"The Marriage of Sir Gawain
" is a Child Ballad
. Found in the Percy Folio
, it is a fragmented account of the story of Sir Gawain
and the loathly lady
, which has been preserved in fuller form in the medieval poem The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle
. The loathly lady episode itself dates at least back to Geoffrey Chaucer
's "Wife of Bath's Tale
" from The Canterbury Tales
. Unlike most Child ballads, and like "King Arthur and King Cornwall
" and "The Boy and the Mantle
", "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" is not a folk ballad but a song from professional minstrels. A similar bride is found in "King Henry
is asked for a favor by a young lady in distress. Her love has been taken away by a surly, selfish and rough knight who is in reality blinded by magic, pride and arrogance because of a charm that was cast upon his family by a wicked witch. In order to break this spell, this churlish knight must discover, by the mouth of the king, "what thing it is all women most desire?" or the king will lose his life. After numerous encounters with various villagers, he comes up with a list of insuficiant answers. A hideous woman from the forest accosts him and proposes a bargain. If King Arthur promises the old hag a young, fair, and courtly knight, she will give him the answer. To save Arthur, Gawain sacrifices himself to marry her, and she tells him that the answer is that "women wish to have their own will". Arthur is saved and discovers that both the churlish knight and the old hag are related and suffer from the same spell. Gawain marries the loathly lady. On their wedding night, she becomes beautiful and tells him to choose whether he would have her beautiful by day and ugly by night, or vice versa. He tells her she can choose for herself, giving her her
will, which breaks the spell of ugliness that binds her. The entire court is amazed by her beauty.
The positive view it expresses of Gawain, who is willing to marry the woman who saved King Arthur despite her hideous looks, is not a common feature of Arthurian literature at the time. It is often noted that Sir Gawain breaks the spell by giving her her own way, as in the riddle.
- Hahn, Thomas (2000). The Marriage of Sir Gawain. In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, pp. 359–371. Western Michigan University Medieval Institute Publications. ISBN 1-879288-59-1.