In the story of "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell," we are introduced to a rather interesting character, Dame Ragnell. We meet Dame Ragnell in the beginning of the story when King Arthur is riding his horse into Ingelswood Forest. He then meets a lady, Dame Ragnell, who is described to be absolutely hideous and grotesque. The story gives a complete description of this old, foul woman:
Her face was red, her nose snotid withalle, Her mouithe wide, her teethe yallowe overe alle, With blerid eyen gretter then a balle; Her mouithe was not to lak; Her teeth hing over her lippes; Her cheekis as wemen hippes.
Dame Ragnell is a repulsive creature. She's described as a big, broad-shouldered woman with yellow, rotten teeth hanging over her mouth, great big eyes, and a big red face with cheeks the size of a lady's hips.
King Arthur runs in trouble and is given twelve months to find the answer to the question, "What do women most desire?" With his life riding on this answer, King Arthur desperately asks Dame Ragnell to tell him what women most desire. She tells him that women most desire power and sovereignty in marriage. But she tells him this only after he promises that one of his knights, Sir Gawain, will wed her. Sir Gawain does indeed marry her, but only because of his strong loyalty to his king. Sir Gawain is disgusted by her appearance, but he knows this is the only way to save King Arthur. People pity Sir Gawain, a very handsome man who possesses nobility and honor, for having to marry such a loathly woman.
Dame Ragnell has no manners, especially at the dinner table. When she feasts at King Arthur's court, she eats as much food as six grown men:
Her nailes were long inchis three; Therewithe she breke her mete ungoodly;
Dame Ragnell's appearance is the result of her stepmother's wicked spell. Her stepmother cursed Dame Ragnell many years ago and the spell can only be broken if she weds a man who gives her sovereignty in their marriage. The spell has yet to be broken…that is until she is married to Sir Gawain. Then, she gives Sir Gawain the ultimatum that he can either choose for Dame Ragnell to be beautiful during the day for all men to admire, and at night she will be ugly for Sir Gawain, or for her to be ugly during the day and beautiful at night for Sir Gawain to enjoy. He tells Dame Ragnell that he will allow her to make the decision:
The choise is hard. To chese the best it is froward. Wheder choise that I chese, To have you faire on nightes and no more, That wold greve my hart righte sore And my worship shold I lese. And if I desire on days to have you faire, Then on nightes I shold have a simple repaire. Now fain wold I chose the best, I ne wot in this world what I shall saye, But do as ye list now my lady gaye. The choise I put in your fist.
And because he gives her sovereignty in the marriage, he is able to break the horrible spell and she is no more a hideous creature, but a fair woman…both day and night.
Heba's Rendition of Dame Ragnell
To break Dame Ragnell's spell,
put your mouse over the image, and see this creature turn into a fair lady.