While King Arthur is hunting a stag, he separates from his party and ends up at the mercy of Sir Gromer. Gromer says that King Arthur has taken his lands and given them to Sir Gawain, for this reason he wants Arthur’s life. This is not the first time Arthur has taken lands from others and given them to Gawain, so he is prepared to sidestep appropriately. In a deft attempt to save his own life, Arthur uses the rules of chivalry to his advantage and gets Sir Gromer to offer a deal. In one year Arthur must find the answer to a seemingly unanswerable question.
Dame Ragnelle has a clear understanding of her brother’s plan and may have even provided him with the question or at the least, she is the inspiration for the question. There is only one woman in the world of this story that would know the correct answer and she is Dame Ragnelle, Sir Gromer’s own sister. The best explanation to the reason why Gromer picked the question is either that Ragnelle gave him the question directly or, as seems more likely, Gromer is using the question as a means to make fun of his beauty impaired sister and get what he wants out of Arthur in the most humiliation inducing way possible. It is made clear within the story that Ragnelle is the only other that would know the answer because just after Arthur gives it, Gromer curses his sister. He curses her not only because she shared the answer to the riddle, but because he knows what she is getting out of a perceived deal with Arthur. He curses her because yet again, what he believes to be his lands are being taken out from under him again, this time, by his own sister.
“And she that told the nowe, Sir Arthoure,
I pray to God, I maye se her bren on a fyre,
For that was my suster, Dame Ragnelle;
That old scott, God geve her shame,
Elles had I made fulle tame;
Nowe haue I lost moche travaylle.” (Garbaty P. 430 L. 473-478)
If, in the unlikely circumstance, Dame Ragnelle was not already privy to Arthur’s quest and Gromer’s question, it’s easy to assume that Gromer would tell her. It would be a point of pride for him, not only gaining his lands back in such an underhanded fashion but also making his repugnant sister the butt of a cruel joke. No matter how Dame Ragnelle learned of the riddle and subsequent quest, she would immediately know the answer because of the curse placed upon her by her stepmother. Sovereignty, to Dame Ragnelle is more than the answer to a riddle and more than the key to breaking her curse. It was well known that beauty was suppose to be equal to nobility. In her case, she would have no rights to family land without a man in her life to support her claim. With the only man in her life being her brother, who somehow lost his lands to Arthur, who in turn gave them to Sir Gawain, the only way for Ragnelle to survive is to marry. The only way for her to get her family’s lands back is to marry Sir Gawain. Sovereignty, isn’t simply what she desires, it is what she needs to regain her status and family property.
Rather than let Somer make a joke of her predicament, she uses her prior knowledge to assist King Arthur, at a special price. Suddenly, Ragnell’s most base desire is made obtainable. She has the answer to her brother’s riddle and Arthur will most surely pay. She lets Arthur know as soon as he sees her that she knows the answer he seeks and that she is all too happy to give it, as long as he plays by her rules.
“Yf I help the nott, thou art butt dead.
Graunt me, Sir kyng, butt one thyng,
And for thy lyfe, I make warrauntyng,
Or elles thou shalt lose thy hed.”
“And yf myne answere saue thy lyf,
Graunt me to be Gawens wyf,” (Garbaty P. 425 L. 266-269 & L. 285-286)
Her request seems, to Arthur, to be the request of an otherwise un-wed-able hag, the foulest of creatures, too gruesome for words. She uses the only weapon in her arsenal, her mind, to bend the story to her will. In a sense, she can thank her ghastly visage for freeing her from the confines of what would normally be expected of a woman in her time. This special circumstance allows her to speak to King Arthur in a most unusual manner. This is not a tale of Arthurian romance. In this story Arthur is selfish and he is happy to have found something to save his neck, but he must also save face. He can not force Sir Gawain to take Ragnelle’s hand, but he can present the situation in such a way that Gawain will have to abide in order to keep his trouthe. Arthur is not worried about forcing Gawain to marry the undesirable Dame Ragnelle, but he is concerned that it could look that way.
”Mary” sayd the kyng, “I maye nott graunt the,
To make warraunt Sir Gawen to wed the;
Alle lyethe in hym alon.
Butt and itt be so, I wolle do my labour,
In savyng of my lyfe to make itt secour,
To Gawen wolle I make my mone” (Garbaty P. 426 L. 291-296)
Arthur must present the request in such a way that Gawain would believe it his duty as a knight under King Arthur to wed Dame Ragnelle. In this way, Arthur keeps his head and his vanity intact. Dame Ragnell is not tricking Arthur, she is being deliberately and cunningly honest. She tells him exactly what he needs to know to fulfill his part in her plan. King Arthur is just narcissistic enough to do exactly what is necessary and bring Sir Gawain into the mix. But, even King Arthur needs prodding, twice, when it comes time for the actual wedding.
The trick then, is played on Gawain. He is the key to everything Dame Ragnelle wants and needs. Ragnelle knows that he is the most honorable of knights, not to mention that he also has the rights to all her family’s lands. Her curse could only be lifted by the best of the best, the most chivalrous of men and even then, only if he gives all power in the marriage over to her. When Arthur presents the offer Dame Ragnelle proposed to him, Gawain immediately agrees.
“Ys this alle?” then sayd Gawen,
“I shalle wed her and wed her agayn,
Thowghe she were a fend,
Thowghe she were as foulle as Belsabub,
Her shalle I wed, by the rood;”
“For your love I wolle nott spare.” (Garbaty P. 427 L. 342-346 & 371)
Ragnelle and Arthur depend on Gawain’s knightly honor to suit their needs in every way. Gawain is overly loyal and serves his trouthe as a knight in King Arthur’s court above all things. He first keeps his honor by not hesitating a moment in agreeing to marry Ragnelle, even after Arthur tells him just how gruesome she is to behold. Arthur knows that no matter what he says, Gawain will marry Ragnelle in order to save his life. It is Sir Gawain’s duty as a knight to fall on the sword for his king. In Sir Gawain’s mind there is no alternative. Gawain again shows his honor as a husband by abiding his marriage vows and kissing his horrendous wife, thus allowing for her to become beautiful again. Finally, Ragnelle depends on Gawain’s honor to give her reign over her body as well as his money and lands. He is so overcome by her beauty and his wish to do right by her, that he immediately gives everything of himself unto her. This unquestioning loyalty and honor would only be found in the truest of knights. He is, of course, rewarded and In return for saving her from a foul fate, Dame Ragnelle gives everything back to him and makes a promise that could only be trusted to the best of men.
“He savid me from chaunce and vilony,
That was fulle foulle and grym.
Therfore, curtes knyghte and hend Gawen,
Shalle I neuere wrathe the serteyn,
That promyse nowe here I make–
Whilles that I lyve I shal be obaysaunt,
To God aboue I shalle itt warraunt,
And neuere withe you to debate.” (Garbaty P. 437 L. 781-786)
The only knight that would be able to give Ragnelle everything she needs to regain her life as it once was and make it what it should have been, had her stepmother never cursed her. Dame Ragnelle can thank her stars that the man who was given domain over her family land was also the most honorable, also all the things that women say they want other than sovereignty. If a less honorable man had been given the family lands, would Dame Ragnelle still have chosen Sir Gawain as her target? Probably so, because no other man could match Sir Gawain’s honor and loyalty and no other man would have given Ragnelle the sovereignty she needed to become everything they both desire.
Everything in this story hinges on Dame Ragnelle. It is she that provides Somer with the riddle, if not at least the inspiration for it, and it is she that provides Arthur with his life-saving answer. No matter how Gromer came to the riddle, she would have always been able to assist King Arthur. There is no world in which the riddle could be asked where Dame Ragnelle would not answer, “Sovereignty”. For her there would be no other answer, sovereignty is not only what she most desires, it is also her drive and her dream for her future. When her brother chooses the riddle, her dream becomes tangible and she is all too ready to go for the gold (ring).
In going after Arthur directly, she fights for herself and arranges her own marriage. Ragnelle entices Arthur with the answer, putting him in a position where he will ask his most honorable knight for a seemingly terrible favor. She circumvents normal means of gaining a husband because she has to do so. She knows that Arthur will do anything to save his own neck, but she is smart enough to let him get to the end by his own means. She gives him the short time he needs to present it to Gawain before agreeing to her deal. Though Arthur is presented as a coward and perhaps even an oath breaker in this story, he is not entirely inept and knows the loyalty of his truest knight will save him.
If she had not been cursed, she would have been able to marry someone else and perhaps retain the lands of her family through her husband. Ragnelle may have been forced to choose between marriage or staying ugly with no future, but that does not mean that she was not able exercise some choice in how she got married and show off her wit at the same time. Sir Gawain is chosen specifically because he is the most honorable of all the knights and she knows that she can trust him not only to break her spell, but to care for her in her new life. Dame Ragnell is a force with which to be reckoned. Like the wind, she pushes the men around her to accomplish what she, as a woman, can not. She has no one in her corner, if she wishes to secure her station in life, she must find a way in which to secure it herself. There is no one else looking out for her wellbeing. Many interpretations of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle suggest that Gromer was her step brother and therefore he felt no fealty towards her. He had no real reason to help her find a husband and instead left her in her disgusting state to fend for herself. His mother may had even laid the curse on her as a means of attempting to Gromer’s place within the court. In the entire piece, Ragnelle never denies her limitations as a woman in her time but circumvents those limitations with style and grace that can only come from a very well thought out plan.
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