One day King Arthur was hunting in the forest with his men when a deer stepped briefly into view and then just as suddenly vanished into a tangle of trees. “Stay here,” Arthur told his men. “I’ll stalk this one myself.” With his bow in one hand and his arrows slung over his shoulder, the king crept after the deer until, deep into the forest, he slew it finally with a single shot. But as the animal fell, a tall figure, dressed in black, well-armed and strong, stepped from the shadows and confronted Arthur.
“How fortunate for me that we meet this way, with your arrow already released from your hand,” the Black Knight said. “Arthur, you once did me a great wrong by giving my lands to your nephew, Gawain. Now I will repay you with death.”
Thinking quickly, Arthur said, “To slay me here, armed as you are and I clothed only in my hunting greens, would bring you no honor. Shame will forever follow you. I’ll grant you anything—name it—land or gold, to spare my life.”
The Black Knight nodded slowly. “There is no land or gold that I desire,” he said, “and so I’ll give you the chance to solve a riddle. One year and a day from now, you must come to me here in the woods, without friends or weapons. If at that time you’re unable to solve the riddle, no man will object if I take your life. But if you answer the riddle correctly, you may go free.”
“I agree,” said Arthur, hastily. “What is the riddle?”
“You must tell me what it is that women desire most, above all else.”
Arthur frowned, but then nodded and gave his word of honor that he would return as asked, a year and a day later. So the Black Knight slipped back into the trees and was gone. Arthur blew his bugle, and his hunting companions soon found him with the slain deer, and they returned at once to Camelot. Arthur shared what had transpired only with his friend and nephew, Gawain.
“Don’t worry,” said the young knight. “Let’s ready both your horse and mine. I will go in one direction and you the other, and we will ride into every town in the country, asking each of the women we meet for the answer to this riddle. We’ll do this until we find the response that seems correct.”
And so the king and Gawain rode off in opposite directions. Everywhere they went, they asked what it was that women desired above all else. Each woman who answered was certain her answer was correct, and yet each answer was different. Some said that women wanted to be well-clothed; others said they wanted never to be scorned. Some said they wanted a husband who was handsome and strong; others said they wanted a man who would never demean them. As the weeks and months passed, Arthur and Gawain collected many answers, yet neither of them found the single answer that rang true. At last only a month remained, and they each returned to Camelot, discouraged.
As he rode through the forest not far from the castle, Arthur met a woman. Though she was clothed in gold and precious stones, she was as foul a creature as ever a man saw. Her face was red and covered with snot; her mouth huge; and all her teeth yellow, hanging over her lips. Her eyes were bleary and protruded, each larger than a ball, and her cheeks were as broad as women’s hips. She had a hump on her back, her neck was long and thick, and her hair was clotted into a heap. She was built like a barrel, with shoulders a yard wide and enormous hanging breasts.
The lady stepped up alongside Arthur as he stared. “Godspeed, King Arthur,” she said. “You may speak with me or ride on, but either way your life is in my hands.”
“What do you mean, lady” asked the king. “What business have you with me?”
“I know of your quest,” she said, “and of all the answers you have been told. I know that none of them will help you. Only I know the correct answer. Grant me just one thing and I’ll tell it to you—or else you’ll lose your head.”
“What is it that you want?” said Arthur. “If I can, I shall grant it.”
“You must grant me a certain knight to wed. His name is Gawain. Either I marry him, or you will meet your death here in the forest in a month’s time.”
Alas! Arthur thought to himself! What a terrible thing, that I should be the cause of Gawain marrying such a creature! He said aloud, “I cannot promised that Gawain will marry you; he alone can decide. But in order to save my life, I will do what I can. And so for now we must part, lady. But tell me, before I go, what is your name?”
“I am the Lady Ragnelle,” said the loathsome hag.
Arthur returned to Camelot, where the first man he met was his nephew. Arthur told Gawain everything except the request of the loathly lady to wed him, saying simply that the Lady Ragnelle would only share her secret in return for the promise of a husband.
“Is that all?” said Gawain. “I’ll wed her, and would even if she were a fiend, otherwise I would not be your friend and kinsman. You are my king, and have honored me in many a battle; I will not hesitate.”
And so, a few days later, Arthur rode out of town, and returned to the spot where he had met the Lady Ragnelle. He told her that Gawain had agreed to marry her. “So tell me now, and quickly, my lady, the answer to the riddle.”
“Sir, you will now know, without further digression, what women want most,” Lady Ragnelle responded. “It is a simple enough answer: the one thing we desire above all else is to have Sovereignty. So go on your way and tell this to the Black Knight, who will for certain be angry and curse the one who taught it to you, for all his labor is lost. I assure you that your life is now safe, and ask you to remember your promise.”
Arthur rode as fast as he could, alone and unarmed, to the place where he had met the Black Knight a year and a day before. There he found him, waiting. The king began by offering an answer that he had been given by one of the women he’d encountered around the country…and then another…and another, and yet another. After each answer the knight shook his head with glee.
“No, no,” he said. “Obviously, you have no idea. You are as good as dead. Prepare to bleed!”
“Wait a minute,” Arthur said. “I have one answer left to offer you.”
“Very well then,” said the Black Knight. “But know this: after that answer there’ll be nothing left to you but your death.”
“Here is the answer,” said Arthur, “and there will be no death. For above all, women desire Sovereignty.”
“And who was it who told you this?” roared the Black Knight. No doubt it was my sister, the Lady Ragnelle! May she burn alive on the hottest of fires! Yet now I am compelled to release you—so go, before I change my mind and break my word!”
Arthur quickly turned upon his horse and sped back to Lady Ragnelle to bring her back to Camelot for the wedding. So unpleasant was the prospect of holding a public wedding with such a bride that he told her the ceremony would be affair, knowing this meant there would be few or none to attend. But Lady Ragnelle would not agree to this.
“No,” said she, firmly. “I must be wed openly, with a full wedding feast and plenty of guests in attendance.”
When finally they met, Lady Ragnelle carefully watched Gawain, her future husband. Was he disgusted by her? Would he turn his back on her and ignore her? Strangely, he did none of these things. Gawain behaved as if he cherished his loathsome bride. And so they were married, with great ceremony, and in a hall filled with guests. The queen and her ladies wept for Gawain, and the king and his knights mourned, for the Lady Ragnelle was so ugly. She had two long teeth on each side like boar tusks; one grew upwards, the other down. Her wide, foul mouth was covered with gray hairs, and her lips lay lumped on her chin. But all the while, Gawain treated her with great affection, courtesy, and respect.
After the wedding came the wedding feast. Lady Ragnelle sat at the head of the high table, and everyone gasped at her bad manners. When served, she ate as much as six people might. Sue used her nails, which were three inches long, to break up her food. She ate and ate; nothing came before her that she didn’t eat. And so she ate until the meal was done.
Later that night, as they arrived in their bedchamber, the Lady Ragnelle turned to her husband, and said, “Sir Gawain, now that we are married, show me your love with a kiss. If I were fair, you would not delay. But even though I am not, I pray you do this at my request, and with all due speed.”
Gawain said courteously, “Indeed, my lady, I will at once; that and more!” But as he turned to kiss his bride, standing there before him was not the appalling creature he had married, but the fairest woman he had ever seen.
“Oh!” he cried out. “What are you? Are you a witch?”
“I am your wife,” she said. “That is all.”
“Ah, lady, then I must not be in my right mind,” said Gawain. “Earlier today you were the foulest sight that ever I saw—pardon me for saying so—and now I cannot believe my good fortune!” And he kissed her with great joy.
“Sir,” she said, pulling away for a moment, “there is more you must know. Several years ago I was deformed by an enchantment caused by my brother, the terrible Black Knight. He put this spell on me because I would not give him my treasure, and my land. And because of this curse my beauty, as you see it now, will not hold. You need to choose whether you will have me fair by night and foul by day, or else have me fair by day or foul by night. With the enchantment, it cannot be both. What do you choose?”
“Alas!” said Gawain. “The choice is hard. To have you fair by nights and no more, that would grieve my heart sore. And if I desire by days to have you fair, then nights I’m sure I could not bear. So I must put the choice in your hands. Whatever you choose—well then, as your husband, that choice will also be my own, and I will be glad of it.”
“Oh, most honorable and compassionate of all knights!” cried Lady Ragnelle. “Now the enchantment is released completely! You shall have me fair both by day and by night. For the only thing that could release me from this evil curse was the granting to me by my husband, and of his own free will, the Sovereignty which is mine by nature. And now, courteous Gawain, you have done just that. You have granted me Sovereignty, that which every woman wants above all else. Kiss me, and be glad!”
And so it was that the Lady Ragnelle remained beautiful all day and all night, and she and Gawain lived happily together thereafter.
As told in If Women Rose Rooted, by Sharon Blackie (September Publishing, 2016), reprinted with permission.
Sharon Blackie is a writer, mythologist, and psychologist whose work is focused on deepening our individual and collective relationship with the land through the transforming power of myth and story.
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