& Gender Relationships
of the most fascinating stories to arise from Arthurian literature
regarding gender relationships has to be The Marriage of Sir
Gawain. Here we find incredible insight that would not fully
be appreciated in Western culture for centuries after it was written.
Let me preface this article by acknowledging
the important part that women played throughout the Arthurian genre.
While the stories primarily concern themselves with battles or other
challenges to knightly prowess, women often appear, sometimes nameless,
to guide a knight to his next adventure, clue him in on a problem's resolution,
or test his virtue. It has been speculated that these convenient
damsels evolved from earlier stories, where goddesses provided much
the same purpose.
The inference is that men have much to learn
from women about life and nature and our own purpose in the scheme
of things. When we devalue or reject their intuitive knowledge,
or ignore their intellectual capabilities, which are considerable,
we do so at our own peril, and at the peril of the world we live
On with the
King Arthur, while hunting in a forest
one day, is accosted by a powerful knight who threatens to kill
him. The king dissuades the knight, but only after committing himself
to a quest. If, within a years time, he finds the answer to
a particular question, they both part their ways in peace. If he
does not, he must willingly surrender himself to the knight for execution.
The question he had to find the answer to was
this: "What do women most desire?" Although the knight who asked it supposedly knew
the answer, he touched upon a mystery that has plagued men for
In chivalry, a promise is a promise. King Arthur
immediately sets out to find the answer with his
nephew, Sir Gawain, helping him. For the rest of the year
they went separately around the countryside collecting peoples
opinions and writing them down. Most of the answers seemed frivolous.
King Arthur feared the worst.
When the year was almost complete, he came across
a horrible looking women on the road who recognized him immediately.
Good King, she called to him. My
name is Ragnall, and I know the answer that you seek. Grant
me what I wish and I will tell you.
At this point, King Arthur was desperate for help,
but needed to know what she wanted first, to be sure it was in his
power to give.
Only this, she told him, I
would marry your good nephew, Sir Gawain.
King Arthur was taken back by this request. The
woman was far uglier than any creature he had ever seen. He would
pity any man having to marry her. That the fellow should be his
favorite nephew, himself of royal blood, seemed out of the question.
Good lady, he said, how can
I make such a commitment for someone else? No man can do that.
I have heard of Sir Gawain. His love for
you is such that he would refuse you nothing. It would not be the first
marriage of convenience in the realm. All you need do is ask.
King Arthur returned to his castle and told
Gawain what happened. Without hesitation, and without being asked,
Gawain offered to marry the woman on the kings behalf.
At the appointed hour, King Arthur rode through
the forest to where his adversary was waiting. Before arriving,
the same woman confronted him.
Well? Has your nephew agreed?
The king nodded sullenly.
Now tell me the answer. What is it that women most desire?
The answer us simple, she said, smiling
repulsively. That you never thought of it shows how blind
you are. What women want most is the same as men want, sovereignty
over their own lives.
When the king heard this, he knew that her answer
was correct. Women want what all people want, freedom to direct
their lives as they choose, without others blocking their course
or deciding for them. The concepts of freedom and equality applied
to all people, not just men of nobility.
King Arthur gave this answer to his adversary,
who was dismayed that he had found it. The two men parted ways in
King Arthur brought Ragnall to his castle and
introduced her to Sir Gawain, who greeted her with all courtesy. Word of their upcoming marriage rapidly became the stuff
of gossip at court. Nevertheless, the wedding day finally
The celebration, although lavishly ornate, was
marred by a heaviness of regret. Only Ragnall seemed pleased, despite
the snickering. Sir Gawain willingly remained composed in the performance
of his duty. The now enlightened King Arthur, watching the nuptials,
realized how arranged marriages had often joined worthy
ladies and damsels to horrible men in much the same way.
That night, the newlyweds retired to Sir Gawains
lodgings. Dame Ragnall sensed Gawains reluctance to join her
in bed, and asked him directly if he would treat her as a husband
should. He said he would. When he turned toward her, however, the
woman who waited for him looked quite different—indeed, she was the most
beautiful woman he had ever seen!
Dame Ragnall explained that a curse had been
placed on her years before, that disguised her natural beauty with
profound ugliness for one half of every day.
Gawain was thrilled by the transformation, but
Ragnall quickly gave him a difficult choice:
My lord, it is for you to decide what portion
of the day I am beautiful, and what portion I am not. During the
day, my appearance reflects upon your reputation. At night, upon
your privacy and the expression of our love. Which do you choose,
my husband? Beauty by day, in public? Or by night?
Sir Gawain pondered this choice. Either way
struck him with a blessing and curse. Being the courteous and honorable knight that
he was, however, he could respond in only one fashion:
Dear lady, the decision must be yours not
With that, Ragnall smiled brightly.
Without knowing it, my husband, you have
broken the curse entirely. The conditions were set that I had to
marry the most chivalrous knight of the realm, and that he would
grant me sovereignty over my own life. This you have done. I shall
look as you see me from now on.
With that, the young couple lived happily together
in mutual marital bliss.
That a medieval
would compose such a tale reveals how Western sensitivity to freedom
and equality had an early start. Another version of this story can
be found in Chaucers Canterbury Tales, attributed to
the Wife of Bath.
The above rendition, however, was edited for
modern sensibilities. The original answer to the knights question
was slightly different. The thing that women most desire is sovereignty
over their husbands, or men in general. This somewhat changes the
moral of the story. It suggests that women want to wrest power away
from men, and control them.
To some men today, this reflects what they consider
to be a fearfully threatening feminist agenda, which it does not.
If this is what we take from the tale, its subtle message evades
It is true that chivalry called upon the knight
to serve all women, his own lady especially. This suggests a kind
of female sovereignty that the knight willingly succumbs to. It
was a matter of duty and of love.
Back then a powerful justification for male strength
and aggression was the defense of wife, family and the community
at large, which women represented as the civilizing agent. Nowhere
was this more apparent than in royal court, where requirements of
courtesy refined the warriors rough ways.
Did women rule men, as the word sovereignty implies?
No, but they certainly influenced men and helped them grow into
more complete images of manhood. They added a healthier gender relationship
component, otherwise missing, which included the womans perspective.
Ragnalls sovereignty over Gawain was comprised
of having her own voice, her own equality, her own control over
what they both recognized was her domain, in contrast to what was his.
Each partner in a couple brings her or his own
interests, set of knowledge, and expertise. Because of that, they
are more whole and secure together than when separate. Each willingly surrenders
(or should surrender) some autonomy to the other, in order for their
relationship, and the family they create, to better succeed. In
this way, both participants find purpose, meaning and personal satisfaction.
They are not equal, as in being the same in measurement and degree,
but they own equal status and overall responsibility, no matter
how they work that out between them. They sacrifice something of themselves
to the relationship, and hopefully reap the benefits.
Ragnall's sovereignty over Gawain did not result
in a slave/master relationship, but in a well-suited equality of
variables. Whereas some men look to their love-interest as a mother-image,
someone to wait on him like a slave, women look to men more as partners.
Sovereignty to women, in general, is not about power, but about
working together for family and relationship, the very things that
support humanitys survival.
Men have a place in this. Male attributes and
love, when properly channeled, contribute strongly to the health
of family and community. These attributes have to be developed in
order to be integrated into society, and perform as
they should. A boy does not automatically grow up to be a man. He
struggles to earn his rite-of-passage. This is what the code of
chivalry helps to bring about.
The story of Gawain and Ragnall illustrates how
women should be recognized not only for who they are and their rightful
place within the family and elsewhere, but for the inclusiveness
of their intent. Their brand of sovereignty is, for the most part,
especially in gender relationships, perfectly benign. Of course, like all
such tales, whose generalities can be contested, its inner
message holds true. Men are more complete as men when women are
complete as women and the same holds true the other way around.
With that in mind, sovereignty for men should
always express itself in liberation, not suppression.
Chivalry-Now supports a sovereignty of