"Many Monsters to Destroy"
The Loathly Lady Theme
Like the Green Knight, the magical Loathly Lady is a much more ambiguous antagonist than the usual
monster, dragon, or giant. It is often unclear whether she is to be considered a good character or not.
In addition, her origin, as well as the nature and extent of her power, is often unclear. The tales in
which she appears usually involve a knight whose quest is to answer the question "What do women desire?"
Eventually, the frustrated knight comes across the Loathly Lady on his journey, and he bargains with her
for the answer to this question. In return, the Lady requires the knight to marry her. The kngiht
complies but is personally disgusted and publically embarassed by his ancient and ugly bride. When he
cannot bring himself to sleep with her, the lady reproaches him, and asks him to make a decision. She
will be either ugly by day and beautiful by night, or the other way around. Faced with two equally
unpleasant alternatives, the knight tells his new wife that she must do as she wishes. This, of course,
is the correct answer. For what women want, as the Wife of Bath announces in Chaucer's version of this
story, is "maistrie." Accordingly, the knight having passed his test, the Loathly Lady becomes young,
fair, and faithful.
The knight in this tale is usually Gawain, whose warrior ethos and clan loyalty make him the member
of the Round Table who is most closely linked to patriarchal authority. Gawaine's various struggles with
both question and lady are, perhaps, the most sustained and persistent dialogue about gender roles in
Arthurian legend. Each new Laothly Lady tale reveals something different about the stereotypes and
values of its author and readers. The example below illustrates how the Loathly lady can be adapted to
an author's agend, revealing the social values of his age. It does not, however, indicate how many and
varied are the tales concerning the Loathly Lady and similar figures.
In Howard Pyle's The Story of King
Arthur and His Knights (1903),the
Victorian author's moral purpose completely changes the meaning of the Loathly Lady story. Not
surprisingly, the climactic conversation between Gawaine and his bride, which usually takes place in bed,
is displaced. After arriving home on his wedding day, Gawaine locks himself away in his chamber, in
"such dispair that it came unto his mind that it would be well if he took his own life." However, after
several hours, "a certain strength came to Sir Gawaine and he said, 'This is a shame for me to behave in
this way; for since I have married that lady she is my true wedded wife and I do not treat her with that
regard unto which she hath the right.'" Gawaine then repairs to his wife's chamber, apologizing for
his "neglect." This, for Pyle, is all the concession Gawaine need make to his wife. The Loathly
Lady immediately changes into a beautiful fairy princess. "Because thou has taken me for thy wife with
thine own free will and great courtesy," Gawaine's lady says, "so is part of that enchantment which lay
upon me removed from me." Although she indicates to Gawaine that only part of the enchantment is gone,
asking him to decide which part of the day he would have her beautiful, Gawaine's final concession to
her wish is merely a continuation of his previous "courtesy." It is not really a relinquishment of
control. And, anyway, the princess wouldn't be able to carry out the threatened change. She has
been robed of her ability to transform herself. Instead, the enchantment is "removed from her,"
indicating that she has been under a spell against her will. Rather than a complex tale about power and
gender, we are given a story about the manly virtue of owning up to one's duty, however unpleasant it
many be. The Loathly Lady, usually given complete control at the end of the tale, displays an
unprecedented powerless. She poses no questions and makes no decisions. Instead, she meekly waits in a
darkened chamber for Gawaine to make up his mind.
Top left picture by Darrell K. Sweet.
Lower right picture by Frank Frazetta.
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