The Riddle and the Hag

Tracing the "Loathly Lady" in Medieval Poetry

Given medieval poets' penchant for translation, retelling, and modification of earlier "source" materials, it is hardly surprising to find a set of works, spanning centuries, that seem strongly to be reflections of one another. Such a set is the body of works which can loosely be called the "Loathly Lady" poems, a set comprised primarily of four well-known examples, The Marriage of Sir Gawain, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, and Gower's Tale of Florent. All four follow a basic pattern, a "central archetype," featuring the common motif of the "Loathly Lady" who is released from an enchantment and becomes beautiful. Similarly, all four likely have a common origin. What makes these poems interesting is not so much their commonalities, but, rather, their points of divergence. Each poem, it seems, "tweaks" the central archetype to fulfill its particular purpose as a retelling of the common material; indeed to study the "Loathly Lady" poems as they appear in medieval literature is in itself a study in divergence, for, as shall be demonstrated, the "basic" plot itself represents a drastic divergence from the common origin.

The "central archetype" proceeds as follows: a hero, typically a knight or king, is confronted by a powerful challenger for the purpose of redressing a past wrong committed by the hero. The challenger would have the hero pay with his life, but agrees to spare him if he can answer a riddle, "What is it that women most want?" or some variant thereof, within an allotted amount of time. The hero then departs on his quest, seeking the one answer to the riddle but finding many. As the time of his fate draws near, the hero happens upon a "Loathly Lady," an ugly hag, in the forest, who offers to give him the answer to his riddle in exchange for marriage, to himself, or to his "double." The hero reluctantly agrees, and is given the answer "Women most desire to have their will," which satisfies the challenger, who begrudgingly spares the hero's life. The hero must then live up to his word and marry the "Loathly Lady." He is humiliated in front of his peers by the grotesquerie of his bride, and then, on the wedding night, must face the hideous task of consummating his marriage. Suddenly, he discovers his monstrous bride magically transformed into a lovely maiden, who asks him to choose between two options: to have her fair by day and foul by night, or vice versa. Ultimately, the hero yields the choice unto the bride, thus breaking the enchantment and winning himself a beautiful wife both by day and by night. The bride's identity is then revealed as the sister of the challenger, who formerly has been under enchantment imposed by a wicked stepmother. The marriage is consummated, and, in the morning, the happy couple is recognized by the hero's peers, who are overjoyed at the wife's transformation.

Several isolatable plot elements come into play in this story:
1)The Cause--the "previous wrong" the challenger wishes redressed
2)The First or Riddle-Challenge, riddle or death
3)The Second or Marriage-Challenge, answer for marriage
4)The Answer to the riddle
5)The Third Challenge--fair by day/foul by night, or its reverse
6)The Transformation
7)The Resolution--the hero's granting of the Lady her choice

Likewise, we can isolate a certain number of dramatis personae:
A) The Challenger
B) The Hero
C)The Lady
D) The Double (if utilized)
E)The Hero's Peers

Finally, a sequence of isolatable scenes bears mentioning:
I) Initial Challenge
II) Quest
III) Discovery--in which the hero meets the Lady
IV) Resolution of Initial Challenge
V) Humiliation of Hero
VI) Consummation
VII) Recognition by Peers

Combined, these sets of "criteria," plot elements, dramatis personae, and scenes make up the basic "Loathly Lady" tale, and provide the points of axis upon which turn the hinges of variation.

In discussing the variations, I will proceed chronologically, beginning with Gower's Tale of Florent, authored circa 1390, according to Garbaty (ME Lit., 972).1 Florent is fairly true to the archetype. It does not utilize the "double;" Florent himself is the hero challenged by both the riddle and the marriage. The "cause" is Florent's killing of Branchus in warfare, so, reasonably, the "challengers" are the parents of Branchus, although they do not themselves devise the challenge, but instead employ a "double" of the "Loathly Lady," in the form of Branchus' grandmother, "the slyheste/ Of alle that men knewe tho" (lines 47-8). The answer is given as "That alle wommen lievest wolde/ Be soverein of mannes love" (213-14), which is later shown to be in direct relation to the "resolution," in which Florent grants the Lady "sovereinete" over himself (line 452). Interestingly, the Lady remains nameless, revealed in the "consummation" scene to be unrelated to the house of Branchus, but rather the princess of "Cizile" (446), thus "sovereign" in a second sense. Scene V, "humiliation," is avoided altogether, as Florent "hides" his loathly bride in his castle before marriage, and Scene VII, "recognition," is replaced by Gower's moralizing at the end of the poem. The variations make sense when the poem is viewed as an exemplum "illustrating the various aspects and problems of courtly love" (Garbaty, ME Lit., 800); the hero's outcome is determined expressly by his being "true to his word" and Gower wishes to express this as a virtue. Thus it would be inappropriate for the hero to be "doubled" or for him to be "punished" unduly by "humiliation." Lastly, it is interesting to note that the Lady's "loathliness" is described primarily as an effect of age, rather than "ugliness."

Age is the only "loathliness" of Chaucer's "Loathly Lady" in The Wife of Bath's Tale as well. Published as part of the Canterbury Tales collection circa 1390 by a friend of Gower's (ibid., 800, 973), Wife of Bath probably influenced, or was influenced by, Gower's poem, though to what extent and in which direction is probably impossible to determine. The Wife of Bath's Tale, ostensibly told by an actual "Wife," represents a gynocentric "spin" on the "Loathly Lady" motif, and its variations from the archetype present themselves accordingly. The "cause" is the rape by the unnamed knight "hero" of a maiden, and, once again, we see the "challenger" (the king, "law") represented by a female proxy, in this case, Guenivere. The "riddle-challenge" is relatively straightforward, but the "answer" is importantly variant: "Wommen desire to have sovereinetee/ As wel over hir housbonde as hir love/ And for to been in maistrye him above" (lines 182-4). Furthermore, both "quest" and "consummation" scenes are complicated by the Wife's insertion into the tale paraphrases of various classical sources and extended arguments concerning the "value" of an older bride! The "humiliation" scene is intentionally "glossed" by the Wife: "Now wolden some men say, paraventure/ That for my necligence I do no cure/ To tellen you the joy and al th' array/ That at the feeste was that ilke day" (217-20). The third challenge ("day/night") is expressed in terms of "foul and old" (364) but "trewe" and "humble" (365) versus "yong and fair" (367) and all the possible cuckoldry that comes with it ("And take youre aventure of the repair" in line 368). There is no "explanation" of the transformation by the Wife; her "wif" character seems to simply be able to do it. We see no "recognition" scene, but, rather, like Gower's, it is replaced by a ribald sort of "moralizing" on the part of the fictional Wife, who prays for young husbands for women and curses niggards and men who won't be governed by their mates. The Wife's variations on the archetype serve the purpose of her Tale, to justify her existence as an "older woman" who has had several husbands and prefers younger men, a lifestyle undoubtedly condemnable medieval times, but refreshing to read (from, at least, a modern perspective) for its frank treatment of its topic in a literary period typically closed-minded toward women.

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell follows Chaucer chronologically as the third "Loathly Lady" poem in the "set." Composed circa 1450 (Garbaty, ME Lit., 972), the Wedding is the first of the four poems to employ the "doubling" of the hero and the second to cast the story into the realm of Arthuriana. Garbaty alternately classifies the poem as a "parody-burlesque" (ibid., xii) or as a "romance" ("Rhyme, Romance...", 293), but in either case the intent of the poem is clear: a send-up of the literary traditions of courtly love as exemplified by the "decline of the hero" (Garbaty, ME Lit., 418), in this case the great Arthur himself. Unlike its predecessors, the Wedding comments not upon the real world but upon the literary one, by casting into comedic light the familiar characters and situations of Arthurian romance. Garbaty suggests such a portrayal is reflective of the "post-Chaucer era of Fifteenth Century turmoil" ("Rhyme, Romance...", 296), through which the traditional courtly romance no longer satisfies the literary/storytelling expectations of its audience. In any case, the variations from the central archetype serve the poem's purpose as parody. If Arthur is himself to be parodied, for instance, he cannot then serve as the sympathetic "antihero" (ibid.) simultaneously; a stand-in must take his place. Gawain provides that stand- in as well as situational humor; the "Loathly Lady" is quite the opposite to the beautiful damsels who typically populate courtly romance as his potential "romantic interests." Ragnell's initial "loathliness" is expounded upon in great detail, and the "humiliation" scene is evident in full farce (pun intended), concluding with a disgusting display of the "Loathly Lady's" voracious appetite and poor table manners: "Ther was no mete cam her before,/ Butt she ete itt up lesse and more" until "they drewe clothes and had wasshen" (lines 6145-15 and 620, respectively). Clearly Ragnell is a "loathlier" Lady than Gower's princess or Chaucer's "wif." The "quest" scene, featuring the "book of answers," which will also appear in the derivative Marriage, Arthur's initial, somewhat cowardly response to the "challenge," and his willingness to see Gawain married off to such an unappealing wife all mark the king's portrayal as "ludicrous" (Garbaty, ME Lit., 418). Gawain, on the other hand, is parodied only in situation, not in character; his loyalty towards his friend and king allow him to shine through and ultimately claim the prize of a beautiful wife. In a surprising twist, the poem concludes, after the "recognition" (in which the king gets to lasciviously glimpse the now-beautiful Ragnell in her "smok" at line 742), with the "Loathly Lady's" death as a sort of post-script, although we are told of her husband "Therfor was neure woman to hym lever" (824). Gawain as true knight and husband, then, contrasts Arthur, the rediculous king.

Parody also informs The Marriage of Sir Gawain, an anonymous ballad composed in the late 15th Century (Garbaty, "Rhyme, Romance...", 292), a textual descendent of the Wedding (ibid., 297), taking the form a step further. While in the Wedding we see a parody of Arthur as king and a "decline of the hero," in the Marriage we find a parody of the entire tradition of courtly romance. The "Loathly Lady" reaches her "loathliest" point in this ballad, described as exceedingly ugly and mishappen, with one eye "there as shold hav stood her mouth," and so forth (line 57). Arthur exhibits extreme cowardice when confronted by the "challenger," agreeing to the "riddle-challenge" strictly as a means of saving his hide. The "marriage-challenge" is obliterated; Arthur freely offers the Lady Gawain's hand: "'Giv thou ease me, laydy,' he said,/ Or helpe me anything,/ Thou shalt have gentle Gawain, my cozen,/ And marry him with a ring" (151-4). As Garbaty suggests, Arthur is made even more despicable by not even bothering to consult his "cozen" concerning the betrothal (ME Lit., 508). Arthur's obedience to the courtly tradition of the chivalric hero "keeping his word" binds him to the riddle-quest, even as Gawain's obedience to the tradition of loyalty binds him to his arraigned marriage, but the ballad portrays both situations as absurd and archaic. Thus, both Arthur and Gawain are ridiculous figures. Gawain's character is further assassinated by the inclusion of a second "humiliation" scene, in which Sir Kay, upon meeting the lady, spends several stanzas expounding upon the undesirability of the prospect of marriage to her, even while she is present! Gawain is degenerated during the "consummation" as well, in which, at Stanza XLII, he at first gives the "standard male response" to the Lady's "day/night challenge." Only after she points out to him that to have her foul "when lords goe with ther feires" (163) would humiliate him even more does he give her her "will." Though large fragments are missing from the extant text, enough of the ballad remains to clearly demonstrate that its aim is to mock the courtly romance overall, an appropriate treatment of the subject matter for a "folk" ballad, created not for the edification of courtiers but for the amusement of the common people.

By the time these poems were composed, the "Loathly Lady" motif itself, the "central archetype," had already undergone serious revision as well. Most scholars follow Maynadier's conclusion that the motif originates in Irish folklore (Dalton, 124), although Notre Dame's Edward Vasta also draws parallels with the fertility myths of classical Greece, suggesting that the story is actually quite old indeed (Vasta, 396-7). Vasta reveals the "central archetype" of the Irish legend: "the Loathly Lady invites four or five brothers to lie with her, but only the hero, be it Lugaid or Nial, consents, and therefore the hero not only enjoys the transformed lady as a beautiful one-night's mate, she also reveals him to be the future ruler" (ibid., 397). Scholar G. F. Dalton expands on this ending by examining several extant texts of the Irish legends in question, translating the Lady's final statement (after transformation) as a declaration of "sovereignty" or "kingship" (Dalton, 125). We can see this legendary origin several aspects of the medieval version of the tale: the "doubling" of the hero (the several brothers), the transformation, and a symbolic "sovereignty" aspect (the Lady being given her "will"). This last is even maintained to the letter in Gower's version, in which the Lady is revealed to be a princess, and in both Chaucer and the Wedding, the term, if not the function, survives as the crux of the riddle's "answer."2 Vasta sees the medieval "reworking" of the "sovereignty" theme into the question of "women's will" as a positioning of the feminine in Bakhtinian "unofficial culture;" when she marries the knight, she becomes recognized by the "official" patriarchy (Vasta, 396). One thing is missing, however, from the origin archetype: the riddle. Garbaty identifies this as a separate motif, "The Riddle Asked and Answered" (ME Lit., 418), and its incorporation in the "Loathly Lady" storyline probably represents a "merging" of two disparate legendary origins. The riddle and the "challenger" represent a "questioning of Arthurian [or knightly] excellence" and draw kinship between the "Loathly Lady" poems and "testing" poems such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which "test the integrity of...personal honor, political justice, chivalric service of women, and charity," but in a humorous, often absurd fashion (Shepherd, 378). The poems generally seem to assume a "pre-awareness" on the part of the reader of the basic storyline, and, in the case of the Arthurian poems, of related Arthurian texts (romances) to derive some of their impact (ibid.), which tends to indicate that the motif was a very familiar one, and not the sole invention of some one specific poet. I would venture to speculate that the "Loathly Lady" and the "Riddle Asked and Answered" motifs probably merged as folktales at some point in the centuries prior to 1300, so that by the time the tale reached the ears of Chaucer and Gower, the two had become unified and inseparable. As we can see, the "Loathly Lady" story is truly best described in terms of "variations on a theme."

It's surprising how this story comes full circle. I would like to conclude, if I may, with a personal anecdote: I first encountered the "Loathly Lady" in some second-rate made-for-television version of the Arthurian legend when I was a youth. In the televised version, Gawain meets Ragnell while off on some unrelated quest, and despite her admittedly Victorian version of "loathliness," a slender, attractive body with an ugly face (she was portrayed, as I recall, as having a pig's nose!), she is able to assist him in his quest and even save his life. Consequently, he falls in love with her, and they are married, at which point she transforms, offers him the choice, and so forth. My point is that despite the ribald, parodic, burlesque nature of the story in general, this film was playing the subject as a "romance!" Just as each era has its Arthur, I suppose, so to, does each have its version of the "Loathly Lady," and the variations are probably endless!

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