Sunday, October 22, 2017

One of the best stories about consent and female autonomy was written in the middle ages

Readers and writers have become more aware in recent years about issues of dubious consent in novels. Plot tropes that were once common are becoming less so, as people think through the implications of situations that take away a character's choices. It is natural to assume that awareness of consent issues and female empowerment is a product of our modern age, and that stories addressing the topics in a thoughtful way must be of recent vintage. That assumption is mistaken.

In fifteenth-century England, an anonymous author wrote The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, a short story in verse involving King Arthur and his nephew, Sir Gawain. A villain named Gromer Somer Joure ambushes the king while he is hunting, not armed for battle, and threatens to kill him to avenge a past slight. He lets him live in exchange for promising to meet him on a future date and giving the answer to an existential question (as one does). The question is What do women most desire? If the king cannot give the correct answer, he will allow Gromer Somer Joure to cut off his head.

Although Arthur has been pledged to secrecy, he tells his loyal nephew Sir Gawain in confidence what is bothering him. Gawain then concocts a plan to save the king's life. They will both travel throughout the kingdom, asking every man and woman they meet what women most desire and writing their answers in a book. At the end of the allotted time, they will present Gromer Somer Joure with all of the answers; one of them is sure to be correct. They both accumulate many different answers, with no idea which (if any) may be the right one.

As the day of reckoning draws near, Arthur encounters a woman of hideous appearance. She is described as oversized and unkempt, with yellow teeth and rheumy eyes. She sits upon a beautiful horse with magnificent, jeweled tack. She declares that none of the responses he has collected will save his life, but if he grants her one thing, she will give him the true answer. In exchange for her help, she wants Sir Gawain as her husband. The king declares he cannot give her Sir Gawain, for that must be up to him. The woman, called Dame Ragnell, tells him to go home and ask Gawain, then. The loyal and courteous Sir Gawain tells King Arthur that he will wed her and would do so if she were a fiend and foul as Beelzebub, in order to save the king's life.

On his way to meet Gromer Somer Joure, Arthur again encounters Dame Ragnell. He assures her that Gawain will marry her and asks her to tell him what women most desire. Ragnell gives a lengthy speech, first listing things that others say women want but which are not correct. And then she tells him, "We desire above everything else to have power over men, both high and low. When we have power, everything else is ours." (modern English prose translation by Louis B. Hall)

At the deadly appointment, the king hands over his books of collected answers. The villain reads through them all, pronounces them incorrect, and prepares to decapitate his old enemy. King Arthur then tells him that women most desire power, to rule over the manliest of men. Gromer Somer Joure declares he must have learned that from his sister, Dame Ragnell. He curses her but keeps his word and promises to bother the king no more. On his way home, Ragnell meets Arthur and accompanies him the rest of the way. She demands to ride in front, next to the king, although he is ashamed to be seen with her. She also demands a public wedding with all the court in attendance, rather than a secret early-morning wedding as the queen suggests. The ladies of the court weep for Gawain's fate.

Sir Gawain is the only one who does not complain or treat Ragnell as undeserving of honored treatment. He behaves with courteous diplomacy. At the wedding banquet, the bride eats with a monstrous appetite, tearing apart her food with three-inch-long fingernails. When they have retired to bed, Ragnell demands he show her courtesy in bed. She asks that he at least kiss her. He declares he will do more than kiss her. When he turns toward her, she transforms into a beautiful woman. Gawain is stunned and delighted, and he kisses her with great passion. Ragnell tells him her beauty is not constant. He must choose whether to have her beautiful by day or by night.

He mulls over the implications. One choice would destroy his honor and standing at court. The other would destroy his carnal pleasure. He does not know which is best, so he defers to Ragnell and puts the choice in her hands. He tells her, "Do with me as you wish, for I am bound to you. I give the choice to you. Both my body and my goods, my heart and all parts of me are all yours, to buy and sell--that I swear to God." (modern English prose translation by Louis B. Hall)

By giving her sovereignty, Gawain breaks the enchantment for good. Her beauty will remain all day and all night.

Most of the medieval tales written about the Knights of the Round Table were much like fan fiction--new stories involving familiar characters created by different authors. Character traits sometimes changed over time, but they were often consistent through a number of different stories. Plot tropes were frequently reused. The loathly lady transformed plot appears in other medieval works, including The Canterbury Tales. But in The Wife of Bath's Tale, the loathly lady is married off to a nameless knight convicted of rape. Having to bed a monstrous female against his will is a sort of poetic justice, and by giving her the decision-making authority, he essentially makes her his parole officer. The story loses its charm by making the "hero" a villain who does not deserve a happy ending.

In the French stories of the Round Table, Sir Lancelot was generally the greatest knight of Arthur's court, but in the English tales before Sir Thomas Malory, that place was held by Sir Gawain. He had a reputation for both courtesy and promiscuity. There are numerous stories about ladies who saved their virginity for the famous Sir Gawain. So there is a bit of burlesque comedy in making Sir Gawain the object of Ragnell's desire. But there are also some interesting observations about chivalric virtues. Gawain has the most to lose from the situation, but he is the only one who does not behave like Ragnell should be a shameful secret. There is quite a bit of fat-shaming in the narrator's descriptions of Ragnell's appearance. The account of her predatory consumption at the banquet is meant to imply that she might devour Gawain as well. But the bridegroom treats her with all of the respect due to his wife, and he is fully prepared to pay the "debt of his body" (as the Wife of Bath would say) on their wedding night.

Ragnell's declaration that women wish to have power over men sounds sinister. It plays into every misogynist's biggest fear. But in the end, granting her such power has entirely benevolent consequences, for Gawain and the rest of Arthur's court. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell reverses the usual gender roles by making Gawain the object of an arranged marriage, forced into sexual servitude to a ravenous predator. He plays the usually-female part of family diplomat, making the best of things and putting everyone at ease by completely erasing his own preferences. When asked to make a life-altering decision, he takes a passive role and defers to his spouse. But none of this undermines his masculinity nor his social position. He is perceived as brave and strong for his willing sacrifice. And the fat-shamers are shown to be entirely wrong in their assumptions.

This story is clever and subversive even by modern standards. As a product of 15th-century England, it is truly remarkable. It just goes to show that history and culture do not develop in a straight line; we keep circling back to the same problems.