Once upon a time I studied Psychology 101 at the university and I can’t forget a quote I read that was attributed to Sigmund Freud – the father of psychoanalysis. He said: “Was will das Weib?” or “What does Woman want?” I thought at the time if Freud doesn’t know the answer, who does? Then many years later, I saw a charming movie with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt titled, “What (do) Women Want?” Mel seemed to have the same problem with the question as Sigmund did.
Finally, I found a book by Ethel Johnston Phelps: “The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales from Around the World,” and read a 15th century Celtic folk tale titled “Gawain and the Lady Ragnell.” And I found the answer to that question. Read on to learn what I learned.
Here is my version of the tale, slightly enhanced. The protagonist is King Arthur – yes, the famous King Arthur of Camelot and the capo di capi of the Knights of the Round Table. When Arthur was a young king, he was out hunting one day in a neighboring forest when he spotted a huge stag and gave chase deeper and deeper into the forest. Arthur, our hero, didn’t realize that he was trespassing on the property of a neighboring monarch, Sir Gromer, a powerful, ill-tempered, evil bad-guy-king.
Gromer hated poachers so he captured Arthur and challenged him – not to a duel, but to answer one question which was keeping Gromer up at night. Arthur had one year to find the answer or pay with his life. What was the question? “What is it that women most desire, above all else? What do women really want?” (wemen desyren moste specialle in Celtic). The same persistent question that puzzled Sigmund and Mel and most men.
Arthur was an honorable man so he promised to come back with the answer within the year and returned to his kingdom. For almost twelve months Arthur and his knights traveled throughout his properties asking peasants, peers, peons, poets, priests, princes, politicians, publicans, and poltroons what do women really, truly, actually want? As the one-year anniversary approached, Arthur had many answers but none of them appeared to be correct.
Finally, Arthur learned of an ugly hag of a witch named Lady Ragnell who lived in the forest and was reputed to have all the answers. She also had halitosis, one snaggle-tooth, hair all over her body, none on her head, smelled like sewage, and was horribly hideous and deplorably disgusting to look at. How ugly was she? She was so repugnant that it is believed her mother had to hang a pork chop around her neck to get the dog to play with her. (Thank you, Rodney D.)
Arthur had no options left so he rode into the forest to meet the witch. Interesting side note here: she was the stepsister of evil Sir Gromer, Arthur’s antagonist. She turned out to be even worse looking and smelling than anyone could imagine, but she confided to Arthur that she knew the answer he was seeking and would tell him on one condition. She did not want a title, a country estate, gold or preferred stock. All she wanted was a good man because a good man is hard to find. (And a hard man is good to find). Which good man in particular did she want? None other than the bravest, wisest, most courteous and intelligent, noble, handsome Knight (who was also Arthur’s nephew), Sir Gawain If Gawain would agree to become her husband, she would tell Arthur the correct answer to the question and his life would be spared.
Arthur galloped back to his castle, related his adventure with the witch to Gawain who immediately agreed to marry Ragnell in order to save the life of his king and the honor of the kingdom. On the last day of his year probation, Arthur rode out to meet Sir Gromer and told him the answer he learned from Lady Ragnell: “What a woman desires above all else is the right to exercise her own free will; to have the freedom of choice, to be in charge of her own life.”
This was the correct answer which later eluded Sigmund and Mel, so Gromer canceled the probation and Arthur returned to his kingdom with Ragnell. Back at the ranch – castle – the wedding of Gawain and Ragnell took place that night although there was not much festivity as the guests gazed upon the hideously ugly bride. Sir Gawain, however, was the perfect gentleman considerate of his new bride. Have to admit though she had lousy manners – drooling over the food, belching, eating the greasy meat with her hands, wiping them on her borrowed bridal gown, etc.
The newlyweds retired to their bedchamber and Ragnell asked Gwain for a kiss. Gawain took a deep breath, closed his eyes, held his nose, and kissed her and she was immediately transformed into an incredibly beautiful and shapely young woman. Lady Ragnell explained that Sir Gromer put a curse on her and turned her into a grotesque creature because she refused to do his bidding The spell could only be broken if the most valiant knight in the kingdom was willing to marry her.
She then asked Sir Gawain if he would prefer her to have her attractive face and shape during the day and her grotesque shape at night, or vice versa. What a difficult question! Gawain thought about this dilemma. Did he prefer a beautiful woman to show off to his friends during the day, but at night, in the privacy of their castle, a detestable-looking witch? Or would he prefer she remain a hideous witch during the day, but at night become a beautiful, desirable woman? What choice would you make?
Gawain responded that this was a choice that only Ragnell could make as it really only concerned her. His statement broke the curse and Lady Ragnell remained her youthful, beautiful, attractive self all day and all night, and they lived happily ever after
This tale reminds me of the quote: “If you love something set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”
On the other hand – “If you love something, set it free … But, if it just sits in your living room, messes up your stuff, eats all your food, drinks all your booze, monopolizes your TV, borrows your money, and doesn’t realize that you had set it free … it’s either your husband or your son.”