Category Archives: Arthurian

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (751-855)

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And what was the cause for her transformation
Sir Gawain told the king both this and more.
“I thank God,” said the queen;
“I feared, sir Gawain, that she would have harmed you;
Therefore in my heart I was so grieved.
But the contrary is here seen!”
There was game, revel, and play,
And every man to other would say,
“She is a fair sight.”
Then the king to them all began to tell
How did dame Ragnell help him at his need,
“Or my death would had been certain.”

Then the king told the queen, by the Cross,
How he was set upon in Inglewood
By sir Gromer Somer Joure,
And what else the knight made him swear,
“Or else he would have slain me right there
Without mercy or measure.
This same lady, dame Ragnell,
From my death delivered me right well,
All for the love of Gawain.”
Then Gawain told the king all together
How she had been transformed by her stepmother
Until a knight had helped her again.
Then she told the king fairly and well
How Gawain gave her sovereignty over every matter,
And what choice she gave to him.
“God thank him of his courtesy;
He saved me from such fate and villainy
That was so foul and grim.
Therefore, courteous knight and gracious Gawain,
I shall never anger for certain,
That promise here and now I make.
While I live I shall be obedient;
To God above I shall this swear,
And never with you to argue.”

“Many thanks, lady,” then said Gawain;
“With you I shall be me very much content
And that I trust to find.”
He said, “My love she shall have.
Thereafter she need never more crave,
For she has been to me so kind.”
The Queen said, and the ladies all,
“She is the fairest now in this hall,
I swear by saint John!
My love, lady, you shall have forever
For you have saved my lord Arthur,
As I am a gentlewoman.”

Sir Gawain begot with her Gyngolyn,

Who was a good knight of great strength and ability
Of the Round Table.
At every great feast that lady should be.
Of beauty she bore the flower,
Where she trod on the ground.
Gawain loved that lady, dame Ragnell;
In all his life he loved none other so much,
I tell you without a doubt.
Like a coward he lay by her both day and night.
He would not haunt or joust at all;
On that marvelled Arthur the king.

She pleaded the king for his gentleness,
“To be good lord to sir Gromer, indeed,
Although he has offended you.”
“Yes, lady, that I shall now for your sake,
For I know well he cannot make amends;
For what he did to me.”
Now so as to make for you a short conclusion,
I shall make an end very soon
For this gentle lady.
She lived with sir Gawain only five years;
That grieved Gawain all his life,
I tell you certainly.

In her life she never grieved him;
Therefore never was woman to him more dear.
Thus ends my story.
She was the fairest lady of all England,
When she was living, I understand;
So said Arthur the king.
Thus ended the adventure of king Arthur,
That oft in his days was grieved,
And of the wedding of Gawain.
Gawain was wed oft in his days;
But so well he never loved a woman again,
As I have heard men say.

This adventure happened in Inglewood,
As good king Arthur to hunt he went;
Thus have I heard men tell.
Now God, as thou were in Bethlehem born,
Suffer never our souls to be forlorn
In the burning fire of Hell!

And, Jesus, as thou were born of a virgin,
Help him that this tale did divine out of sorrow,
And that now in all haste,
For he is beset by many jailors
That keep him very surely,
With wills wrong and hard.
Now God, as thou art truly Royal King,
Deliver him out of danger that made this tale
For therein he has been too long.

And with great pity help thy servant,
For body and soul I yield into your hand,
For pains he hath great.

Here ended the wedding of
Sir Gawain and dame Ragnell
Who helped king Arthur.

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (630-750)

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“Ah, sir Gawain, since I have wed you,

Show me your courtesy in bed;

Such a  right is mine and cannot be denied.

 

“Indeed, sir Gawain,” said that lady,

“If I were fair you would sing another tune,

But of marriage you have no respect.

Yet for Arthur’s sake kiss me at least;

I pray you do this at my request.

Let’s see you now.”

Sir Gawain said, “I will do more

Than just to kiss you, so help me God!”

He turned to her at last.

He saw her be the fairest creature

That ever he saw, with no compare.

She said, “What is your will?”

 

“By Christ”!” he said; “What are you?”
“Sir, I am your wife, surely.

Why are you so unkind?”

“Oh, lady, I am to blame.

I beg your mercy, my fair madam-

I hadn’t realised.

A lady you are most beautiful to me,

And but today you were the foulest creature

That I ever saw in my eyes.

Happy I am, my lady, to have you thus”-

And he embraced her in his arms and began to kiss her

And was very happy indeed.

 

“Sir,” said she, “thus you shall have me:

Choose one, so God save me,

My beauty will not hold-

Whether you will have me fair on nights

And as foul on days to all men’s sight,

Or else to have me fair on days

And on nights the foulest wife-

Only one you may have.

Choose one or the other.

Choose now, sir knight, which you prefer,

Your honour to preserve.”

 

“Alas!” said Gawain; “The choice is hard.

To choose the best, it is impossible,

Whichever choice I choose:

To have you fair on nights and no more,

That would grieve my heart,

And I would lose my honour.

And if I desire on days to have you fair,

Then on the nights I’d have slim pickings.

However would I choose the best:

I know not at all what I should say,

But do as you will now, my happy lady.

The choice I put in your hand:

 

“Whatever you will is,

Loose me as you desire, for I am bound;

I put the choice in you.

Both my body and my goods, heart and everything,

Is all your own, to keep or sell-

That I swear to God!”

“Many thanks, courteous knight,” said the lady;

“of all earthly knights thou are most blessed,

For now I am honoured.

Thou shall have me fair both day and knight

And ever as I live I will be fair and bright;

Therefore be not grieved.

 

“For I had by transformed by magic,

By my stepmother, God have mercy on her,

And lay under enchantment;

From my true form,

Until the best of England

Had married me in truth,

And also that he should give me sovereignty

Of all his body and goods for certain.

Thus I was transformed;

And you, sir knight, courteous Gawain,

Have given me sovereignty certainly,

And never shall you be sorry for that.

 

“Kiss me, sir knight, now;

I pray thee, be glad and make good cheer,

For all has turned out well.”

Then they had joy beyond imagination,

The way a couple does

When they are alone.

She thanked God and mild Mary

She was rescued of what had befallen her;

So did sir Gawain.

He made mirth in her chamber

And thanked Our Saviour,

I tell you, for certain.

 

With joy and mirth they stayed awake till morn

And then the fair maid began to rise.

“You shall not,” said sir Gawain;

“We will lay and sleep till noon

And then let the king call us to dinner.”

“I agree,” then said the maid.

Thus the time passed until midday.

“Sirs,” said the king, “let us go and discover

If sir Gawain is still alive.

I am truly afraid for sir Gawain,

Afraid that the fiend has him slain;

Now would I find the truth.

 

“Let us go now,” said Arthur the king.

“We will go witness their rising,

How well has he faired.”

They came to the chamber, all uncertain.

“Arise,” said the king to sir Gawain;

“Why do you stay so long in bed?”

“By Mary,” said Gawain, “sir king, surely,

I would be glad, and you should let me be,

For I am quite happy here.

Abide, you shall see the door opened!

I trust you will say I am quite fortune;

I truly do not wish to rise.”

 

Sir Gawain rose, and by the hand he took

His lady fair, and to the door he went,

And opened the door wide.

She stood in her smock by the fire;

Her hair came to her knees as red as gold wire.

“Lo, this is my pleasure!

Lo!” said Gawain unto Arthur-

“Sir, this is my wide, dame Ragnell,

That once saved your life.”

He told then to the king and queen

How suddenly her shape had changed-

“My lord, now by your leave”-

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (563-629)

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So it happened after but a day

That that foul bird should be married

To sir Gawain.

The day had come that’d be the day;

Therefore the ladies felt great sorrow.

“Alas!” they said again.

The queen pleaded with dame Ragnell –

“To be married early in the morning,

As privately as you may.”

“No!” she said; “By Heavens’ King,

That I will never do, for nothing,

That you can say.

 

“I will be wedded publicly,

For I have made such a covenant with the king.

Doubt not,

I will not go to church until the time of High Mass

And in the open hall I will dine,

Amidst all the court.”

“I am grieved,” said dame Guinevere;

“For I think it would be more honour

And a pleasure to you.”

“Yes, as for that, lady, God save you.

This day my pleasure I shall have,

I tell you that without a boast.”

 

She was prepared to go to church

And all the nobles were there,

I do not lie,

She was dressed in the richest manner,

More finely than dame Guinevere;

Her clothes were worth three thousand marks

Good red gold at that,

So richly she was dressed.

But for all her appearance, she was still

The ugliest, that ever I have told of –

An uglier sow man has never seen.

 

For to be brief,

When she was wed, they hurried them home;

They all went to meet.

This bird-like lady sat at the high dais;

She was most foul and not courteous,

So said all that were present.

When the servants came before her,

She ate as much as six men;

Amazing everyone.

Her nails were three inches long,

With which she broke her meat hideously;

Therefore she ate alone.

 

She ate three roosters, and also three curlews,
And a great many meat pies she ate up, in truth.
All men therefore had marvelled.
There was no meat that came before her
But she ate it up,
That ugly, old damsel.
Everyone that ever saw her
Prayed the devil would gnaw her bones,
Both knight and squire.
So she ate until the meat was done,
Until they drew clothes and had washed,
As is the custom and manner.

Many men would speak of diverse foods;
I trust you may know enough of what there was,
Both of domestic and wild beasts.
In king Arthour’s court there was no want
For what might be captured by man’s hand,
Either in forest or in field.
There were minstrels from various countries.

[The manuscript is here missing one leaf, containing
about seventy lines; the narrative continues
at the moment of Ragnelle’s and Gawain’s wedding night.]

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (444-562)

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In the evening he met there with Sir Gromer,

And he spoke to the king stern words:

“Come now, Sir King, now let’s see

Of thine answer, what it shall be,

For I am ready for thee.”

The King pulled out the two books:

“Sir, there is mine answer, I dare say;

For some will help at need.”

Sir Gromer looked on every one of them:

“No, no, Sir King, you are a dead man;

Therefore now you shall bleed.”

 

“Abide, Sire Gromer,” said King Arthur,

“I have one answer that shall make all certain.”

“Let’s see,” said then Sir Gromer,

“Or else, so God help me, as I say to thee,

Thy death thou shall have as recompense,

I tell thee now for sure.”

“Now,” said the King,  “I see, as I guessed,

In thee there is but little gentleness,

By God may I be aided.

Here is our answer, and that is all

That women desire most of all,

Both free and wed:

 

“I say no more, but above all else

Women desire sovereignty, for that is what they like.

And that is what they most desire,

To  have under their rule the manliest men,

And then they are well. Thus they taught me

To rule thee, Gromer, sire.”

“And she that revealed this to you, Sir Arthur,

I pray to God, I may see her burnt on a fire;

For that was my sister, Dame Ragnell,

That old hag, God give her shame.

Else I would have succeeded;

Now I have wasted all my work.

 

“Go where you will, King Arthur,

For of me you may always be sure.

Alas, that ever I saw this day!

Now, well I know, my enemy thou will be.

And such a predicament I shall never get thee;

My song may be ‘Well-away!’”

“No,” said the King, “that I guarantee:

Some weapon I will have to defend myself with,

That I swear to God!

In such a plight thou shall never find me;

And if thou do, let me be beat and bound,

As is for thy best proof.”

 

“Now have good day,” said Sir Gromer.

“Farewell,” said Sir Arthur; “so may I thrive,

I am glad to have beaten you.”

King Arthur turned his horse into the plain,

And soon he met with Dame Ragnell again,

In the same place and steed.

“Sir King, I am glad you have fared well.

I said how it would be, in every detail;

Now keep what you have promised:

Since I have saved your life, and none other,

Gawain must marry me, Sir Arthur,

Who is a very gentle knight.”

 

“No, Lady; what I have promised you I shall not deny.

If you follow my council, keeping quiet,

Your wish you shall have.”

“No, Sir King, I will not do so;

Either I shall be wed publicly, or I will leave

Or else I would be shamed.

Ride ahead, I will come following,

Unto your court, Sir King Arthur.

Of no man I will be the shame;

Remember how I have saved your life.

Therefore you shall not argue with me,

For if you do, you’ll be to blame.”

 

The King was very ashamed of her,

But she rode forth, though he was grieved;

Until they came to Carlisle.

Into the court she rode by his side;

For she would spare no man’s feelings-

The King did not like that at all.

All the country was full of wonder

From whence she came, that foul creature;

They had never seen so foul a thing.

Straight into the hall she went.

“Arthur, King, have Sir Gawain fetched for me,

Before the knights, all in presence,

 

That I may be secured.

In happiness and woe bind us together

Before all your knights.

This is your promise; let’s see, have done.

Bring forth Sir Gawain, my love, immediately,

For a longer wait I can stand no more.”

Then came forth the knight Sir Gawain:

“Sir, I am ready for what I have promised,

All oaths to fullfill.”

“God-a-mercy!” said Dame Ragnell then;

“For thy sake I wish I were a fair woman,

For thou art so good-willed.”

 

Then Sir Gawain pledged himself to her

In happiness and woe, as he was a true knight;

Then was Dame Ragnell happy.

“Allas!” then said Dame Guinevere;

So said all the ladies in her bower,

And wept for Sir Gawain.

“Allas!” then said both King and knight,

That ever should he wed such a creature,

She was so foul and horrid.

She had two teeth on either side

As a boar’s tusks, I will not hide,

A large handful in length.

 

The one tusk went up and the other down.

A mouth very wide and foully formed,

With many grey hair.

Her lips lay like lumps on her chin;

A neck, forsooth, on her could not be seen-

She was a loathly one!

She would not be wedded in no manner

But unless it was made known in all the land,

Both in town and in borrow.

All the ladies of the land,

She called to come to hand

To make the wedding properly done.

In which obscure hints are the worst kind of sequel-begging

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Sequel-begging: a term usually used (yes, I did that on purpose) to describe hints, throwaway lines or scenes in a movie whose only purpose is to entice the studio into making a sequel or the audience into demanding one. They’re everywhere these days, done with various degrees of success. However, one of the most tantalising (and curiously underused) hints are those regarding Arthur’s return. We all know the drill: Arthur’s demise in Camlann (or Salisbury or wherever the author puts it) may or may not be permanent. According to some variations of the legend he shall rise again (in a manner similar to Cthulu I suspect…) for purposes undetermined at a time undefined.

 

It should be an author’s/scriptwriter’s dream come true! And yet, the only reincarnation/second coming story I am aware of is Meg Cabot’s Avalon High. Why is that? I’d say it’s the intimidation of having to handle characters with such complicated and often contradicting backstories, characters that are, even within their own world, larger than life. Except it can’t be that considering the amount of adaptations, reimagining, differing interpretations and what have you that the Arthurian legends face. And know, I am not complaining. That is how a legend remains relevant: by being reimagined.

 

Or is it that taking these characters and these stories would not be able to retain their special something if they were placed at another time period? Well, I had a lot of fun once assigning the role of the Star Wars movies to Arthurian characters, so I will just say that if the original material is respected and understood, then heck! Go nuts on the adaptation! Nobody said exactly where/when Arthur will return…

 

Of course it could be that the reason a second-coming story is not often told is exactly because so few hints are given about it. Reincarnation stories always run the risk of simply being a repetition of the original in a different setting. Balancing the line between tribute to the old and introduction of new material is hard at the best and having come across fanfics dealing with this sort of trope very, very well but also very, very, very badly I’ve learnt to be weary.

 

All I’ll say is, I’d love to read a second-coming story (or see it in movie form, I’m not picky). I also wish someone would explain to me why is it that nobody back then seems to have written on the subject….

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (360-443)

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In the evening he met there with Sir Gromer,

And he spoke to the king stern words:

“Come now, Sir King, now let’s see

Of thine answer, what it shall be,

For I am ready for thee.”

The King pulled out the two books:

“Sir, there is mine answer, I dare say;

For some will help at need.”

Sir Gromer looked on every one of them:

“No, no, Sir King, you are a dead man;

Therefore now you shall bleed.”

 

“Abide, Sire Gromer,” said King Arthur,

“I have one answer that shall make all certain.”

“Let’s see,” said then Sir Gromer,

“Or else, so God help me, as I say to thee,

Thy death thou shall have as recompense,

I tell thee now for sure.”

“Now,” said the King,  “I see, as I guessed,

In thee there is but little gentleness,

By God may I be aided.

Here is our answer, and that is all

That women desire most of all,

Both free and wed:

 

“I say no more, but above all else

Women desire sovereignty, for that is what they like.

And that is what they most desire,

To  have under their rule the manliest men,

And then they are well. Thus they taught me

To rule thee, Gromer, sire.”

“And she that revealed this to you, Sir Arthur,

I pray to God, I may see her burnt on a fire;

For that was my sister, Dame Ragnell,

That old hag, God give her shame.

Else I would have succeeded;

Now I have wasted all my work.

 

“Go where you will, King Arthur,

For of me you may always be sure.

Alas, that ever I saw this day!

Now, well I know, my enemy thou will be.

And such a predicament I shall never get thee;

My song may be ‘Well-away!’”

“No,” said the King, “that I guarantee:

Some weapon I will have to defend myself with,

That I swear to God!

In such a plight thou shall never find me;

And if thou do, let me be beat and bound,

As is for thy best proof.”

 

“Now have good day,” said Sir Gromer.

“Farewell,” said Sir Arthur; “so may I thrive,

I am glad to have beaten you.”

King Arthur turned his horse into the plain,

And soon he met with Dame Ragnell again,

In the same place and steed.

“Sir King, I am glad you have fared well.

I said how it would be, in every detail;

Now keep what you have promised:

Since I have saved your life, and none other,

Gawain must marry me, Sir Arthur,

Who is a very gentle knight.”

 

“No, Lady; what I have promised you I shall not deny.

If you follow my council, keeping quiet,

Your wish you shall have.”

“No, Sir King, I will not do so;

Either I shall be wed publicly, or I will leave

Or else I would be shamed.

Ride ahead, I will come following,

Unto your court, Sir King Arthur.

Of no man I will be the shame;

Remember how I have saved your life.

Therefore you shall not argue with me,

For if you do, you’ll be to blame.”

 

The King was very ashamed of her,

But she rode forth, though he was grieved;

Until they came to Carlisle.

Into the court she rode by his side;

For she would spare no man’s feelings-

The King did not like that at all.

All the country was full of wonder

From whence she came, that foul creature;

They had never seen so foul a thing.

Straight into the hall she went.

“Arthur, King, have Sir Gawain fetched for me,

Before the knights, all in presence,

 

That I may be secured.

In happiness and woe bind us together

Before all your knights.

This is your promise; let’s see, have done.

Bring forth Sir Gawain, my love, immediately,

For a longer wait I can stand no more.”

Then came forth the knight Sir Gawain:

“Sir, I am ready for what I have promised,

All oaths to fullfill.”

“God-a-mercy!” said Dame Ragnell then;

“For thy sake I wish I were a fair woman,

For thou art so good-willed.”

 

Then Sir Gawain pledged himself to her

In happiness and woe, as he was a true knight;

Then was Dame Ragnell happy.

“Allas!” then said Dame Guinevere;

So said all the ladies in her bower,

And wept for Sir Gawain.

“Allas!” then said both King and knight,

That ever should he wed such a creature,

She was so foul and horrid.

She had two teeth on either side

As a boar’s tusks, I will not hide,

A large handful in length.

 

The one tusk went up and the other down.

A mouth very wide and foully formed,

With many grey hair.

Her lips lay like lumps on her chin;

A neck, forsooth, on her could not be seen-

She was a loathly one!

She would not be wedded in no manner

But unless it was made known in all the land,

Both in town and in borrow.

All the ladies of the land,

She called to come to hand

To make the wedding properly done.

In which Lancelot is boring but Galahad is worse

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By this point it should be clear that there is little love lost between Lancelot and Yours Truly. And I am sorry, I really am! I tried to like the guy or at least view him with some sort of academic objectivity, but I can’t. Him and Guinevere, they’re supposed to be this power couple and yet Lancelot seems to have as many ladies fawning over him (with various degrees of reluctance on his part) as Gawain. And Gawain is known as the Ladies’ Knight! Give me a break. Anyway…What was I saying? Oh, yes! For the longest time I thought Lancelot would hold the “least favourite knight” title for me. Then I came across this young lad named Galahad….

 

Galahad’s character suffers from what I like to call the Superman Syndrome (and if that is a real thing I apologise to whoever coined the term). His singular function in the Arthurian tales is to be flawless. He’s the best knight; he’s the other person to pull the sword from the stone (thank you Malory…); he’s the one to find the Grail; yada, yada, yada. And you know what? I could –somewhat begrudgingly- deal with all that if he got some character development on the way. But nooooooo… I’m not kidding! In Malory’s version (which I’m going with since I don’t have access to the other versions of the story right now) he finds the Grail, rules as king on a city nearby (or was it the city he found the Grail in? I always get confused at this point.) and then dies. I think the way it is explained is that he was too pure for this imperfect world. Or it could just be that Sir Bores-a-lot Jr. had no other reason for existence. I’m not exaggerating. From the moment Elaine (not Elaine of Astolat, another Elaine) hears Lancelot is visiting her father and starts plotting to sleep with him, it is with the understanding that the result of the union will be the Chosen One. And we all know how that works out….

 

 

There are versions of the legend were Percival or even Gawain (-sigh- When am I gonna get a movie about him?) find the Grail. Heck! I’m pretty sure Lancelot finds it in one. Do I have a problem with that too? Well, I have problems with the Grail subplot in general, but that is the subject for another post (or more likely a dissertation). But no, I do not mind any of these three gentlemen finding the Grail. Why? Because that is not their only characteristic. They are not carbon cut-outs or lists of tropes on legs. They are three-dimensional characters with all the imperfections and struggles that come with that. And for that reason I can sympathise with them. Because I can see there was a process and a struggle to better themselves in order to be considered “worthy”, whatever that means….In Galahad’s case, not so much.

 

Now, someone might point out the fondness that medieval authors had for allegorical storytelling and archetypical characters. I understand and respect that. Sometimes variations on an already familiar theme are more imaginative than a completely new melody. However, even archetypes develop over time and I’m sorry but I just don’t see that in Galahad’s case.

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (246-359)

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She sat on a palfrey that was gaily decorated,

With gold beset and many a precious stone;

There was an unseemly sight;

A creature foul without measure

To ride so gaily, I assure you,

It was neither reasonable nor right.

She rode to Arthur, and thus she said:

“God speed, Sir King, I am very pleased

That I have met with thee;

I advise you to speak with me ere you go,

For I warn thee, thy life is in my hand;

That you shall find, if I don’t defend it.”

 

“Why, what would you, Lady, now with me?”

“Sir, I would fain now speak with thee,

And tell thee good tidings.

For all the answers that though can boast of,

None of them all shall help thee.

That shall you know, by the Rood.

Thou think I know not thy secret,

But I warn thee I know every bit of it.

If I help thee not, thou are but dead.

Grant me, Sir King, but one thing,

And for thy life, I’ll give a guarantee,

Or else thou shall lose thy head.”

 

“What mean you, Lady, tell me quickly,

For thy words I have great contempt;

Of you I have no need.

What is your desire, fair Lady?

Let me know it shortly-

What is your meaning?

And why is my life in your hand?

Tell me, and I shall guarantee to you

All that you ask.”

 

“Forsooth,” said the Lady, “I am no villain.

Thou must grant me a knight to wed;

His name is Sir Gawain.

And such a covenant I will make thee,

Only if through mine answer thy life is saved,

Else let my desire be in vain.

And if mine answer save thy life,

Grant me to be Gawain’s wife.

Advise thee now, Sir King.

For it must be so, or thou are but dead;

Choose now, for thou may soon lose thy head.

Tell me now in haste.”

 

“By Mary,” said the king, “I may not grant thee

A guarantee for Sir Gawain to wed thee;

It lies in him alone.

But so that it be so, I will do my labour

In saving of my life to make it secure;

To Gawain I will make my lament.”

“Well,” said she, “now go home again,

And fair words speak to Sir Gawain,

For thy life I may save.

Though I am foul, yet I am lusty;

Through me thy life he may save,

Or ensure thy death to have.”

 

“Alas!” he said, “now woe is me

That I should make Gawain wed thee,

For he will be loath to say no.

So foul a Lady as you are now one

Never have I seen in my life anywhere I’ve gone;

I know not what I may do.”

“No matter, Sir King, though I be foul;

Choice for a mate has even the owl;

Thou’ll get from me no more;

When thou come again with your answer

Right here in this place I shall meet thee,

Or else I know thou are lost.”

 

“Now farewell,” said the king, “Lady.”

“Yes, Sir,” she said; “there is a bird that men call an owl…

And yet a Lady I am.”

“What is your name, I pray you tell me?”

“Sir King, I am called Dame Ragnell, in truth,

That never yet beguiled a man.”

“Dame Ragnell, now have good day.”

“Sir King, God speed thee on thy way!

Right here I shall meet thee.”

Thus they departed fair and well.

The king very soon came to Carlisle,

And his heart was very heavy.

 

The first man he met was Sir Gawain,

That to the king thus did say,

“Sir, how have you fared?”

“Forsooth,” said the king, “never so ill!

Alas! I am at the point to kill myself,

Of necessity I must be dead.”

“Nay,” said Gawain, “that may not be!

I would rather be dead, may I thrive;

These are ill tidings.”

 

“Gawain, I met today with the foulest Lady

That ever I saw, for certain.

She said to me that my life she would save-

But first she would have thee as a husband.

Wherefore I am sorrowful-

Thus in my heart I make my moan.”

“Is this all?” then said Gawain.

“I shall wed her and wed her again,

Though she were a fiend;

Though she were as foul as Beelzebub,

Her shall I wed, by the Rood,

Or else I would not be your friend.

 

“For you are my honoured king,

And have honoured me many a time;

Therefore I shall not hesitate.

To save your life, lord, it would be my duty,

Or I’d be false and a great coward;

And my service is better than that.”

“Indeed, Gawain, I met her in Inglewood.

She told me her name, by the Rood;

That it was Dame Ragnell.

She told me that unless I had an answer from her,

All my other labour is not even near a solution-

Thus did she tell me.

In which the apple never falls far from the tree

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A bit of a confession as a prelude here: This post is actually an extract from an essay I wrote for my Medieval Arthurian Traditions module last semester at uni. I was talking about Malory’s characterisation of Arthur and whether or not he is a tragic character, and while I was tip-toeing the line between philosophy and literary criticism I came up with this rather convoluted theory about the relationship of the characters of Uther, Arthur and Mordred. Since I stood on my metaphorical soapbox last week about Mordred (and since next week I will also be talking about a father-son pair), I figured I’d include this as well.

 

“Malory provides an overview of [Arthur’s tragic] progression through his condensed version of [his] vision of the Wheel of Fortune. Here is however where authorial intent and model deviate from one another. Arthur’s vision ends as “he felle amonge the seepentes, and every beste toke hym by a lymme.”[1] Although the passage functions perfectly as foreshadowing for the subsequent battle at Salisbury, it ignores the final stage of the Wheel structure, that of Regnabo. Arguably, the stage of the rising king could very well be considered the first rather than last, but Arthur’s vision commences with him already in the Regno stage; that of the reigning king. Much like Arthur does not appear to achieve personal catharsis in the Aristotelian sense, his vision does not provide hope for his return.

 

Victoria Guerin points to the existence of “a recurrent pattern in which failure to respect blood and marital relationships is followed by divine retribution against the ruling house and people of Britain”[2] in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia. Although the French tradition was a greater influence to Malory’s writing than Geoffrey the statement holds true for both accounts of the events. Arthur’s demise is the culmination of a complete breakdown of all blood and marital bonds. Guinevere’s infidelity might be the one to deprive him of his two greatest knights (Gawain and Lancelot) however; it is his own disregard for these bonds that results in the conception of Mordred in a sequence of events that parallels that of his own conception. Perhaps the way to account for the missing Regnabo stage in both Arthur’s vision and life is to also examine Uther’s reign and mistakes. Both Arthur and Mordred are begat in unions that violate the marital bond (and in Mordred’s case the familial bond as well) to women of the same family line. Both ascend to the throne during periods of political instability, while the previous regime seems to be crumbling, and both marry (or attempt to marry) the same queen. Perhaps the most important difference between Arthur’s and Mordred’s ascent to the throne is that, while Uther dies before he can recognise his son as his own, leaving the revelation of Arthur’s parentage to Merlin, Mordred vocally acknowledges Arthur as his father during the “Day of Destiny” episode[3].

 

I believe that this repetition of events is not accidental. Malory’s account, although ostensibly concerned with the life of Arthur, extends to include his entire court. It would be then more accurate to consider Britain the one whose tragedy is being written, with the Pendragon line of kings serving as its personification. Due then to the circular nature of action, Uther’s Regnabo in Malory’s account is fulfilled by Arthur’s ascent and similarly Arthur’s Regnabo is appropriated by Mordred. The fourth stage of Mordred’s own movement through the Wheel of Fortune is less straightforward. Malory’s account after the battle of Salisbury, unlike Geoffrey’s, focuses on Lancelot, Guinevere and the remaining few knights of the Round Table and there is only a passing mention of the next king[4], one that is not connected to the Pendragon line.

 

For Britain the next Regnabo would be Constantine, son of Carados, whose disassociation with Arthur’s line breaks the cycle, even as it perpetuates it. Considering Malory’s characterisation of his heroes, that might be the only way to achieve catharsis. The Regnabo, by virtue of being both an ending and beginning stage, offers each king the chance to achieve the catharsis that his predecessor, through his fall from grace, is prevented from. However, Arthur repeats the mistakes that bring about his father’s downfall and in turn Mordred acts similarly. The circular nature of each character’s development simultaneously places them in comparison to their predecessors and ensures that they repeat their mistakes. The clean brake achieved through the mutual murder of Arthur and Mordred and the passing of the title to a different line would realistically be the only way to achieve catharsis for the land without completely deconstructing the tragedy of Fortune model.

 

Can Arthur therefore be considered a tragic character in the medieval sense? Edward Kennedy argues that, for all his weaknesses, Arthur is a good king by medieval standards, one who is motivated by “a desire to do what honour commands and to avoid its opposite, shame.”[5] Honour however does not necessarily translate to morality, and Arthur is repeatedly shown to prefer the public station of an honourable king over the more private state of a moral individual. It must also be noted that pride is also an opposite of shame, in Arthur’s case pride for his state as king. It could be therefore argued that Arthur’s fall is divine punishment for his pride. In Malory’s text, the pride and fall motif is only implied through the Wheel of Fortune vision. However, Malory based his account of the vision at least in part to the pre-existing Stanzaic Morte Arthure, which in turn was adapted from the 13th-century La Mort le Roi Artu[6]. It appears that the earlier the text, the more direct is the interaction between Lady Fortune and Arthur. In fact, in the French version Lady Fortune explicitly states that “such is earthly pride that no one is seated so high that he can avoid having to fall from power in the world”[7]. In all three versions of the vision referenced here Arthur is either placed at the highest point of the Wheel by Fortune herself or, in Malory’s case, finds himself there with no explanation. In any case, the lack of action on a human level leaves him a little more than a marionette for a higher power such as Fortune to play with, a concept central in this particular strand of tragedy.

 

Malory’s Arthur is therefore a tragic character whether the classic or the medieval model is used. Unfortunately both definitions have proved themselves incomplete in one way or another. A reading of the text as a de casibus tragedy, combining the personal responsibility that is central to the Aristotelian model with the function of Fortune can account for these discrepancies. Malory would not be the first to negotiate the two seemingly contradictory concepts. Boethius also managed it by maintaining that “people can choose whether to trust the wheel or stay away from it.”[8] In Malory’s text human agency is further reinforced by the gradual disappearance of the supernatural from the narrative. In the final confrontation between Mordred and Arthur, as well as the latter’s dying moments there is only space for one last miracle when Bedyvere returns Excalibur to the lake.

 

One might argue that it is Fortune’s influence that causes the adder to appear right after the agreement between the two factions is reached. On the other hand, it is the actions of the characters, especially Arthur and his foil, Mordred that caused the confrontation to happen. Arthur’s warning to his men, “they se ony swerde drawyn, ‘loke ye com on fyersely and sle the traytoure, sir Mordred, for [I] in no wyse truste hym”[9] is mirrored in his son’s almost identical order, “ye se ony maner of swerde drawyn, loke that ye com on fyersely and so sle all that ever before you stondyth, for in no wyse I woll nat truste for thys tretyse”[10]. The hero’s choice is “always irrevocable”[11], and so the final climax of the action is achieved when a choice is made that effectively bars any other outcome than the battle. In this case that is the choice of mutual distrust between father and son.

 

Malory takes special care to highlight the battle at Salisbury as the greatest and most terrible in Arthur’s career, declaring that “never syns was there seyne a more dolefuller batayle in no Chrysten londe”[12]. The description is not a lengthy one, with an equal amount of lines being devoted to the battle proper and sir Lucan’s attempt to stop Arthur from killing Mordred. It is stated explicitly that the battle lasts all day, until “nere [ny]ght”[13] a motif that is often found in accounts of important battles. Arthur’s “ded full nobely”[14] are mirrored by Mordred’s “ded hys devoure…and put hymeslffe in grete perell.”[15] The “Day of Destiny” serves as the climax to Arthur’s tragedy and as such it is at this point that his character is shown at its most clear. At the end of the battle Malory seemingly offers an alternative option to his character. He can retreat, following the advice of his visions and thus survive the day. Yet, Arthur is “wroth oute of mesure”[16] which, although understandable to the empathising reader, leads to his final act of hybris; filicide. With Mordred’s equally deadly retaliation, Arthur truly passes to the Sum Sine Regno, both literally, as the place under the Wheel can also be identified as death’s domain, but also figuratively as the character’s lowest point. Equally symbolic is the death wound he receives by his son. Considering how their actions have so far mirrored each other’s one might expect for them to have similar death wounds. However, Mordred strikes his father at the head, physically reinforcing the action that he symbolically took when he usurped the throne.

 

Malory’s characterisation of Arthur is that of a tragic hero. Whether due to Lady Fortune’s capriciousness or his own character’s flaws, his is a story that “at the beginning is admirable and placid, but at the end or issue is foul and horrible”[17]. Whether the reader chooses to read the possibility of catharsis for the character or not, there is no denying that Malory managed to create an episodic account that perfectly captures an individual’s rise and fall and leave his audience in fear and pity for the main character and themselves.”

 

[1] Malory, 711.

[2] Guerin, 9.

[3] Malory, 712.

[4] Ibid, 725.

[5] Kennedy, 152-153.

[6] Echard, http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/fortune.htm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hoeltgen, 122.

[9] Malory, 712.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lattimore, 41.

[12] Malory, 713.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hoeltgen, 123.

 

(Why, yes I actually compiled a) Bibliography:

Echard, Siân. “King Arthur and Fortune.” King Arthur and Fortune. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/fortune.htm&gt;.

Guerin, M. Victoria. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Fall of Kings and Princes: Structure and Destruction in Arthurian Tragedy. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995. 1-17. Print.

Hoeltgen, Karl Josef. “King Arthur and Fortuna.” King Arthur: A Casebook. Ed. Edward Donald. Kennedy. New York: Routledge, 2002. 121-37. Print.

Kennedy, Edward Donald. “Malory’s King Mark and King Arthur.” King Arthur: A Casebook. Ed. Edward Donald. Kennedy. New York: Routledge, 2002. 139-71. Print.

Lattimore, Richmond. “Chapter III: Patterns of Choice, Revenge and Discovery.” Story Patterns in Greek Tragedy. N.p.: U of Michigan, 1969. 36-55. Print. Ann Arbor Paperback.

Malory, Thomas. Malory Complete Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (149-245)

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“Nay, fear you not, lord, by the flowering Virgin,

I am not that man that would dishonour you,

Neither by evening nor morning.”

“Forsooth I was hunting in Inglewood;

You know that I slew a hart, by the Cross,

All by myself;

There I met with a well-armed knight;

His name he told me was Sir Gromer Somer Joure;

Therefore I make my moan.

 

There that knight much threatened me,

And would have slain me with great anger,

Except that I spoke back well to him;

Weapons with me I had none.

Alas! My honour therefore is now gone.”

“Why?” said Gawain;

“What more to say? I shall not lie,

He would have slain me there without mercy,

And to me was very hateful;

He made me swear that at the end of twelve months,

That I should meet him there in the same way;

To that I pledged my faith.

 

And also I should tell him at the same day

What women desire most, in good faith;

My life else should I lose.

This oath I made onto that knight,

And that I should never tell it to no person;

Of this I might not choose.

And also I should come in no other attire,

But even as I was the same day;

And if I fail in my answer,

I know I shall be slain right there.

Blame me not if I be a woeful man;

All this is my dread and fear.”

 

“Yeah, Sir, make good cheer;

Let make your horse ready

To ride into strange country;

And everywhere you meet either man

Or woman, in faith,

Ask them what they say [as an answer].

And I shall also ride another way

And enquire of every man and woman, and get what I may

Of every man and woman’s answer,

And in a book I shall write them.”

“I grant,” said the king right away,

“It is well advised, good Gawain,

Even by the Holy Cross.”

 

Soon they were both ready,

Gawain and the king, indeed.

The king rode one way, and Gawain another,

And every man they asked, and woman, and other,

What women hold most dear.

Some said they loved to be well dressed,

Some said they loved to be gallantly courted;

Some said they loved a lusty man

That in their arms can embrace and kiss them then;

Some said one; some said another;

And so Gawain got many an answer.

By then he’d gone as far he may

And return by a certain day.

 

Sir Gawain had got so many answers

That had made a great book, it’s true;

He returned to the court.

Then the king came with his book,

And either on the other’s book did look.

“This may not fail,” said Gawain.

“By the God,” said the king, “I’m much afraid;

I intend to search a little more

In Inglewood forest;

I have but a month until my set day;

I may chance upon some good tidings to find –

This seems to me now best.”

 

“Do as you please,” Gawain said then;

“Whatever you do, I consider myself repaid;

It is good to be inquiring;

Doubt you not, lord, you shall well succeed;

Some of your answers shall help at need;

Otherwise it would be bad luck.”

King Arthur rode out on the next day,

Into Inglewood as his way lay,

And then he met with a lady;

She was as an unattractive creature

As any man saw, exceedingly so.

King Arthur marvelled indeed.

 

Her face was red, her nose all snotty,

Her mouth was wide, her teeth all yellow,

With bleary eyes greater than a ball;

Her mouth was huge;

Her teeth hung over her lips;

Her cheeks were broad as a woman’s hips;

A lute she had upon her back.

Her neck was long and great,

Her hair were clustered in a heap;

In the shoulders she was a yard broad;

Hanging paps big enough to be a horse’s load;

And like a barrel she was made;

And to sum up the foulness of this lady,

There is no tongue that may tell, surely:

Of ugliness enough she had.

 

She sat on a palfrey that gaily decorated,

With gold beset and many a precious stone;

There was an unseemly sight;

A creature foul without measure