The Legend of Dame Ragnell

The excerpt on today’s post comes from the book Good Husband, Great Marriage, by Robert Mark Alter. It’s an interesting take on how a woman will bloom and bless her husband when he gives her a voice and a choice. If you’re interested, you can purchase the book by clicking on the cover in the carousel on the right; we really do recommend it.


King Arthur is out hunting deer one day in a forest. Ordering his attendants to stay behind, he goes alone deeper into the forest. Suddenly Sir Gromer Somer Joure, “a knight full strong and of great might,” in black armor, with an old grievance against the king, accosts Arthur and threatens to kill him unless Arthur finds the answer to the knight’s riddle. The knight’s riddle is: “What does a woman want most?” He gives Arthur one year to come up with the answer and rides off.

Arthur returns to his court at Carlisle and tells the noble knight Sir Gawain of his encounter with the dark knight. They agree to spend the next twelve months riding through the kingdom asking every man and woman, “What does a woman want most?” Which they do, for a whole year, and collect a whole book of answers, but they know in their hearts that none of the answers in the true one.
As the deadline approaches, King Arthur rides forth one last time into the forest and meets there a hideously ugly old hag, Dame Ragnell. She is hunchbacked and covered with warts, and her face is red and splotchy, with bulging, bleary eyes. Her yellow teeth protrude out of her lips, her hair is snarled and clotted, her nose is “snotted withal.” She tells Arthur that she has the correct answer to the dark knight’s question and will give it to him on one condition: that he give her the hand of the noble Sir Gawain in marriage. Otherwise, says Dame Ragnell, Arthur will surely die at the hand of the dark knight.

Arthur tells Dame Ragnell that he must first ask for Gawain’s consent. Dame Ragnell agrees, and Arthur rides back to Carlisle and explains the situation to Gawain. Gawain immediately agrees.

“I will wed her at what time you will set,” he says to his king. “for love of you I will not hesitate.”

Arthur rides back into the forest and tells Dame Ragnell of Gawain’s consent. Dame Ragnell then gives Arthur the answer. “Some people say that women most desire to be beautiful, or to have lust in bed with many men, or to be always fresh and young, but the truth is what women most want is ‘sovereyntee,’ the power to choose for themselves, the right to have their own way.”

King Arthur thanks Dame Ragnell, then rides off to meet Sir Gromer and gives him the answer: “What women most want is the power to choose for themselves,” says Arthur. “Sovereyntee.”

Sir Gromer concedes defeat and rides away.

King Arthur then rides back to court with Dame Ragnell, and she and Sir Gawain are married, while Queen Guinevere and the other ladies of the court stand there weeping at his pitiful plight.

After the wedding Sir Gawain takes Dame Ragnell to the bridal chamber, and she asks for a kiss from him. As their lips meet, Dame Ragnell is miraculously transformed from an ugly old had to a stunningly beautiful young woman, “the fairest creature that ever he saw without measure.”

“I had been under a curse,” she explains, “transformed by necromancy into a hunchbacked old crone until a courteous knight like you married me and kissed me.”

Sir Gawain is, of course, delighted, and the young couple “made mirth in the bedroom all night.”

In the morning Dame Ragnell thanks Gawain for lifting the curse.

“But it is not fully lifted,” she says. “Because of you, I am now free to be my true beautiful self…but only for half the day! My beauty will not hold. So I must ask you, dear husband, which do you choose? To have me beautiful by day and ugly in the nights, or beautiful by night and ugly in the days? Choose, choose, Sir Knight.

“Alas,” Says Gawain, “the choice is hard.”

If he chooses her to be beautiful at night, he will have to look at her all day. But if he chooses her to be beautiful only during the day, he will have the ugly hag in his marriage bed.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says. “Choose what you think best, dear lady. The choice I put into your hand. Do as you want.”

“Thank you, dear husband,” says Dame Ragnell. “Now you have lifted the whole curse. Because you gave me the choice, you shall have me beautiful both day and night, always fair and bright. Because you gave me the power to choose what I want instead of what you want, you’ve freed me to be my beautiful self always.”

What does a woman want?
She wants what she wants.
She wants her say. She wants the choice.
Your wife wants the power to choose.
And the good husband that you are wants to give her that because, according to the legend of Dame Ragnell, look what happens when you do.

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