Nov 01, 2018
In Heroes, Saints, & Lovers
In her article “Why Dame Ragnell Had to Die: Feminine Usurpation of Male Authority in ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell,’” Mary Leech discusses how “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell” diverges significantly from other tales that make use of the Loathly Lady motif, particularly due to the fact that the ending of this variation of the tale potentially demonstrates the “tenuous nature of civilized manner and authority” (214). Like other tales that make use of the Loathly Lady motif, “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell” discusses how women desire sovereignty over men above all else; however, Dame Ragnell displays more agency than her counterparts in other stories. Prior to her marriage, despite being an outsider, she passes the king, dresses the best, and marries whom she wants, therefore displaying agency and power. Secondly, she maintains power through her knowledge of the question. In other words, despite her hideous appearance, the knowledge makes her desirable. Dame Ragnell also retains power, after she transforms into a beautiful courtly lady by becoming such a temptress that Gawain refuses to leave her rather than go on adventures and is therefore called a coward. Dame Ragnell’s power is in direct contrast to that Arthur’s. In addition to passing Arthur before the wedding, Arthur is portrayed as weak and ineffectual throughout due to being taken prisoner by Sir Gromer and being forced to plead for his life. He also has to rely on Gawain to marry Dam Ragnell. However, although Arthur is shown as weak, the tale lacks the didactic nature of other Loathly Lady tales: neither Arthur nor Gawain are being punished for acting discourteously or sexually assaulting a woman. Because unlike other Loathly Ladies, Dame Ragnell is not correcting unchivalrous behavior and maintains her power once her beauty is restored—and in fact exerts even more power over Gawain—Leech argues that Dame Ragnell had to die in order to cede authority back to Arthur and to no longer subvert masculine chivalric values. While Leech is correct in her description of Dame Ragnell as a disruptive figure and interestingly notes that Dame Ragnell maintains power after her transformation, these are not necessarily the reasons that Dame Ragnell had to die. Even though after the transformation, the Loathly Lady frequently cedes some authority to the man, as in the Wife of Bath’s tale, where the fairy woman afterward “obeyed [the nameless knight] in every thing / That myghte doon hym plesance or likyng” (III.1255-56), rather than gain more power, there are other explanations. Rather, Lady Ragnell must die in order to prevent this story from contradicting other Arthurian legends because Gawain is well known as a lover, which the tale itself notes, and adventurer, not because she subverts male authority. Therefore, Dame Ragnell has to die for intertextual reasons, and due to the fact she has to die, she is able to subvert masculine authority rather than the other way around.