Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Wedding of Sir Gawain (Feminist Folktales 15.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: England, 15th century

The story

It's Christmas time, and King Arthur goes hunting to Inglewood Forest. He gets lost somehow, and meets a mysterious knight who challenges him to answer a riddle or lose his head: What is it that all women desire the most?
Arthur goes looking for the answer, along with his knights; among them, his nephew Sir Gawain who is hell bent on saving his uncle. Arthur meets a horribly ugly lady in the woods. She claims she knows the right answer, and is willing to tell the king if she gets Sir Gawain as a husband in return. Gawain agrees to the deal to save Arthur, and the loathy lady reveals the answer: What all women desire the most is sovereignty, the freedom to decide their own fate.
Arthur is saved, but now Gawain has to keep his promise, and marry the hag. He does so, and when they are left alone for their wedding night she turns into a beautiful woman, offering her husband a choice: Should she be beautiful by day and ugly by night, or the other way around? Sir Gawain remembers the lesson from the riddle, and offers her the freedom to decide her own destiny. This breaks the other half of the curse, and she remains beautiful day and night.

What makes it a feminist story?

Illustration by Juan Wijngaard
I don't think this one needs much of an explanation. The message is so clear that sometimes I have teenagers in the audience calling me out on telling "feminist stuff." The first time I ask the question "What is it that all women in the world desire the most?", even adult audiences tend to snicker and pass whispered jokes around. Most of the jokes are not very creative, centering on sex and money, which speaks volumes in itself. I especially like the comments that declare that all women in the world want... a certain male appendage the most, because in those cases I can point out it's false, because there are plenty of women who are attracted to the female anatomy instead, or both, or neither. The looks are priceless.
I also like the part where I ask the audience what they think Sir Gawain would choose: a wife beautiful at night, or during the day? I usually have them vote to see the numbers. It speaks volumes how many of them vote for a woman with representational value (beautiful by day) even at the cost of having to sleep with the hag at night. I guess they feel like that option is easier to swing (I have been told multiple times that one can sleep or have sex during the day). At the end of the vote I like to ask the audience if anyone has another, third solution. Someone always says "be beautiful all the time!" as if those magic words could work. But there is also always someone - usually one person, usually a quiet and observant boy or man in the back - who eventually says "Every woman in the world desires the freedom to decide their own destiny..." Those are the ones to look pay attention to. This story spells out the moral for everyone in advance, even highlights and repeats it - and yet, most people immediately forget it amidst the excitement and humor of the story. It is interesting to think about how, while the theory is appreciated (the reveal of the right answer always gets a loud reaction), when it comes to applying it in practice, not many people think of it immediately. For the moral to turn into an understanding and a habit, it requires attention, empathy, and practice.

Things to consider

As a storyteller I feel like it's important to consider how (and why) we describe ugliness. Simply saying "old woman" doesn't equal ugly, and neither does any kind of disability. I usually go with ridiculously over the top descriptions that highlight an unkept appearance, with things like copious amounts of ear wax, mushrooms growing on the head, etc.


You can find the text and background analysis here.


I first heard this story from Ed Stivender, but it is a favorite in the repertoire of many storytellers.

1 comment:

  1. Great story and moral. I think it's helpful that anyone remembers it. I did, of course, being an independent old woman. Without mushrooms growing on my head.
    Finding Eliza