Compare and Contrast: Wife of Bath's Tale & The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell For two works written during slightly different time periods and by different authors, there seem to be some distinct similarities in plot between Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell”. However, the differences in characterization and literary theme act as good tools for delineation.

The plots of the two poems run along a similar thread. The male protagonists find themselves in a predicament of some sort that results in the need for retribution. They are given a period of a year and a month to find the answer to a question that has plagued society for centuries: What do women most desire in the world? They search for the answer, yet they receive various responses, neither of which match. As their time draws to a close and hope seems to be lost, they both stumble across an old hag who has the answer: Women desire sovereignty over their husbands. However, in return, they are forced to make rash promises that don’t seem to affect them at the time. Then, when they have given in the correct response and all seems well, the rash promise comes back to haunt them, and a marriage is the result. They are given ultimatums by their brides that affect the future happiness of their marriages, and when the protagonists gave over authority to their wives, they lived happily ever after.

Under the shell of the plot, intricate but significant differences exist. The most obvious difference is the characterization of the protagonists. In “Wife of Bath’s Tale”, the main character is nameless. He is only referred to as the knight. From the beginning, we see the knight’s behavior is uncharacteristic of King Arthur’s famous Knights of the Round Table. In the beginning of the tale, the “lusty bacheler” sees a young maiden walking alone a stream and “by verray force he rafte hir maidenheed” (Abrams 273). The knights lived under a code of chivalry and camaraderie similar to the comitatus of Anglo-Saxon times. One of the major provisions of chivalry was the proper treatment of women. Women were to be respected, fought for, and placed on a pedestal. The rape of a woman by a knight was unspeakable and condemnable with death. Also, after the old hag comes forward and demands that the knight keep his promise to her and marry her, the knight refuses profusely, saying that it is wrong for “any of his nacioun sholde evere so foule disparaged be.”(Abrams 277) Instead of doing his knightly duty and recognizing his promise, he refuses, though futile, and even puts down the woman, making mention of his higher, nobler birth. Though he is eventually forced into accepting his duty, his behavior throughout the story is unacceptable and reveals a depraved and immoral character.

In contrast, the character of Sir Gawain in “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell” is indicative of the quintessential knight. He is undeniable kind, thoughtless and respectful. Sir Gawain is considered the protagonist of the story though he doesn’t cause the action or drama in the work. In fact, it is King Arthur’s fault. Because he gave away Sir Gromer Somer Jour’s land, he has to find the answer to the question about what women desire the most. Even though Gawain didn’t have to, he helps King Arthur go around and collect answers, notebooks full. And then, when the old hag specifies that she wants to marry Sir Gawain in return for the response, Sir Gawain willing marries this stranger for his king. He even says that he “wolle wed her at whate time ye wolle set...for your love I will not spare”. (Jonck 335) Finally, when the old hag tells him that “and I were faire ….kiss me at the leste”, Gawain proclaims that he “wolle do more then for to kiss, and God before.” (Jonck 342) All in all, it is Sir Gawain’s charcter that is the most admirable.

The difference in characterization is part of the bigger difference in theme. In writing “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, Chaucer was writing his response to those in society that believed in the supreme male authority. At the time, the medieval church preached the intellectual and spiritual dominance men had over women, who were supposedly material and irrational. The story, as well as its narrator, the wife of Bath, was his way to expose the shallowness of the stereotypes that women were placed in and the bumblings of “superior” men. Also, the tale was meant to have a moral teaching behind it. In telling this story, the wife of Bath is calling all to be noble and kind for that is what God will look upon for your entrance into heaven. The purpose, however, of “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell” was not in anyway moral or political. In fact, its tone is more relaxed and comical. The reader can laugh at the thought of King Arthur and Sir Gawain going around collecting answers in notebooks as well as the irony in the fact that the hag is in fact the sister of Sir Gromer Somer Jour. The story was also a way to reveal the greatness of Sir Gawain in contrast to the other knights, even King Arthur.

Created By Judith Mathieu,
Last Modified: May 16, 2004