I found Mary Leech’s discussion of “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell” very insightful, especially the ways in which she illustrates how Dame Ragnell deviates from other loathly ladies. Leech acknowledges that she is unique in how she continues to “exert unladylike power until she dies” (213) and ultimately reverses acceptable gender roles within the society, Arthur’s court, after she transforms and becomes beautiful. This stands in stark opposition to the loathly lady tales that typically reinstate gender expectations once the lady transforms and becomes submissive to the knight who has granted her sovereignty. The comparison between Dame Ragnell as a loathly lady with vivid and extended anti-blazons in contrast to Sir Gawain who represents the impeccable chivalrous knight provides an interesting point of Leech’s application of Bahktin’s concept of the grotesque. Leech states that “The misshapen body of the Bahktinian grotesque displays what is usually hidden in the body—it’s interior—and in doing so challenges the boundaries of the body and the society from which that body emerges. The classical body is contained, confined, and hidden; the grotesque body defiantly revealed, and revealing” (214). This was striking to me in comparison to discussions regarding female saints and their beauty. It would seem that beauty is the physical manifestation of inner purity and goodness, but here the loathliness becomes the manifestation of something more sinister, or at least less appealing. The standards for what is and is not acceptable as generally established and maintained by the culture within the court. Leech continues her argument by noting that with the Bahkinian grotesque, as is typical with the loathly ladies, the horrific images of the ladies force society to confront the ideas informing why these images are horrifying within the cultural and societal framework (214).Typically, the loathliness of the woman who knows the answer is pitted against the knight who has erred, or behaved in a loathly manner, and is dependent on the lady’s help. However, given Gawain’s perfection as a knight, this appears not to be the case. Leech shifts her attention to Dame Ragnell’s influence over the men through her sexuality (Gawain) and chivalrous obligation (Arthur). Instead of her returning to the patriarchal control of women, their sexuality and agency, Leech notes how Dame Ragnell demonstrates that the “Feminine ability to tempt is stronger than the ability to control feminine agency” (226). The question becomes how anomalous was this idea during the time period? Given Dame Ragnell’s unique portrayal and conceptualization as a loathly lady, perhaps women’s ability to “tempt” and “control” or influence male “authorities” was just as rare and unique—they either stayed loathly or transformed and subdued; or, as Leech seems to emphasize, perhaps this was more common than was socially comfortable. Either way, Dame Ragnell could not exist forever, and so she dies only to be iconically immortalized (227) as a wife that better suits formal societal gender expectations.
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I do not find the quotation "feminine ability to tempt is stronger than the ability to control feminine agency” (226) to be compelling in the case of Ragnell, for nowhere does she play the role of temptress, and is blatantly repulsive to all the characters within the piece, men and women alike. I would argue that in this regard, she is asexualized since men and women treat her with the same disgust, except for Gawain, who is nothing but a gentleman. I think perhaps this is to emphasize Gawain's chivalry and good nature. Even when Dame Ragnell appears as a beautiful maiden, there is nothing of the temptress in her, and Gawain gives her control of her own choice.
I really enjoyed your juxtoposition upon a woman's role within society displayed within the story. I would go further in asserting that the loathly lady motif portrays a value system for the Middle Ages regarding the gender role expectations. Dame Ragnelle displays a role of gaining power from a society that does not value her own agency as a woman. I would also think that further study upon the thought that her first interaction with Authur is through disguise and the subsequent tricking of the leadership with said disguise illustrates her ability to act outside the normal gender expectations.