By Polly Young-Eisendrath
[From HAGS AND HEROES A Feminist Approach to Jungian Psychotherapy with Couples, Inner City Books, 1984.]
One day King Arthur is out hunting in the North, in Inglewood Forest, where he stalks a white hart until he wounds it with an arrow. Just as he goes to gather his kill, a monstrous fellow steps out of the woods. He calls himself, “Sir Gromer Somer Jour” and threatens Arthur instantly with death by his ax. Shaken and confused, Arthur responds that he is unarmed for battle, and Sir Gromer grants him a twelve-month span in which to answer a riddle or return for his death blow. King Arthur departs this encounter entirely crestfallen and confused about the intent of the riddle.
When he arrives back at the castle, only Sir Gawain, among the Knights of the Round Table, can elicit the story of the adventure from the king. Reluctantly, Arthur describes the details of his confusing encounter and ends with great perplexity about the riddle posed by Sir Gromer. Gromer has asked Arthur to answer correctly the question, “What is it that women most desire, about all else?”
Both Gawain and Arthur suspect this question is a trick because it seems so inconsequential. Gawain is optimistic, however, saying “After all, we have an entire year to collect answers throughout the kingdom. Surely someone will know. “ Arthur is less certain.
For an entire year, Arthur and his companions set about gathering data in their notebooks, asking the question of a broad and diverse sample of their population. Ultimately, they come together and compare notes, Gawain feeling certain that one of the answers will be right. Arthur doubts and worries, secretly assuming that no answer can be found to such a ridiculous question. With only a few days to go, he meanders again into Inglewood Forest, not too far from the place he originally shot the hart.
Out of the woods scrambles a hideous old hag who introduces herself as “the Lady Ragnell.” She challenges Arthur, saying she knows he does not have the right answer to the riddle. Arthur is astounded by her officious manner, and replies that he cannot see how she might be concerned with his business. “The impudence of the woman!” is all he can think. Ragnell presses forward with a confidence that is startling to the king. She insists that only she can offer the correct response since she is the stepsister of Sir Gromer and privy to information that Arthur does not have.
Himself unconvinced of the answers he has collected, Arthur finally responds by offering her land, gold or jewels for the right answer. Ragnell refuses his material rewards, replying, “What use do I have for gold or jewels?” and asserts that only one thing will do”: “If your nephew Gawain agrees to marry me, I will tell you the correct answer. That is my condition.” Arthur says that Gawain is not his to give, that Gawain is his own free man. Ragnell replies that she is not asking for Arthur to give her Gawain: she is only asking him to propose the matter to Gawain and to discover what Gawain chooses to do, of his own free will.
Although Arthur asserts that he cannot put his nephew on the spot in this way, he immediately goes back to the castle and makes the proposal. Seeing his uncle almost groveling before him, Gawain cannot but take pity on the poor king and vows that he would wed the Devil himself in order to save the king’s life. Together they go back to Ragnell and Gawain agrees to marry her if the answer she gives them is the one that saves the king’s life.
On the appointed day, Arthur and Gawain ride solemnly out to meet the monstrous Sir Gromer. With his sword raised and his eye glinting, Gromer listens to Arthur read off the answers the two men collected in their research. None of them is the right one, and just as Gromer is about to let fall his ax, Arthur blurts out Ragnell’s response to the question: What women desire, above all else, is the power of sovereignty, the right to govern their own lives!”
At this Gromer dashes off, spitting hateful remarks about Ragnell and screaming that Arthur could never have found that answer on his own.
Arthur, Gawain and Ragnell ride back to the castle in silence. Only Lady Ragnell is in good spirits. There follows a great wedding banquet attended by the lords and ladies of the castle. Everyone is uncomfortable, squirming and commenting on the ugliness and bad manners of the bride. Ragnell, however, is unabashed; she eats heartily and appears to have a very good time.
In the wedding chamber later that evening, Ragnell seems pleased with Gawain’s responses to her. “You have treated me with dignity,” she says, “You have been neither repulsed nor pitying in your concern for me. Come kiss me now.”
Gawain steps forward and kisses her on the lips and lo!, there stands a lovely and graceful woman with beautiful grey eyes. She turns round before him and queries, “Do you prefer me in this, my true form, or in my former shape”?” “Well, of course in this shape. I mean, what….what a beautiful woman you are!” Gawain stammers. Then he leaps back with a challenge: “What manner of sorcery is this? What is going on here?”
Lady Ragnell explains that her brother had cursed her for being so bold as to disobey his orders. His curse was that she should appear as a loathsome hag until the greatest knight in all of Britain willingly agreed to marry her. Arthur’s mistake of hunting in Inglewood Forest (the land Arthur had given to Gawain, but which rightfully belonged to Sir Gromer) was her first opportunity to be in contact with the king and to try to break Sir Gromer’s vengeful spell.
Overjoyed, Gawain rushes toward his bride, crying, “You have done it! You have freed yourself from your brother’s angry spell and now you are my own lovely bride!”
“Wait!” Ragnell interrupts. “I must tell you that only part of the curse is broken. You now have a choice to make , my friend. I can be in this my true shape during the day, in the castle, and take my other form at night in our chamber—or I can be in my true shape at night, in our bed and in my former ugly shape by day in the castle. You cannot have it both ways. Think carefully before you choose.”
Gawain falls silent. Pondering the intent of the question, but only for a moment. “It is your choice, Ragnell, because it involves your life. Only you can decide, “ is his answer.
With this, Ragnell becomes radiant with joy and ease. She says, “My dear Gawain, you have answered well, because now the spell is entirely broken. The final condition was that if, after I became the bride of the greatest knight, he freely gave me sovereignty over my own life, I could return to my true form. Now I am free to be beautiful by day and beautiful by night.”