Marriage of Sir Gawain, The [Child 31]
DESCRIPTION: Arthur must fight a huge knight or come back later and say what women most desire. An ugly woman will give the answer if Arthur marries her to one of his knights. Gawain agrees, leaves it up to her to be beautiful by day or night, and lifts the spell
EARLIEST DATE: 1794 (Percy)
KEYWORDS: courting marriage shape-changing royalty magic
REFERENCES (17 citations):
Child 31, "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" (1 text)
Percy/Wheatley III, pp. 13-24, "The Marriage of Sir Gawaine"; pp. 323-330, "The Ancient Fragment of the Marriage of Sir Gawain" (2 texts, the second being the damaged stanzas in the Percy folio and the first being Percy's reconstructed version)
Leach, pp. 118-123, "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" (1 text)
OBB 19, "The Marriage of Sir Gawain [A Fragment]" (1 text)
Morgan-Medieval, pp. 102-108, "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" (1 text)
Niles 18, "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" (1 text, 1 tune, clearly a form of this ballad but of doubtful authenticity)
DT 31, GAWAIN1
ADDITIONAL: Thomas Hahn, editor, _Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales_, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1995), pp. 41-80, "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" (1 text)
Stephen H. A. Shepherd, _Middle English Romance: A Norton Critical Edition_, Norton, 1995, pp. 380-387, "The Marriage of Sir Gawaine" (1 text)
Digital Index of Middle English Verse #2992
RELATED: Versions of the Romance "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnall" --
Digital Index of Middle English Verse #3130
Thomas Hahn, editor, _Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales_, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1995), pp. 41-80, "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnall" (1 text, of 853 line)
Donald B. Sands, editor, _Middle English Verse Romances_, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1966, pp. 323-347, "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell" (1 text, of 855 lines)
Stephen H. A. Shepherd, _Middle English Romance: A Norton Critical Edition_, Norton, 1995, pp. 243-267, "The Weddyng of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell for Helpyng of Kyng Arthoure" (1 text, of 855 lines counting the colophon/explicit)
Modernized prose version: Louis B. Hall, _The Knightly Tales of Sir Gawain_, with introductions and translations by Hall, Nelson-Hall, 1976, pp. 155-176, "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnall"
Bibliography of related texts and articles: Joanne A. Rice, _Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955-1985_, Garland Publishing, 1987, pp. 539-541, "The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell"
cf. "The Half-Hitch" [Laws N23] (theme)
cf. ""King Henry" [Child 32] (theme of the loathly woman)
Sir Gaunie and the Witch
NOTES: The theme of the "Loathly Woman" is common in folklore -- indeed, Chaucer/Benson, p. 10, points out that the legend itself (with the sexes reversed) survives to this day in the folklore of "The Princess and the Frog." This is typically traced to the Grimm folktale of "The Frog King" (the first tale in most printed editions of Grimm). This has multiple English analogies, the closest probably being the Scottish ("The Well at the World's End," Jacobs, pp. 215-219; summarized on pp. 563-564 of Briggs, volume A1; the tale seems rare in English tradition). Note, however, that in "The Frog King," the princess does not kiss the frog; he in fact transforms when she throws him against the wall! The tale as it is now generally told has clearly done some post-Grimm evolving.
There is another reversed variant now best known as "Beauty and the Beast"; many versions have links to the ancient Greek tale of Eros/Cupid and Psyche, and some versions even have a sort of a parallel to the story of Janet pulling a rose in "Tam Lin" [Child 39]. There is a close English analogy in the tale of "The Small-Tooth Dog" (Briggs, volume A.1, pp. 487-489). But the usual version of "Beauty and the Beast" came into English from French; the version most of us know is from Mme. Leprence de Beaumont's 1756 Magasin des Enfants (Jones-Larousse, p. 57) or from Charles Perreault (Pickering, p. 28); the version in Lang's Blue Fairy Book is attributed to Madame de Villaneueve.
The "Loathly Woman" is generally a more complex tale, and seemingly known in the British Isles at a much earlier date than either the Frog Princess or Beauty and the Beast. Indeed, Zipes, p. 47, declares that "'Beauty and the Beast' tales, which all require a woman's patient tolerance of an ugly man, have no companion tales in the modern period in which the obverse obtains, that is, a man who must love an ugly wife. In the medieval period, however, numerous companion tales circulated."
Tatar, p. 60, puts it even more bluntly: "Can we imagine, as Chaucer did in the Wife of Bath's tale, a story that could be called 'Handsome and the Beast'?"
The origin of the type is somewhat uncertain. One version goes back to the Irish tale of Niall of the Nine Hostages, summaries of which can be found in o hOgain, pp. 377-379 and Ellis, pp. 181-182. Niall was a historical figure of sorts, but OxfordCompanion, p. 388, can offer few hard facts: "Niall Noigiallach... eponymous ancestor of the Ui Neill [O'Neals], reputed to have flourished in the early 5th century. The earliest traditions about his career are ninth century in date, when he is remembered as a raider of Britain."
One version of the story makes him a contemporary of St. Patrick -- indeed, Niall is sometimes said to have been responsible for his kidnapping (McMahon, p. 10).
Most of the tales about him revolve around his difficult relationships with his four half-brothers (although the relationship is somewhat confused. Ellis, p. 182, describes him as being oppressed by his stepmother, who favored her other boys -- yet how could he have older brothers by a living stepmother? O hOgain, p. 377, offers an alternate explanation that he was the son of a concubine, perhaps captured in Britain.)
Only one incident in Niall's career need detain us. He and his brothers -- who always seem to be together depite their rivalry -- were out hunting, and wanted water. They came upon a hag in the forest (Ellis, p. 182, says she had black skin, grey hair, and green teeth), who offered water to the one who kissed her. Three of the brothers refused absolutely, the fourth pecked her on the cheek -- and Niall kissed her properly and, when she demanded he lie with her, complied. She then was transformed into a beautiful woman who promised him sovereignty in Ireland.
(I am not sure, but this may be a reflection of the early Irish notion that the King was the husband of every woman in the land, and responsible for fertility; for this idea, see Ford-Mabinogi, p.7.)
The parallels with this song will be obvious, but the differences are also substantial, and the dating dubious.
The notion of shape-changing, and questions about it, occur in other Irish tales. Curtin, pp. 15-25, prints a tale, "The Three Daughters of King O'Hara." This is a fairly close parallel of Asbjornsen and Moe's "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," which itself has its roots in the Latin tale of Cupid and Psyche, but the Irish version has the twist that three daughters wish for husbands, and all gain enchanted husbands -- two who are enchanted as seals, one as a dog. All three are asked the question that we shall meet below: Would the girls rather have their husbands be men by day and animals by night, or vice versa? The two older girls prefer that their husbands be men by day; the youngest prefers him a man by night and a white dog by day.
There were plenty of English-language parallels. The theme seems to have been very popular around 1400. Gower had a Loathly Woman story in the Tale of Florent in the Confessio Amantis (Chaucer/Benson, p. 872). We find it in ballads in "King Henry" [Child 32]. ("The Half-Hitch" [Laws N23], claimed by some extreme lumpers as a version of this ballad, also involves an ugly woman turned beautiful, but there the man is under a self-imposed oath; the two are not really parallel.)
A very brief "catch" on the same theme is quoted by Opie-Oxford2, #206:
The hart he loves the high wood,
The hare she loves the hill;
The knight he loves his bright sword,
The lady loves her will.
From about the same time as Gower, and even closer to the ballad, is the fifteenth century romance "The Wedding of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnall" (called "Dame Ragnell" by Sands). It is viewed by Sir Frederic Madden as the source of the ballad. The notes on pp. 378-379 of Shepherd amount to the same claim -- and treat the ballad as a romance. (Indeed, Shepherd, p. 380, dates it to the late fifteenth century, and suggests sundry links with Malory's Morte d'Arthur -- a rather difficult claim, given that it would be some time before the Morte became widely known.)
Neither romance nor ballad is well-attested. We should note that, apart from the dubious piece in Niles, the only extant version of this ballad is the copy in the Percy folio. And that is badly damaged; it is in the section where half of each page has been torn out, so we have only portions of the piece (which may or may not have been sung as a ballad -- even in its damaged form, it is more than fifty verses long, which is very long for an item maintained by oral tradition). Given that the Percy Folio contains several pieces that appear to be romances cut down to size, it strikes me as quite possible that there was once a fuller "Marriage" romance, which cannot have been "Dame Ragnall" because too many details are different.
On the other hand, the connection between this ballad and "Dame Ragnall" are hard to deny. If the song is not a recomposition of that romance, it certainly derives from the same immediate source. In the romance (retelling the summary in Sands, pp. 324-325), Arthur meets the huge "Sir Gromer Somer Jour," (a peculiar name -- as Hall notes on p. 157, "Gromer" is probably from the Old Norse "gromr," a boy or youth; "Somer" is English "summer," and "Jour" is French "day." So Sir Gromer is a child's summer day in bits of three languages. Hahn, p. 42, says that his name "connects him with the licensed anarchy of Midsummer's Day").
Sir Gromer threatens Arthur with death because he has given away land that belongs to Sir Gromer. In order to avoid death, the king is forced to take an oath to return in a year and answer the question, "What do women want?" Gawain manages to learn what has happened from Arthur, and they set out to find an answer. Toward the end of the year, Arthur meets the Loathly Woman in Inglewood, who will answer the question but only if allowed to marry Gawain. Arthur pretends to refuse -- but then begs Gawain to marry her. Gawain, who comes off far better than Arthur, agrees. (In English romances of this period, he is consistently the paragon of honor and very commonly the romantic hero; CHEL1, p. 269). Arthur gets his answer, and is saved.
That leaves Gawain to deal with Ragnall, who...
was so foulle and horrible.
She had two teethe on every side
As boris tuskes, I wolle not hide....
WIth grey heris many on.
Her lippes laye lumprid on her chin.
(lines 547-549, 553-554; Sands, p. 339)
The romance is found in only one manuscript, Bodleian MS Rawlinson C 86, which has lost a leaf containing probably about 70 lines after line 628. Sands, p. 325, speculates that it was deliberately cut out due to its indelicate content. The missing leaf contains a portion of the marriage ceremony, but the key question -- "fair by day and foul by night or vice versa" (Sands, p. 325) survives. When they go to bed, she turns beautiful. Gawain, amazed, asks "whate are ye?" (line 644). She replies (lines 658-663)
My beauty wolle not hold:
Wheder ye wolle have me faire on nightes
And as foulle on days to alle men sightes
Or els to have me faire on days
And on nightes on the foulist wife.
Gawain finds the choice too hard, and in lines 677-680, declares:
But do as ye list nowe, my lady gaye
The choice I put in your fist.
Evin as ye wolle, I put it in your hand.
And, of course, since he gave her the choice, she is transformed and becomes beautiful both day and night.
Yet more famous, and from almost the same time as Gower, is Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale. Like "The Marriage of Sir Gawain," this has an Arthurian setting, with a knight raping a woman and being tried for it. Queen Guinivere, granted the right to sentence him, commands that he learn what women want. He finally locates a hag who promises the answer if he will marry her. Being under sentence of death, he agrees -- and learns that what women want is "sovereignty" -- i.e. control. She then offers him a choice: "foul and faithful" or "fair and faithless." (A choice which, in fact, reflects many of the tradeoffs in human biology; evolution has made us mostly but not quite monogamous, making this a very difficult question. Just think of the fraction of Shakespeare involved in questions of cuckoldry.) In the tale, he offers her the choice -- and, satisfied with him, she becomes beautiful and faithful.
(I should perhaps note that a number of scholars think the Wife of Bath's Tale is not the tale Chaucer originally meant for her; some suggest that she was originally meant to tell the Shipman's Tale. But her tale is an excellent fit for her personality; if this hypothesis is correct, one must suspect that Chaucer encountered the Loathly Woman tale while the Canterbury Tales was already under construction -- perhaps from his friend Gower. Chaucer's direct source has never been identified; I suspect he revised -- and dramatically improved, with the "foul or fair" question -- whatever it was that inspired him. Unfortunately, in the process, he made the woman far less of a character than in the romance of Gawain and the loathly woman described below; as Hall notes on p. 155, Dame Ragnall -- clever, independent, and refusing to be shamed by things not her fault -- dominates the romance, which is "one of the great stories in Middle English.")
In a rather sad ending, Gawain is said to have loved Ragnall above all his other wives (he went through several, given all the tales about him), but she died within five years.
There is one other interesting sidelight on this: Gawain in this song not only takes on King Arthur's fate but his question. According to Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur, Book III, Chapter 1 (and earlier versions of the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinivere story), "Merlin warned the king covertly that Guenever was not wholesome for him to take to wife, for he warned that Launcelot should love her, snd she him again" (p. 71 in Malory/Rhys). Thus, since Guinivere was considered the fairest woman in the land and Arthur seems to have wanted her for her looks, Merlin presented Arthur with the same question that Gawain faced: "Fair and faithless or foul and faithful." It wasn't so stark for Arthur; Merlin promised to find him a beautiful (if not quite so beautiful) and faithful wife if he would wait. But Arthur chose "fair and faithless," and of course the consequence was his destruction and the destruction of his dream. Thus Gawain not only proved more honorable than Arthur but more wise.
(Of course, none of this has anything to do with the historical Arthur; for background on that, see "King Arthur and King Cornwall" [Child 30].)
Jacobs, p. 256, comments of "The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heughs" and "Kemp Owyne" [Child 34], "There is certainly something Celtic about the Laidly being and the deliverance kiss, as Mr. Nott, as pointed out, Academy, April 30, 1892, and Miss Weston has shown the connection in her Legend of Sir Gawain, p. 49. Indeed, may not Owein be identical with Gawain?" In the "Laidly Worm," Child Wynd recalls his sister by kissing her; in "The Marriage of Sir Gawain," Gawain turns Dame Ragnall beautiful by agreeing to love her.
The manuscript of the Ragnall romance is generally regarded as dating from about 1500. The poem itself is probably 50-150 years older (Sands, p. 325, argues it was composed around 1450 and seems to be in East Midland dialect) -- though the very confused writing makes things harder. I observe that, in the first 60 lines in Sands, there the name "Arthur" is spelled "Arthoure," "Arture," "Arthoure" again, "Arthure, and "Arthour."
Sands notes, p. 323, that the romance is generally not regarded as humorous, but "the Dame Ragnell poet seems to have taken delight in grotesque characterization and absurd social situations." He calls the poet an "indifferent artist who could tell a story with sufficient skill to make it effective." And, perhaps, sufficient skill to induce another poet to create a ballad of it.
Several other ballads also derive loosely or from Middle English romance, or from the legends that underly it, examples being:
* "Hind Horn" [Child 17], from "King Horn" (3 MSS., including Cambridge Gg.4.27.2, which also contains "Floris and Blancheflour")
* "King Orfeo" [Child 19], from "Sir Orfeo" (3 MSS., including the Auchinlek MS, which also contains "Floris and Blancheflour")
* "Blancheflour and Jellyflorice" [Child 300], from "Floris and Blancheflour" (4 MSS, including Cambridge Gg.4.27.2, which also contains "King Horn," and the Auchinlek MS, which also contains "Sir Orfeo")
It is somewhat depressing to note that, even though Chaucer and the Ragnall romance between them pretty definitively said all that needs to be said about this topic, moderns still try to add to it. Lupack, pp. 314-317, lists a number of retellings, most recently a blank verse recasting, "Gawain and the Loathly Lady," by Marilyn Bechely. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.0
- Briggs: Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language, Part A: Folk Narratives, 1970 (I use the 1971 Routledge paperback that combines volumes A.1 and A.2)
- Chaucer/Benson: Larry D. Benson, general editor, The Riverside Chaucer, third edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1987 (based on F. N. Robinson, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, which is considered to be the first and second editions of this work)
- CHEL1: Sir A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, Editors, The Cambridge History of English Literature, Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance, 1907 (I use the 1967 Cambridge edition)
- Curtin: Jeremiah Curtin, Myths and Folk Tales of Ireland, originally published in 1890 as Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland (I use the 1975 Dover edition with the full text of the tales but without the introduction)
- Ellis: P. Berresford Ellis, A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987 (I use the 1991 Oxford paperback edition)
- Ford-Mabinogi: The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales, Translated and Edited, with an Introduction, by Patrick K. Ford, University of California Press, 1977
- Hahn: Thomas Hahn, editor, Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1995
- Hall: Louis B. Hall, The Knightly Tales of Sir Gawain, with introductions and translations by Hall, Nelson-Hall, 1976
- Jacobs: Joseph Jacobs, collector, English Fairy Tales, originally published 1890; revised edition 1898 (I use the 1967 Dover paperback reprint)
- Jones-Larousse: Alison Jones, Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore, Larousse, 1995 (I use the 1996 paperback edition)
- Lupack: Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, Oxford University Press, 2005 (I use the 2007 paperback edition)
- Malory/Rhys: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur, with an introduction by Sir John Rhys, in two volumes, 1906 (I use the 1978 Everyman two volume edition)
- McMahon: Sean McMahon, A Short History of Ireland, 1996; references are to the 1997 Dufour paperback edition
- O hOgain: Daithi O hOgain, The Lore of Ireland, Boydell Press, 2006
- OxfordCompanion: S. J. Connolly, editor, The Oxford Companion to Irish History, Oxford, 1998
- Pickering: David Pickering, The Cassell Dictionary of Folklore, Cassell, 1999
- Sands: Donald B. Sands, editor, Middle English Verse Romances, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1966
- Shepherd: Stephen H. A. Shepherd, Middle English Romance: A Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 1995
- Tatar: Maria Tatar,The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited and with an Introduction by Maria Tatar, Norton, 2002
- Zipes: Jack Zipes, editor, The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales: The Western fairy tale tradition from medieval to modern, Oxford, 2000
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