Comparison and Contrast of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" With The Story of Dame Ragnell

Peter Papadopoulos
INT 296B
Dr. Driver/Dr. Meyer

The story of Dame Ragnell and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" are works that are very similar yet have differences that set the two apart. The most obvious comparison between the two works is the dilemma faced in each. In both stories a man's life is at stake and all he has to do to be spared is to answer one question. That question has to do with what women really want. Another similarity involves the outcome of each story. The differences between the two stories are revealed in the plots. The differences that stand out the most are the circumstances leading up to the question being asked and the attitude of the person that has to marry the old hag to get the answer to the question. There are many small differences between the stories but they are not as important as the two mentioned.

In the story of Dame Ragnell and "The Wife of Bath's Tale," the men in question are in a very serious predicament. The knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" gets into his predicament by raping a young maiden. In "Dame Ragnell," King Arthur is accused of giving Sir Gawain land that belongs to someone else, Gromer Somer Joure. Their crimes are completely different, yet they still warrant similar punishment. Although the reason that each character is in his situation is a glaring difference between the two stories, in both cases the character's lives are at stake because of something they have done. In order to be saved from death they must answer a question: "To shewe me at thy coming whate wemen love best in feld and town." (Ragnell 91-92) This is what King Arthur is asked by Gromer Somer Joure in the story of Dame Ragnell. In "The Wife of Bath's Tale," we can see the question is worded differently. The Queen says to the knight: "I graunte thee lif if thou canst tellen me what thing it is that wommen most desiren." (Bath 910-911) Although there is a slight difference in the wording of the question in each tale, each still has the same idea: What is it that women want the most? In both stories the main characters, the knight, in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and King Arthur in, the story of Dame Ragnell, search out the answer to this question. Both characters eventually find a person that knows the answer.

In each story there is an old hag that knows the answer to the question that the knight and King Arthur must answer. This is where the differences in the two stories start to stand out. In "The Wife of Bath's Tale" the hag asks the knight to do the very next thing that she asks of him and she will give him the answer. He agrees, and she gives him the answer. He goes before the Queen and answers the question. The old hag then says to the queen:

I taughte this answere unto the knight,
For which he plighte me his trouthe there
The firste thing I wolde him require
He wolde it do, if it laye in his might. (Bath 1056-1059)
The hag then asks the knight to marry her. The knight does not want to marry the hag but must because he has given his word. Similarly, in the story of Dame Ragnell, Arthur meets a hag, whose name is Dame Ragnell, who knows the answer to the question which he must answer. Ragnell requires that King Arthur get Sir Gawain to marry her, and she will answer the question for him. Sir Gawain agrees, and King Arthur is spared. The difference here is that Sir Gawain does not fear marrying Ragnell, while the knight is terrified that he has to marry the hag. Gawain is more than willing to do the deed for King Arthur and does not try to back out of it.

Finally, we are given the outcomes of each story, which are similar to each other. In both stories the answer to the question is that women desire sovereignty over their husbands. In each story, the old hag has the ability to make herself beautiful. In "Dame Ragnell," the hag asks if Sir Gawain would rather have her beautiful at night or in the daytime. Sir Gawain answers:

Now fain wold I chose the best,
I ne wot in this world what I shall saye,
But do as ye list nowe, my lady gaye.
The choise I put in your fist.
Evin as ye wolle, I put it in your hand,
Lose me when ye list, for I am bond.
I put the choise in you.
Bothe body and goodes, hart, and every dele,
Is alle your own, for to by and selle-
That make I God avowel! (Ragnell 675-684)
He leaves the answer up to her, which is exactly what she wants, to be able to make the decision. She then makes herself beautiful both during the day and night. In "The Wife of Bath's Tale," the hag asks whether or not the knight would like her to be ugly and faithful or beautiful and unfaithful. Similar to Gawain's answer, the knight leaves the choice to the hag. She too becomes beautiful, and because she was able to make the decision, she remains faithful to him as well.

In both stories there is an abundance of similarities and differences. However, in the end, the underlying theme is the same. What women want is power over their husbands.

Works Cited

"The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale." Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams et. 7th Edition, Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000. 253-281

Sands, Donald B. Ed. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., 1966.

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