Wednesday 12 December 2018

Live-blogging The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnall

The Silent Titans Kickstarter is the reason I am trying to do a December of Blogs. Link is over there on the right.


Hinter Dem Glas wanted me to Liveblog a Chivalric Romance.

I've done stuff like this before. I talk about Malory here, Gawain and the Green Knight here, and Spensers The Faerie Queen here.

So here is The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnall' from Louis B. Halls 'The Knightly Tales of Sir Gawain'.

These stories are taken from popular verse intended to be performed my minstrels for ordinary people, so this is the common, direct and explicitly version of the extremely 'literary', ambiguous and courtly Gawain and the Green Knight.

Hall chose to translate the verse into prose as that's our 'common form', as usual, I think doing this was a mistake. Here's the first few lines with modernised spelling and roughly phonosymmetrical replacement words;

"Lythe and listeneth the life of a lord rich,
The while that he lived was none him like,
Neither in bower nor in hall.
In the time of Arthur this adventure betyd,
And of the great adventure that he himself did,
That king curtious and royal.
Of all kings Arthur beareth the flower,
And of all knighthood he bears away the honour,
Wheresoever he went.
In his country was nothing but chivalry,
And knights were beloved [by] that doughty,
For cowards were evermore shent."

And here is the prose version;

"Listen and hear the life of a great lord, who, while he lived had no equal in cottage or in castle. This event took place in the time of Arthur, that king, courtly and royal, and is about one of his great adventures. Wherever he went, of all kings, Arthur bears the flower; of all knights, he bears the honour. The whole country was chivalrous in those days. All knights were valiant, and cowards were forever disgraced."

We start with the King out hunting;

"The King was aware that a great and beautiful hart was moving towards him, but in the underbrush the hart heard the hounds an stayed completely hidden.

"Everyone hold still!" said the King, knowing what was going on. "I will go myself, and stalk that buck, if I can."

So this is already a much more knowing, capable, independent and brave Arthur than you get in a lot of stories. And he is about to be lead away from his people and into adventure by following the deer. I've lost count of the number of times that this has happened in a chivalric story and its an interesting problem of telling adventure stories about powerful individuals in a world where being powerful very much means having a bunch of people around you almost all of the time.

In modern child adventure stories the parents have to die or be incompetent but lots of powerful people can wander relatively alone in the world. Maybe not the president or the pope but quite a few.

Arthur catches his deer, kills it and begins to butcher it.

But oh crap there is a guy there and it is a guy that hates Arthur especially;

"We are well met, King Arthur. You have done me wrong for many years, but now I shall repay you, unhappily for you. I believe the days of your life are nearly over. You gave my lands to Sir Gawain. What do you say about that, King, here all alone?"

This is the magnificently named "Sir Gromer Somer Joure".

From Hall; "Gromer Somer Joure's name can be translated, if not satisfactorily explained. "Gromer" is cognate to the old Norse _gromr_ and Middle English _grom_, an infant, boy youth, servant. _Somer Joure_ suggests 'summer day' in English and French, but where this combination of three languages came from or why, we do not know."

Arthur points out to Sir Joure that if he kills him now, unarmed and in "only forest green" then he will lose a huge amount of honour and knights everywhere will refuse him.

"All these arguments are not going to help you any, for I wish neither gold nor land. But you will promise to meet me on a certain day that I shall set, and in this same array.

'Yes', said the King, 'here is my hand.'

'True, but wait a minute, King, and hear me. First you shall swear on my bright sword to tell me, when you arrive here, what it is that women love best, whether they are country girls or city girls. You shall meet me here personally, this day twelfth month. And you shall swear on my good sword that none of your knights shall come with you, by the Cross, neither friend nor foe. But if you do not bring an answer, no question but you shall lose your head for your effort. That is what you are going to have to swear to. What do you say now, king? Lets see! let's finish this business."

Arthur promises he will do this, which we know he will because he's King Arthur.

This is interesting, we have the 'return in a year and a day' quest, and the quest is for an answer to an impossible, or just really particular, question, and one relating to gender.

The King blows his horn to call his guys. Then goes home. He doesn't tell anyone about his weird quest and his depression troubles his crew.

"At last Sir Gawain came to the King and said:

'Sir, I have been wondering seriously what has made you so sorrowful.'"

Ever courteous Gawain as usual. Arthur confesses his oath and instantly:

"'Sir, cheer up. Let us make your horse ready and ride off into far-away lands, and everywhere we meet either men or women, in faith you will ask them what they think women most desire. I shall ride another way and inquire of every man and woman the same way. I shall get as many answers as I can, and I shall write them in a book.'"

This is pretty topping practical advice and its exactly what they do. Gawain and Arthur ride around for a year asking women what they most desire and writing them down in two big books;

"Some said they loved to be well dressed, some said they loved to be flattered, some said they loved a lusty man who, in their arms, could kiss and make love to them. In short, some said one thing, some another."

They both get together near the end of the period and examine each others books;

"'We cannot fail this way,' said Gawain.

'By God I am still afraid,' said the King." He wants to ride out to the forest and inquire there.

"'Do as you wish,' said Gawain. "'Whatever you do, I agree to it willingly. Have no doubts, my lord you will succeed. At least some of the answers will help you when you need them. Otherwise it would be bad luck indeed.'"

Gawain in this story is just the most supportive bro-friend ever.

Arthur rides out and quickly encounters a Mysterious Woman;

".. a lady carrying a lute over her back, as ugly a creature as anyone ever saw. Her face was red, her nose snotted, her mouth wide, her teeth yellow, her eye rheumy, her teeth hung over her lips, and her cheeks were as fat as a womans hips. Her neck was long and thick, her hair clotted and snarled. her shoulders were a yard broad, and her breasts were a load for a strong horse. No tongue can adequately describe how foul she was, but she was ugly enough, and Arthur was dumbfounded."

This lady rides right up to Arthur and drops this immediately;

"Speak with me, I advise you, before you go on, for your life is in my hands, let me warn you, You will find that out, if I do not prevent you losing it."

And she does indeed know exactly what he seeks and claims to have the exact answer he needs to survive his encounter.

Her deal is that if the gives Arthur this answer, and it saves his life, he must give her Gawain as a husband.

"'Mary', said the King, 'I cannot promise you Sir Gawain as a husband. That depends only on him. But if what you say is true, then in addition to saving my life I will do my utmost to make the wedding come about.'

'Well,' said she, 'now go home again and speak convincingly to Sir Gawain, for I can save your life. Even though I am ugly, yet I am full of life, and through me he can save your life or ensure your death."

The King is ambivalent about this; "'So ugly a woman as you are I never saw during my life in all the world. I do not know what I can do.'

'No matter, Sir King. Though I am foul, even an owl can choose a mate. You will not get any more out of me."

This Ladys name; "Sir King, I am called Dame Ragnell; in truth I never yet fooled a man."

And she has all the best lines.

Arthur returns to the castle and meets Gawain who asks him what has gone on;

"'Gawain, today I met the ugliest woman that I ever saw. She said she would save my life, but first she would have you as her husband. This is the reason I am woe begone and my heart is heavy."

"'Is that all?' Gawain asked. 'I shall wed her and wed her again even if she is a fiend and as foul as Beelzebub. By the Cross, I will wed her or no longer count me as a friend, for you are my king and you have honoured me in many a battle. Therefore I shall not refuse. It is my obligation to save your life, my lord, or else I were false to you and a great coward. And in this way my honour is increased."

The King returns to Dame Ragnell and tells her Gawain has OK'd the marriage. She then delivers the secret;

"'Now you shall know what all women, high class and low, desire most, and I am not going to vary the truth. Some people say we want to keep company with many different men, or that we want to have passion in bed, or we want to marry often. But you people really don't know. We desire something else. you men say women want to be considered not old but fresh and young so with flattery and wit and caresses you can have what you want from us. That idea is pretty good, I can't lie about that.

But now you shall know. We desire above everything else to have power over men, bith high and low. When we have power, everything else is ours, even though a knight may be the most fierce of all and always wins the tourneys. our desire is to have sovereignty over the most many of men. This is the end of all out skill and learning."

The King rides off to his meeting with the strangely named knight. He starts by showing him his book;

"Sir Gromer looked at each one of them.

No, no, Sir King, You are a dead man. Now you shall bleed.'"

But then Arthur pulls out his secret answer.

"And she who told you now, Sir Arthur, I pray God to see her burn in fire, for that was my sister Dame Ragnell, that old Scot. May God shame her. Otherwise I would have tamed you.
Now I know that you will be my enemy, and that is a sad song for me. The words of my music shall be, 'Fare-well forever.'"

But Arthur reassures him that he definitely won't have him killed; "You shall never find me in such a plight as this again, and if you do, I deserve to be bound and beaten. I have armour for my defence that I promised to God. That you may well believe."

Arthurs danger is over, but now Gawain has to marry Ragnall. I quite like the slipped structure of this story.

Arthur and Ragnell ride to his castle.

"As they rode along, the King was ashamed of her, but she, ignoring his embarrassment, just rode along until they came to Carlisle. When they went into the castle she rode right beside him, and for no-one would she change her position. The king was no pleased about this and wondered where such a foul horrible creature came from. The people of the court had never seen so ugly a person."

Gawain is typically forward and is ready to marry immediately;

"'God have mercy,' said Dame Ragnell, 'for your sake I wish I were a beautiful woman, for you have such good will."

We get another brief ugliness list; "She had only two teeth like boar tusks the length of a hand on two sides of her mouth. one tusk went up and the other down. her mouth was enormously wide and was surrounded with many gray hairs. her lips hung over her chin."

Ragnell refuses a secret or discrete marriage and insists on the full public do. She dresses in enormous luxury and eats like a monster;

"When the service came before her, she ate as much as any six that were there. Her nails were three inches long and she tore her food apart with them, eating all by herself. She finished three capons, three curlews, several huge baked dishes, by God. ...  She continued eating right to the finish of the meal until the servants took the tablecloth away."

Now married, Gawain has to take the lady to the wedding bed;

"'Ah, Sir Gawain,' Dame Ragnell said, 'since I have married you, now show me your courtesy in bed. This right cannot be denied. Truly, if I were beautiful, you would have acted differently. You would not have bothered to worry if we were married or not. So, for Arthur's sake, at least give me a kiss. I ask you to do this anyway. Let us see how well you kiss.'

'I will do more than kiss you,' Gawain said, 'and before God.' He turned toward her and saw beside him the most beautiful women he had ever imagined with no exceptions.'

Well. Gawains bordering on insane absolute commitment to doing the right thing imediately and with total enthusiasm finally pays off.

"'Oh Jesus,' he said, 'what are you?'

'I am your wife, surely. Why are you being so unnatural?'"

She tells him that she is magic and that he has to make a choice. He can have her hotness at night, privately, in which case she will be ugly during the day. Or he can have her hot in the day but she will be ugly at night.

"'Alas,' said Sir Gawain, 'the choice is hard. To choose what is best is difficult. To have you fair at nigh and no more would grieve me deeply, for I would lose my honour and respect. To have you fair during the day but ugly at night, then I would lose my pleasure. Although I would be glad to choose best, still I do not know what in the world I can say. So do as you wish my lady dead. The choice I put in your hands. Do with me as you wish, for I am bound to you, I give the choice to you. Both my body and my goods, my heart and all parts of me are all yours, to buy and sell - that i swear to God.'"

And this, it seems, was exactly the right response. Ragnalls curse lasts only until the best man in England gives her sovereignty over his body and goods, which Gawain has just done.

Then they bone loads.

"There they both had joy unimaginable as was right and natural, both of them alone.
They had all kinds of pleasure in their chamber and thanked our Saviour for it. I can tell you truthfully, they stayed awake until dawn with their joy and play and then the beautiful girl wanted to arise.

'You shall not,' said Sir Gawain. 'We will lie and sleep late this morning, and then let the King call us to dine.'

'I'd like that, said the girl, and so the time passed until midday."

And there is your happy ending.

"May God thank him for his courtesy" she said. "He saved me from ill fortune and a degradation that was foul and grim. Therefore, courteous knight and noble Gawain, I shall certainly never anger you. I make that promise here. And I will be obedient all the days of my life, and God above, I guarantee never to argue with you."

They have a kid, live together for five years in great happiness, and then Ragnell dies, perhaps so the Gawain character can keep having adventures.

Then we get this strange coda;

"Now God, as Thou was born in Bethlehem, never allow their souls to burn in the fire of Hell. And Jesus, as Thou was born of a virgin, help him out of his sorrows who wrote this story, for he is in the hands of many jailers who keep him securely with torture wrong and awful. Now God, as Thou art the true royal King, help him out of danger for a long time. And give thy servant pity, and i yield my body and soul into Thy hand, because his pains are severe. Here ends the wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, because she helped King Arthur."

And that was a very strange, very good short story. I enjoyed the complex gendered power exchanges that Chivalric fiction does so well. Its interesting that maybe a lot of people in prisons were writing knight stories.

I like Dame Ragnell and her wit and boldness and I like Gawain in this and his ridiculous Superman deal, and I even like Arthur and even the villain with the strange name. And surprisingly for a chivalric story, things even pretty much make sense at the end.


  1. This is extremely my jam.

    Yes, prose was a mistake, like, culturally.

    The names are interesting. Sir Gomer Somer Joure sounds like he should feature in nursery rhymes.
    Gawain is great as always, and in my mind him riding around and conducting a representative study for a year really overshadows his more standard super-chivalricness later.

    The gender dynamics stuff in there is complicated and maybe a logic riddle within the riddle and I will probably think about it too much in the back of my mind. Ragnell's promise in the end (though pretty standard agreement between a weird magic chick and a knightly dude) almost feels like it's trying to pull a blanket over that dynamic.

    very good coda: "I'm in constant pain and this is a cry for help! The End."


  2. I would guess the knight's apparently random-generated name is a hint to his Fairy nature (as he is Ragnelle's brother; the fact that he's only encountered alone in the forest might be another hint). This is definitely a great story for trying to grapple with late medieval feelings about marriage, sex and gender relations. Outside the famous few Romances there's a lifetime of reading to be done.