This article is Part 7 in a series about The Grail Romances of the Middle Ages and the Individuation Process
by Lans Smith
The story begins with Arthur hunting deer, when he encounters a man (oddly named Sir Gromer Somer) who accuses him of stealing his land and giving it to Gawain. The man threatens to kill or decapitate Arthur if he can’t find out what women love best within a year’s time.
Arthur returns to Carlisle and tells story to court, and then rides off again to find the answer. With one month left King encounters the Loathly Damselle, whose name is Dame Ragnelle. She is ornately dressed, who promises to reveal secret of what women want—provided he can arrange her marriage to Sir Gawain. So Arthur returns to court to tell Gawain, who agrees to marry her.
With only six days left, Arthur rides off again to encounter the Loathly Damselle, Dame Ragnelle. She tells Arthur that what women want most of all is “sovereignty.”
So Arthur hurries through bog, moor, and swamp to give Sir Gromer Somer the answer, thus avoiding decapitation. Sir Gromer curses his sister, Dame Ragnelle, whom Arthur takes back to the court at Carlisle, where Gawain pledges fidelity, in spite of her two boar’s tusks (one pointed up, the other down).
Dame Ragnelle comes lavishly dressed to public wedding ceremony, where like an ugly sow she devours everything in sight. When she goes to bed with Gawain, his kiss transforms her and Gawain then lets her decide when to be beautiful, when ugly, by day or by night. She tells her story of being transfigured into her “opposite” by the sorcery of her stepmother, only to be redeemed by best man in England who will give her “sovereignty” over body and possessions.
They have a child and are married for five years. After she dies, Gawain remarries often, but never “loved a woman so faithfully,” ever again.
Chaucer also tells the story in “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” but there, Gawain commits the crime of rape, and is punished when Guenevere gives him a year to find out what women most desire. After many false answers, and at his wit’s end, he rides into a clearing in the middle of a dense forest and sees 24 maidens dancing in a ring in a clearing radiant as emerald. When he looks away, they have disappeared, leaving only an old crone behind: “a fouler looking creature, I suppose, could scarcely be imagined,” Chaucer writes, but she tells Gawain that “We old, old women know a thing or two”—one of them being the answer to his question. What women want above all is “sovereignty.”
Hence Gawain is spared decapitation when he returns to a festive banquet at Arthur’s court, in the middle of which the Loathly Bride rides into court and demands that Gawain fulfill his promise of marrying her, which he does. And when they go to bed she is transformed by his kiss and given sovereignty when allowed to choose whether to be ugly by day, and beautiful by night, or vice versa. With the result that she is beautiful all the time, both night and day.
The fable clearly addresses two primary concerns of Jungian psychology: the reconciliation of opposites, and the redemption of the feminine. The opposites, as Heinrich Zimmer pointed out, are those of the beauty and terror of life and death, opposites which Jung associated with the loving and terrible mother archetype, who is both womb and tomb, nurturer and destroyer. For like Kali, she is both. To embrace the one, we need also to embrace the other—to submit to the totality of the goddess, in all her aspects.
In your journal remember a time when you confronted the terrible shadow of darkness, either within yourself or in others.
Evans Lansing ("Lans") Smith, Ph.D., received a B.A. in English from Williams College, an M.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch International (London and Dublin), and a Ph.D. in Literature from The Claremont Graduate School. He traveled with the late Joseph Campbell.More Posts by Lans Smith