You appear to be a brave and honorable man after all,” he said to the King. “Too few opponents of your caliber remain for me to engage. Therefore I propose another contest between us.”
“You are obviously in a good position to bargain, while I am not,” conceded Arthur. “Let me hear the terms of our new bargain.”
“I will spare your life for now, if you will pledge to return to my castle in exactly one year to receive my stroke.”
And Arthur swore, upon Excalibur, to do as his host had bid.
Then the nobleman said, “There is another part to the contest. I will give you a riddle to solve. If you can correctly answer it when you return to the castle, I will spare your life and set you free.”
“What is the riddle?” demanded Arthur.
“The riddle is this: what one thing do women desire the most?”
“Sir,” responded Arthur, “I am grateful for any chance to escape the death sentence that is the consequence of our earlier accord. Be assured that I shall seek the answer to your riddle.”
“Do not thank me yet,” said the nobleman. “I am not giving you this opportunity out of mercy. No, no, no: I wish you to suffer additional torment before you die. Scores of others have already tried to solve the riddle; and all have failed—and died as a result of their failure. You do not realize, as I do, that you will feel no delight knowing that you have only one year of life left to live. That year will be full of anguish and despair as you seek the answer that alone may spare your head.”
Arthur understood. “Yes, now I comprehend that you are cruel, not merciful, and that this too is part of your game. Still I must take consolation in the chance I have been given.”
That night, Arthur rested in a chamber that his host had furnished for him; but he did not sleep. Each time he tried to doze, the ominous words of the nobleman shook him awake. Before the sun had risen, Arthur roused his squire John and charged him never to speak of what had occurred. Having exacted his promise of silence, the King prepared to return to Camelot.
The next few months passed quickly, as Arthur attempted to settle his affairs. And everywhere he went, from everyone he met, he sought a solution to the riddle. Virtually all had opinions as to what women desire most. Some said it was youth or beauty or wealth. Others said control. Still others said extravagant garb, such as imported silks or similar adornments. But none of the answers seemed appropriate to Arthur, so he kept searching.
Soon it was only a week short of the year since he had left the castle of the mysterious nobleman, and King Arthur realized sadly that he was duty-bound to begin his return. This time he paid no mind to the glories of the season. The crocuses, whose shining yellow color gleamed more brightly than gold, provided no temptation, nor did the fragrant lavender or the early blush-pink roses of spring. Now a bitter anxiety gripped his soul.
He called to John, instructing him to ready his horse. As the tearful squire dressed the King and laced his armor, Arthur said, “Remember that honor bids me to keep my promise. And honor likewise bids you to hold your peace and tell no one, not even Queen Guinevere, where I am headed. If I do not return within a month, then you may reveal the misfortune that has befallen me. You should also remind Sir Kay to search my cabinet for papers that will advise him how to proceed in the event of my death.”
And, with those words, King Arthur rode away from the castle and into the woods. As he traveled his solitary route, he searched his soul for the answer that might save him. But it remained elusive, and Arthur grew increasingly more despondent and exhausted.
Several hours into the journey, he dismounted and rested his horse under a shady oak tree. Nearby, built into a mound of rock, he noticed a small, elfin-like dwelling. Hoping to obtain some water for himself and his steed, he approached and knocked on the door, which was virtually obscured from view by the mosses that had overgrown it. Hearing no response, he entered cautiously. At first, the hut seemed empty, perhaps abandoned. Then he beheld a very strange sight: an old hag bent over the hearth.
The hag was more horrible than any creature he had ever seen—more horrible, even, than any beast the wizard Merlin could have conjured. Stooped and hunched, she stood barely four feet tall. Her hair, grey-black and unkempt, clung like soiled wet straw to her wrinkled face, which itself was dotted with red pustules and blemishes. One eye was sealed shut, like an old scar that had never healed properly; the other appeared to be covered with a thick white film. From her nose ran a mucousy discharge, which she rubbed away with a claw-like hand.
As the King drew near to greet her, she jabbed at him with fingers more twisted than the gnarled roots of an ancient tree. And it was then that he saw her pendulous breasts, which sagged to her waist, and far below.
Repulsive though she was, Arthur did not forget his courtesy. “My Lady . . . ,” he began.
“King Arthur,” she interrupted, “you have found your way to my home!”
Surprised that the hag recognized him so quickly, Arthur asked, “How do you come to know me, good woman?”
And she replied, “That is unimportant. What matters is the trouble that has brought you here.”
So the King confided his problems in her. And when he had concluded the sad account of his last year, he asked if she could provide him with the solution to the nobleman’s riddle.
“What do women desire most?” she said. “Certainly, I know the answer very well. But before I solve the riddle for you, I must demand something in return.”
Overcome by happiness that the old woman might be able to rescue him from his cruel fate, Arthur cared little what reward she might exact. At that moment, no price seemed too high, considering that his life was at stake. “What do you wish of me?” he asked.
“If I give you the correct answer to the riddle, you must promise me that, when you return to court, you will take me with you. And there I will be allowed to wed whichever knight of yours I choose, and you will witness his pledge as husband to me.”
“I would give you anything that you request directly of me,” Arthur responded. “But regretfully, I cannot make such a promise for another man.”
“Are your knights unwilling to save you from certain death?” she replied. “Would they not offer their own lives in exchange for yours? You are the King, and the King can make any demand, or insist on any bond.
“Moreover,” she reminded him, “not so many years ago, you could have married any woman in the kingdom. But you desired Guinevere; and, at your wish, King Leodegrance of Cameliard gave his daughter to you. Is it acceptable for a man like you to have his will, but not for a woman like me?”
Pondering the old woman’s words, Arthur weighed the risks of refusing her terms. Were he to die now, he would leave the kingdom without a king, a kingdom in chaos; and he had much yet left to achieve. So he quickly agreed, before she could recant. “You shall have what you ask: I make you my promise. But I beg you—give me what I seek!”
And the hag, her smile broad and toothless, replied, “It is quite simple. The answer to the riddle is this: what a woman desires most is the right to make her own choices. She wants to decide for herself, not to accept compliantly the decisions that others impose upon her. A woman just wants her own voice.”
When he heard her words, Arthur knew at last he had the answer he sought: women most desire the right to make their own choices!
“I will await your return, my King,” warned the old woman. “Be aware, however, that you have been tricked by an evil magician and sorcerer who poses as lord of the mysterious castle in the woods. He has attempted to control you with his deceptions and his threats. But you will be able to take away his power by correctly solving his riddle. Your words will be mightier than his sword.”
Her concern seemed so genuine that Arthur was forced to smile. “Your sage advice reminds me of a lesson that another wise mentor, the Lady of the Lake, taught me many years ago. I thank you for that reminder, and I assure you that I will not neglect my promise to you.”
So the King spent the night in the old woman’s home, and with hearty ale and tasty meat she revived his exhausted body as fully as she had revived his flagging spirits. The next day, he set forth confidently to keep his appointment. As he arrived at the gates of the evil knight’s castle, they swung open wide, as if by magic, to receive him. Servants and pages appeared and conducted him to the Great Hall he had visited a year before.
Once again, the hall was filled with feasting noblemen and noblewomen, many of whom had returned to witness the conclusion of the adventure. Upon seeing Arthur, the old knight rose from his chair at the head of the table and approached him.
“Sir Knight,” shouted the King, “I am here to redeem my vow. I have the solution to your riddle.”
“Let me hear it,” responded his host, laughing loudly, for he did not expect Arthur to be accurate; and he welcomed the chance to best him again. “Be done with your guess, and then prepare to forfeit your life!”
“This is no guess,” exclaimed Arthur. “There is but one correct answer to the question of what it is that women desire most.” Then, slowly, Arthur revealed, “Women most desire . . . the right to make their own choices.”
At Arthur’s words, the hall fell silent. Most realized that he had answered well and that he had thwarted and surprised his host by his reply.
Then Arthur approached the nobleman and looked him squarely in the eyes. “Now, traitorous knight, I will deal you a blow more devastating than death, for brute force is too easy a solution and death too quick a punishment for your treachery. Your sentence shall be this: from this day on, you will have to make your way in the world without the aid of your magical but malicious powers.”
Like a young hound whipped by his master, the wicked knight averted his gaze and squirmed uncomfortably at the stinging lash of the King’s words.
“I have been fortunate enough to have seen real magic,” continued Arthur, “the healing magic of the Lady of the Lake, the instructive magic of Merlin and later of Vivien. Such magic endures. But magic like yours is not just false but fleeting. And I have a simple old woman to thank for your undoing.”
Then the King turned and remounted his horse. As he rode away, he looked back one last time at the mysterious castle that had been the seat of his torment. Like the knight’s bravado, it too was nothing more than mere illusion. Without his former host’s evil enchantment to sustain it, the castle collapsed like a child’s house of straws blown apart by the wind. And Arthur smiled as he rode, for he knew that no other worthy knight would ever be deceived and undone by the trickery once practiced therein.
Though anxious to return to Camelot, King Arthur kept his word and traveled straight to the hut of the old woman in the woods. Again he thanked her for her assistance in defeating the knight’s magic and renewed his promise. “I have come to take you with me to my court,” he said. “There you shall have your choice of my companions of the Round Table as your husband.”
With great gentleness and courtesy, he lifted her onto the saddle of his horse, and he walked alongside her all the way back to Camelot. No noblewoman or princess could have received respect more sincere than that which Arthur accorded her.
As he and his guest neared the royal castle, the sentries posted at the towers heralded the King’s return. Lords and ladies poured into the courtyard, and Guinevere descended the chamber stairs to greet her husband. John, too, waited nervously, for he alone knew the significance of the mission that Arthur had undertaken and could imagine the enormous perils that he had experienced and surmounted.
When the court beheld the hag astride Arthur’s horse, they were stunned. None had ever seen so hideous a shape. Some assumed that the King was playing a prank on them, that he had dressed an ugly troll in woman’s garb to amuse them. But when they heard what he had to say about her, they became quite respectful.
“I am in the debt of this wonderful dame,” he reported. “Had she not come to my aid, I would be a dead man. Instead of joy at our court, there would be weeping and sorrow.” And then the King recounted the whole story, beginning one year earlier, when he and John had sought lodging at the mysterious castle in the woods.
As he drew his tale to an end, Arthur told his knights, “I have promised this lady that she may choose any one of you. The man whom she selects will take her to wife and treat her with the same courtesy she has shown me, and he will hold her in the highest possible regard for the rest of her days. I am sure that all of you concur in the rightness of my pledge.”
Then King Arthur turned to the old woman and asked, “Dear Lady, is there one among these knights whom you would choose to be your husband?”
With a claw-like finger, she pointed at Sir Gawain, the handsomest of Arthur’s retainers. “Yes, King,” she replied, cackling so horribly that the hunting hounds began to bay at the sound. “I would marry that knight, for I can tell by his demeanor that he is noble and brave.”
So King Arthur asked Sir Gawain if he would agree to fulfill his pledge.
“Gladly,” Gawain responded, “I will do as you have promised this lady.”
Moving toward the hag, he took her hand in his and kissed it tenderly. Then he knelt before her and said, “I am your servant, Madam.”
Gawain’s gesture was so affecting that it brought a tear to many eyes. Guinevere could be seen to weep, and Arthur bowed his head and sighed.
Before the week’s end, all of Camelot celebrated the wedding of the hag to Gawain. The old woman was dressed in garments fit for a queen—yellow silks from the Orient, sheer laces from the Continent, and jewels in every color of the rainbow. Yet, if the truth be told, she made the ugliest bride anyone had ever seen. She was even uglier than the wide-tusked boar Gawain had slain just a few days earlier. Her loathsome shape and visage mocked the youthful grace of her groom; yet he comported himself the way a true gentleman would. As their vows were pronounced, he swore always to be faithful and leaned over to kiss his wife. But when she snorted gleefully in reply, her mouth fell open and revealed her blackened, broken teeth; and her breath smelled more foul than the rotting excrement behind the stables.
At the wedding feast, the bride was such a disgusting spectacle that some of the younger maidens swooned at the sight of her on Gawain’s arm. Even the halest knights could hardly swallow their food without gagging. Yet the old woman’s appetite equalled that of ten men: she ate with such sloppy abandon that grease from the meats caked on her face and hair and stained the whole front of her garment, while chunks of half-eaten food dropped through the gaps in her teeth into her lap and onto the floor.
Later that evening, alone with her new husband in his apartments, she prepared herself for bed. But Gawain could not bring himself to lie with her. For several hours he sat silently in the dark of an adjoining room, pondering the cruel twists of his fate. Two or three times she called to him, but he pretended not to hear.
Finally, after midnight, the old woman rose from bed and came to him. Reproachfully, she said, “Only hours ago, with the King as your witness, you vowed to treat me with the highest regard. Now you ignore my pleas and neglect me completely—on my wedding night! What more egregious slight could any woman suffer?”
Gawain felt the shame course through his entire body, and he knew his obligation, which was made momentarily easier by the absolute darkness of the chamber. As he approached his wife, though, she asked, “Sir, since the night is so black, have you no candle that I might see you better?”
And Gawain answered, “If that is your choice, I will fetch a candlestick for our bedstand.”
He returned almost immediately, carrying a gold candlestick with two tall tapers made of the finest, most fragrant beeswax. “These are better than ordinary candles,” he told her, “for they burn longer and more brightly. Thus, we shall have light enough to converse together until dawn.”
At that moment, she stood up and drew near. At first Gawain caught only her shadow. But when the light more fully illuminated her profile, he gasped. Before him was no dreadful hag but the most exquisite and comely young woman he had ever seen. Transfixed by her emerald green eyes and long auburn hair, he thought that such a perfect creature could only be the Grail Maiden. “Who are you, Lady?” he asked. “And what are you doing here?”
“Gawain, do you not recognize me? I am your wife,” she replied. “By choosing to wed me and by treating me with sincere courtesy, you have freed me from part of the evil enchantment that has been cast upon me. What you observe now is my true shape. There is but one complication: I can appear this way for only half of each day. The other half I must stay as foul and ugly as I was before.”
With immeasurable joy, Gawain grabbed his wife’s hands and beheld again her beauty. It inspired in him a passion unlike any he had ever felt before.
“Now,” she said, “you need to decide which guise I am to assume. Should I have this appearance that you seem to admire by night, I must become a loathsome old woman by day. Yet, should I have this glad appearance by day, I will be hideously ugly for you by night. Which would you prefer?”
Gawain considered the choices. If she were to be beautiful by day, the men and women of the court would envy him; yet by night she would be haggish again. The knowledge that she would metamorphose by sunrise might make those long hours alone together tolerable. Yet if she were fair by night, Gawain could enjoy his wife’s beauty privately and never worry that other men coveted her, for by day she would be unattractive to all others.
“By day!” he cried out. And then he reversed himself. “No, by night!”
As he looked again at his wife, Gawain’s passion mixed with pity. He thought of the scorn she had endured; and he recalled his own disgust with her formerly repulsive appearance. And in that instant he realized he could not make the choice for her, any more than he could tell another knight what lord to serve or which battle to fight.
“My dear wife,” he said, “I have vowed to honor you above all else, and I will indeed respect you in all matters, especially this. It is your choice how you will appear and when. I have no right to decide in your stead.”
Immediately she was filled with gladness, and she fell into his embrace. “Sir, the enchantment is broken completely now, and I will never be a loathsome hag again, by day or by night. By recognizing my right to choose, you have freed us both!
“I am the sister of the evil knight of the castle in the woods,” she explained. “When I refused to be a part of his gleeful slaughter of innocent knights, he cast a powerful spell over me. Through that black magic, he turned me into the hideous creature you first saw, and he consigned me to a hut in the forest. There I was forced to remain, never to achieve what I truly desired, until some good and worthy knight rescued me by restoring that which my brother had stolen—my right to choose.
“When King Arthur was in trouble and came to me for help, I found the means of my deliverance. When I traveled with him to Camelot, I appeared old, ugly, foul. Yet you treated me with kindness and courtesy and kept your vow to me as you would to Queen Guinevere herself. So now I am free of all enchantments, free to be wedded to you forever. And you, in turn, are free to love me as I really am.”
When she had finished, Sir Gawain ran out of his apartments and throughout the court, shouting of his good fortune. He called out to the noblemen and women to arise and continue the feast. All wondered what kind of madness had possessed Gawain until they reassembled and saw his wife’s new appearance. No longer a hag, she was a vision of youth and earthly beauty.
And they ate and drank until morning, and then until afternoon, and then throughout the next night, for the occasion was more than just the wedding of an attractive young damsel to her handsome knight. It was a joyous reaffirmation of the truth that Gawain, like King Arthur before him, had learned: that women have the right to make their own choices—and that, when given that right, they usually choose well, and bring happiness to all by their actions.
Do you doubt that this story is true? I assure you it is—because I am that Loathly Lady, although now I am known as the Dame Ragnell.
But do not be fooled: despite its happy ending, mine is no simple fairy’s tale. Under my brother’s evil spell, I suffered long and endured much scorn and abuse. Children ran crying and screaming when they beheld my awful visage. Once-gentle knights regarded me with horror. Young maids refused to walk the same paths as I did, fearful that their beauty would wither if they stepped where my feet had trod. Even the lords and ladies whom I had known since childhood and whom I considered my dear friends found me so repulsive that they fled when I drew near. None saw below my hideous shell. Forced to leave the court, I went deep into the woods, to the earthen hut where I lived solitary and friendless until King Arthur came to seek my help. All of that, however, was long ago; that period of my unhappiness is over. It is fading into dim and distant memory—which is why I share this tale with you today.
And for those of you who are wondering if my marriage to Gawain proved to be solid and lasting—indeed, it did. Over the years, we drew ever closer to each other. Because Gawain always honored my decisions and I in turn respected his, he came to see my deepest wisdom and grew to love me for more than my physical beauty. As a result, we were happy together long after my comely appearance had faded and his youthful vigor had passed.
Copyright 2010 Barbara Tepa Lupack and used here with her permission.