who is lady ragnell?
Called Dame Ragnelle in the source material (”The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle”), a fun fairy-tale-ish bit of Arthuriana and one I read in retold form as a kid and have loved ever since.
So King Arthur kills a deer while out hunting in a land with strong mystical connections, as one does when one is a legendary king. A knight appears, by the name of Sir Gromer, and objects to this life choice. He tells Arthur that in a year’s time, he has to return to the same spot with an answer to the following question:
What is it that women most want?
If Arthur doesn’t have an answer–the right one, mind you–Sir Gromer will cut his head off.
And Arthur, because he’s an honorable fellow and it never occurs to him to say “fuck that, peace out, I’m the king of the land and if you want my head you can come fetch me,” instead says “oh shit” and goes home, where he kind of broods about it.
Into this story walks Sir Gawain–he of The Green Knight fame, one of Arthur’s core knights in the legend (and Arthur’s nephew in many versions of the tales)–and he asks Arthur why he’s so sad.
Arthur tells him, and Gawain sensibly suggests traveling around asking various women what they desire most, which is at least slightly more useful than sitting around brooding, so they do it! The survey results, as one might imagine, are inconclusive when they compare notes, because even a millennium ago dudes didn’t seem to realize that women are distinct human beings with different desires and ambitions even when those dudes are a king and a knight who are legends for their nobility BUT WHATEVER.
Anyway, they’re fucked.
And when Arthur rides out into the woods to brood about this, into the story walks Dame Ragnelle, The Ugliest Lady Arthur Has Ever Seen. (In other versions of the tale, because there are non-Arthurian versions, she’s called The Loathly Lady.)
She tells him she has an answer to his riddle, but she’ll only give it to him if Sir Gawain consents to marry her.
Arthur is feeling pretty desperate, so he brings it up to Gawain, hating to ask it of him, but knowing Gawain is loyal and will do it. Gawain says yes, even when Arthur says “seriously, buddy, when I say The Ugliest I mean it,” so when he goes out to meet Sir Gromer and Ragnelle stops him on the way and says he’s in trouble unless he tells her Gawain is hers to marry. Arthur feels pretty shitty about it, but Gawain said yes, so he relays this answer, to Ragnelle, and she gives him an answer:
Choice. Women want the power to make choices about their own lives and selves.
It’s better than any other answer the survey returned, so Arthur relays it to Sir Gromer, who says “god damn it, my sister gave you that answer but it’s legit so I guess you keep your head THIS TIME” and lets him go free.
Arthur goes back to the palace, and there’s much rejoicing, but Arthur isn’t rejoicing too much, because now his nephew has to marry The Loathly Lady, who shows up and insists on the bargain being met.
Gawain, being a stand-up guy, marries her, and after their wedding feast, where Arthur’s whole court pretty much stares at her very rudely, takes her back to their chambers, where he vows to himself to treat her as if she were desirable, which … go you, buddy? I guess? And when he looks up at her after deciding that, suddenly he’s looking at the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
Ragnelle explains she was cursed to wear that form all the time until a good knight would marry her, but that now, for half the day, she can be beautiful. She puts the choice to him: would he have her beautiful at night, in their bed, and have the court make a mockery of their marriage by day? Or would he have her beautiful by day, when everyone could applaud him for breaking her curse, and ugly at night?
We all know the answer, of course, and so did Gawain: he told her, in the end, that it’s her life, her self, and she should be able to make that choice for herself, not him.
Which, of course, in the way of fairy tales, is what breaks the spell, so she can be her beautiful self all the time.
And they all lived as happily as anyone ever manages in Arthurian legend.