Saturday, I took a little trip over to my property. I wanted to see if the county plowed the road and if the trailer was holding up under the snow. And I wanted to BE there, on that plot of land that feels like sanctuary to me. The older I get, it seems, the more staring into a field of sagebrush I crave.
As I drove out, I thought about the recent trip to Eugene, Oregon Dane (bro #1) and I took to pick up the yurt that will go on the property come spring and how Chad (bro #2) and I had been talking for months about the best way to approach building the yurt’s platform. I flashed with remembered amusement at the shenanigans involved in fixing up the trailer last summer with Matt (bro #3) so that I could sleep in it until the yurt was erected. And I felt gratitude in my heart that GP (my dad) had been out with me to the property several times already to help me assess what to do with the trailer and where to put the yurt—not to mention dragging his tractor out there to pull up some feisty sagebrush that was in my way.
The men in my life have really gathered around my dream of creating an off-the-grid sanctuary.
This made think, as I often do for various reasons, about a story that has become one of my primary midlife reflections. I think it came to mind because it is the fable of a woman and all of the men in her life, particularly her brother—and about transitions.
Let me share tale and then I want to ask your opinion about a few things.
So here’s the story:
One day during a great hunt in Ingleswood Forest King Arthur wandered away from his companions to find the stag he’d killed with his last arrow.
He was stalking the deer in a lonely grove, and as he wandered into a thicket of trees, a man startled him by stepping from behind a big trunk and saying, “Arthur, lucky for you I don’t have an arrow in my hand.”
Arthur recognized his confronter as a bloke called Sir Gromer, whose land the King had claimed in a raid a couple of years earlier. And although Arthur was afraid for his life, he convinced Sir Gromer that if Gromer killed an unarmed man, the killing would not be honorable. Everyone would scorn him.
“I’ll give you anything you want if you’ll spare me,” Arthur said.
“You don’t have anything I want,” said Sir Gromer. “However, you do make a point.” Sir Gromer, who seemed to agree that it would be better to get his retribution in an honorable way, rather than by just slaughtering an undefended man, thought for a minute. “‘How about this?’ Sir Gromer finally said, “I’ll give you a chance to solve a riddle. Exactly a year from now, you come back here by yourself without your knights or weapons. If at that time you can’t solve this riddle, no one will object if I take your life.”
Arthur was amenable to this and nodded his assent.
Sir Gromer went on to say. “Okay. But if you answer the riddle correctly, there won’t be any battle and you can leave safely. Swear on your honor that you’ll return in one year.”
“I swear it,” the king said. “Tell me the riddle?”
Sir Gromer looked at the king sagely and then said, “Answer this: What is it that women desire most, above all else?”
“I assure you,” said King Arthur, “I’ll come back in exactly a year and bring the answer to this perplexity.”
Sir Gromer left, and the king called for his companions who immediately saw that he was upset.
On their way back to the castle, Arthur confided in his nephew, Sir Gawain, about what had taken place. And because Gawain loved Arthur, he promised to help the king travel all around the country to find the answer to the riddle.
During the next year, the two inquired everywhere (the story doesn’t say if they asked only men or if they ever actually polled women, as well). All the people who answered were certain their answers were correct, though each said something different. Some said women loved money—and to be well supported; others said they wanted large homes. Some said women wanted handsome, strong husbands; others said they wanted a man who wouldn’t argue with them.
Back in Ingleswood Forest with only one day left to find the correct answer, King Arthur met a lady who was out on her horse. She was covered with gold and jewels, but she was a horribly foul, ugly woman. Her face was red. Her nose was runny. Her mouth was too wide, and her teeth were yellow and hung out of her mouth. And she was shaped like a barrel.
“The lady rode up to King Arthur, who looked away from her ugliness.
“Dear King Arthur,” she said confidently. “You can ignore me if you want, but be sure of one thing: your life is in my hands.”
The King paid attention to her then, even tried to look directly at her.
She told him she knew the answer, but she wanted something from him before she would give it to him. “Or go ahead and lose your life. It’s your choice,” she declared.
“What do you want from me?” said the king. “I’ll grant it if I can.”
The ugly gal wanted a particular knight to marry, it turned out. Sir Gawain is who she wanted, to be specific—Arthur’s nephew and favorite knight. “Either I marry Sir Gawain, or you lose your head!” she declared.
The king was upset at the idea of giving his nephew to marry such a woman. So he said, “Then I’ll have to die, Lady.”
When the king returned to his castle, he met Sir Gawain and told him everything except Lady Ragnell’s request to marry Gawain himself. Arthur only said that the lady would share the secret if she could have the promise of a husband. But of course, Sir Gawain—too good to be true—offered to marry her to save his uncle and king. The two rode back together to tell her the news and to ask her for the answer to the riddle.
“Sir,” said Lady Ragnell, “now you’ll know what women desire above all else. Men say we want to be beautiful or to have attention or money. But they’re wrong. What we desire above everything is…” and here she paused for dramatic purposes and waited until the king leaned in. “What we desire above everything is… to have sovereignty—to rule our lives as we see fit, to not be beholden to anyone. So go, Sir King. Your life is safe now.”
Arthur’s went back to confront Sir Gromer, who said, “So you have the answer! Then you’ve met my sister, Lady Ragnell, haven’t you?” Sir Gromer was angry that his sister had given Arthur the answer, but he had to keep his word. Arthur was free to go.
Now Arthur sped to get Lady Ragnell to bring her back to his castle for the wedding. Unfortunately, she was so ugly that the prospect of a public wedding was deplorable to some in the court. But the Lady Ragnell insisted she would have a full wedding feast with all of the kingdom in attendance.
On the evening of the wedding, Lady Ragnell carefully watched her groom to see if he would avoid her in the wedding chamber. Strangely, he didn’t do this. The knight behaved as if he cherished his bride.
The Lady Ragnell said, “Sir Gawain, now that we’re married, show me your courtesy with a kiss. If I were beautiful, you wouldn’t delay our wedding night activities, would you?”
Sir Gawain gallantly replied, “I’ll come to you at once!” As he turned to kiss his bride, he saw in front of him not the ugly creature he’d married, but the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.”
“What! Are you a witch?” Gawain cried.
“No!” she said. “But I have to tell you something, my husband. Several years ago, I was deformed by an enchantment my brother, Sir Gromer, placed on me. My beauty, as you see it now, isn’t permanent. You need to choose whether you’d like me to be fair by night and foul by day, or else have me fair by day and foul by night. With the enchantment, it can’t be both. What do you choose?”
“Oh no! The choice is too hard,” Gawain said. “Either you suffer during the day by appearing to others in your ugliness or we suffer together at night with the same plight. I put the choice entirely in your own hands since you’re the one who is most affected. Whatever you choose, as your husband that choice will also be my own.”
Lady Ragnell bowed her head in gratitude. “Mercy,” she said. “Thank you. And because you left the decision in my hands, the evil enchantment is released completely! Your permission for me to make my own choice was the key to breaking the spell. Now I will always appear just as I am at this moment. The only thing that could release me from Gromer’s spell was if a husband granted me, of his own free will, my own sovereignty to choose what I wish for myself. And you have done just that. You have granted me sovereignty, that thing which every woman wants above all else. Kiss me, Sir Knight, now, and let’s both be glad!”
And so Lady Ragnell remained beautiful all day and all night, and she and Gawain the Knight lived happily for SEVEN YEARS.
Then, one morning Gawain awoke to find that she was gone. Taking nothing with her except what she came with, she disappeared and was never seen again by anyone in the court.
Okay friends! This story keeps teaching me things, and I’ll share my thoughts about it in future posts—especially as the men in my life and I put up my yurt. But here are my questions for you (answer as many or as few as you want in the comments, please):
- Why did Lady Ragnell leave?
- Where did she go?
- What did she do with the rest of her life?
- Why did Sir Gromer place a curse/hex on her in the first place?
- Whatever became of the relationship between Lady Ragnell and Sir Gromer
- What do you learn for your own life from the story?