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Gawain & Gender Relationships

One of the most fascinating stories to arise from Arthurian literature regarding gender relationships has to be The Marriage of Sir Gawain. Here we find incredible insight that would not fully be appreciated in Western culture for centuries after it was written.
    Let me preface this article by acknowledging the important part that women played throughout the Arthurian genre. While the stories primarily concern themselves with battles or other challenges to knightly prowess, women often appear, sometimes nameless, to guide a knight to his next adventure, clue him in on a resolution, or test his virtue. It has been speculated that these convenient damsels evolved from earlier stories, where goddesses provided much the same purpose.
    The inference is that men have much to learn from women about life and nature and our own purpose in the scheme of things. When we devalue or reject their intuitive knowledge, or ignore their intellectual capabilities, which are considerable, we do so at our own peril, and at the peril of the world we live in.

On with the story:
    King Arthur, while hunting in a forest one day, is accosted by a powerful knight who threatens to kill him. The king dissuades the knight but only by committing himself to a quest. If, within a year’s time, he finds the answer to a particular question, they both part their ways in peace. If he does not, he must surrender himself to the knight for execution.
    The question he had to find the answer to was this: What do women most desire? Although the knight obviously knew the answer, he had touched upon a mystery that has plagued men for ages.
    In chivalry, a promise is a promise. King Arthur immediately sets out to find the answer to this question, with his nephew, Sir Gawain, helping him. For the rest of the year they went separately around the countryside collecting people’s opinions and writing them down. Most of the answers seemed frivolous. King Arthur feared the worst.
    When the year was almost complete, he came across a horrible looking women on the road who recognized him immediately.
    “Good King,” she called to him. “My name is Ragnall, and I know the answer that you seek. Grant me what I wish and I will tell it to you.”
    At this point, King Arthur welcomed any suggestions, but needed to know what she wanted first, to be sure it was in his power to give.
    “Only this,” she told him, “I would marry your good nephew, Sir Gawain.”
    King Arthur was taken back by this request. The woman was far uglier than any creature he had ever seen. He would pity any man having to marry her. That the fellow should be his favorite nephew, himself of royal blood, seemed out of the question.
    “Good lady,” he said, “how can I make the commitment for someone else? No man can do that.”
    “I have heard of Sir Gawain. His love for you is such, he would refuse you nothing. It would not be the first marriage of convenience in the realm. All you need do is ask.”
    King Arthur returned to his castle and told Sir Gawain what happened. Without hesitation, nd without being asked, Gawain offered to marry the woman on the king’s behalf.
    On the appointed day, King Arthur rode through the forest to where his adversary was waiting. Before arriving, the woman confronted him.
    “Well? Has your nephew agreed?”
    The king nodded sullenly.
    “Now tell me the answer,” he prompted, “what is it that women most desire?”
    “The answer us simple,” she said, smiling repulsively. “That you never thought of it shows how blind you are. What women want most is the same as men want, sovereignty over their own lives.”
    When the king heard this, he knew that her answer was correct. Women want what all people want, freedom to direct their lives as they choose, without others blocking their course or deciding for them. The concepts of freedom and equality applied to all people, not just men of nobility.
    King Arthur gave this answer to his adversary, who was dismayed that he had found it. The two men parted ways in peace.
    King Arthur brought Ragnall to his castle and introduced her to Sir Gawain, who greeted her with all courtesy and favor. Word of their upcoming marriage rapidly became the stuff of gossip and scandal at court. Nevertheless, the wedding day finally arrived with much ceremony was in place.
    The celebration, although lavishly ornate, was marred by a heaviness of regret. Ragnall seemed pleased despite the snickering. Sir Gawain remained willingly composed in the performance of his duty. The now enlightened King Arthur, watching the nuptials, realized how “arranged marriages” had often joined attractive ladies and damsels to horrible men in much the same way.
    That night, the newlyweds retired to Sir Gawain’s lodgings. Dame Ragnall sensed Gawain’s reluctance to join her in bed, and asked him directly if he would treat her as a husband should. He said he would. When he turned toward her, however, the woman who waited for him looked quite different. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
    Dame Ragnall explained that a curse had been placed on her years earlier, that replaced her natural beauty with profound ugliness for one half of every day.
    Gawain was thrilled by the transformation, but Ragnall quickly him with a difficult choice:
    “My lord, it is for you to decide what portion of the day I am beautiful and what portion I am not. During the day, my appearance reflects upon your reputation. At night, upon your privacy and the expression of our love. Which do you choose, my husband? Beauty by day, in public? Or by night?”
    Sir Gawain pondered this dilemma. Either way struck him as a blessing and curse. Being the courteous knight that he was, however, he could respond in only one fashion:
    “Dear lady, the decision must be yours not mine.”
    With that, Ragnall smiled brightly.
    “Without knowing it, my husband, you have broken the curse entirely. The conditions were set that I had to marry the most chivalrous knight of the realm, and that he would grant me sovereignty over my own life. This you have done. I shall look as you see me from now on.”
    With that, the young couple lived happily together in mutual marital bliss.

That a medieval writer would compose such a tale reveals how Western sensitivity to freedom and equality had an early start. Another version of this tale can be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, attributed to the Wife of Bath.
    The above rendition, however, was edited for modern sensibilities. The original answer to the knight’s question was slightly different. The thing that women most desire is sovereignty over their husbands, or men in general. This somewhat changes the moral of the story. It suggests that women want to wrest power away from men, and control them.
    To some men today, this reflects what they consider to be a fearfully threatening feminist agenda, which it does not. If this is what we take from the tale, its subtle message evades us.
    It is true that chivalry called upon the knight to serve all women, his own lady especially. This suggests a kind of female sovereignty that the knight willingly succumbs to. It was a matter of duty and of love.
    Back then a powerful justification for male strength and aggression was the defense of wife, family and the community at large, which women represented as the civilizing agent. Nowhere was this more apparent than in royal court, where requirements of courtesy refined the warrior’s rough ways.
    Did women rule men, as the word sovereignty implies? No, but they certainly influenced men and helped them grow into more complete images of manhood. They added a healthier gender relationship component, otherwise missing, which included the woman’s perspective.
    Ragnall’s sovereignty over Gawain was comprised of having her own voice, her own equality, her own control over what they recognized was her domain, in contrast to what was his.
    Each partner in a couple brings her or his own interests, set of knowledge, and expertise. Because of that, they are more whole and secure than when separate. Each willingly surrenders (or should surrender) some autonomy to the other, in order for their relationship, and the family they create, to better succeed. In this way, both participants find purpose, meaning and personal satisfaction. They are not equal, as in being the same in measurement and degree, but they own equal status and overall responsibility, no matter how that works out between them. They sacrifice something of themselves to the relationship, and hopefully reap the benefits.
    Ragnall's sovereignty over Gawain did not result in a slave/master relationship, but in a well-suited equality of variables. Whereas some men look to their love-interest as a mother-image, someone to wait on him like a slave, women look to men more as partners. Sovereignty to women, in general, is not about power, but about working together for family and relationship, the very things that support humanity’s survival.
    Men have a place in this. Male attributes and love, when properly channeled, contribute strongly to the health of family and community. These attributes have to be developed in order to successfully be integrated into society, and perform as the should. A boy does not automatically grow up to be a man. He struggles to earn his rite-of-passage. This is what the code of chivalry contributes to and hopefully sustains.
    The story of Gawain and Ragnall illustrates how women should be recognized not only for who they are and their rightful place within the family and elsewhere, but for the inclusiveness of their intent. Their brand of sovereignty is, for the most part, especially in gender relationships, benign. Of course, like all such tales, whose generalities can easily be contested, its inner message holds true. Men are more complete as men when women are complete as women — and the same holds true the other way around.
    With that in mind, the sovereignty for men should express itself not in suppression, but in liberation.
    Chivalry-Now supports a sovereignty of ideals.

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