Sir Gawain and the Loathsome Lady

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More than any other knight of King Arthur’s round table, Sir Gawain epitomized romance and chivalry. The tale of Sir Gawain and the Loathsome Lady is surprisingly modern in its wisdom and is worth a quick retelling here:

Once upon a time, long, long ago, King Arthur was riding with the Sir Gawain when they came to the rescue of a damsel in distress. To free the lady King Arthur fought a black knight with supernatural powers. And he lost. He was no match for the knight’s black magic. The black knight spared Arthur’s life only at the behest of the witch he served. The witch made a bargain with Arthur: “Answer this question or forfeit your life in a year. What do women want most?”

What do women want most? Sir Gawain and Arthur puzzled over the question as they returned to Camelot. Arthur and Gawain questioned the ladies at court, their maids, the women of neighboring towns, the countryside, and all the wisest people they could gather. Every one had a different answer: Money. Love. Power. Beauty. Wealth. Youth. Castles. Servants. Children. Great Sex. Thin thighs. Pierce Brosnan.

The year passed without bringing Arthur any closer to answering the riddle. And so it was with heavy heart that Arthur and Gawain returned to meet death at the castle of the black knight, one year after the riddle was posed. Along their journey a repulsive old hag stepped into their path and wouldn’t let them pass. This loathsome lady was the most revolting creature either had ever seen: she farted and belched; she had a face spotted with hairy moles, broken brown teeth, bloodshot watery eyes, matted, greasy hair that had never been washed, and she had a short and twisted body with lumps and bulges in alarming places. She reeked.

“I have the answer you seek,” she hissed.

“Who are you?” Gawain queried, “What answer?”

“What women want. I am Ragnell, and I will save the king’s life for a price.”

“If your answer is true, you can have anything you wish,” Arthur promised.

“Women want sovereignty over themselves. They want to make their own decisions,” Ragnell snorted. “And my price is marriage to a knight of your court!”

Arthur sickened by this trick. To marry one of his men to this hideous thing! But he was caught in his promise.

“I’ll marry you,” said Gawain. “If Arthur lives, you will be my bride.”

Of course Arthur lived. The answer was true. Gawain, true to his word, married the foul Ragnell. The wedding party watched with horror as all through the wedding feast the bride belched, scratched, drooled, and cackled. She told raunchy stories that would make a lecher blush. Everyone pitied poor Gawain.

Poor, gallant Gawain climbed the steps to his wedding chamber to consummate the marriage from hell. He shuddered to contemplate touching, much less coupling, with this monstrous woman. And there she was, leering at his as he entered the room. “Embrace me, husband!”

And Gawain, ever true to his word, took the bride into his arms. He discovered he was holding a gloriously beautiful young woman. She had silky hair and creamy complexion. Her body was lithe and her eyes sparkled at him with adoration.

“Who are you?” Gawain asked as he glanced around the room for his wife.

“I am your wife,” she smiled. “I was cursed to be as you knew me until I could win a true knight in marriage. You can have me as I am either by night or by day, but I must return to my hag form at those other times. Do you prefer me as I am at night, when I am in your arms? Or do you choose me to be beautiful by day, when I will be seen by your friends?”

Gawain thought for a long time. At last he replied, “”This is your life. This should be your choice. You decide.”

And in that moment the spell was broken. His gift of choice granted her complete freedom from the curse and the return of her natural beauty.

The Lady Ragnell is, of course, is the goddess herself. Gawain surrenders to his goddess three times in this story: he volunteers to marry her as crone, he accepts her terrifying embrace as wife, and he acquiesces to her decision as maiden.

The goddess shows her crone face in our lives as those ugly or terrifying events that we wish to reject. Crises in wealth, health, happiness and home are how we experience the crone’s gifts.

How do you respond to the crone’s call?

You can hide and let her pursue you. Or you can surrender to her embrace and discover the opportunity she has disguised. The gift may take a long time to reveal itself. Ragnell tested Gawain several times before she revealed her reward.

At the heart of every challenge is that loving choice your soul made, when you knew your oneness with the divine, to play this game of life and recognize the Lady in every aspect.

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