She is short and stumpy with a hump on her back. Her skin droops and folds; her eyes are watery, angry and bloodshot. Her face is maimed, burned, or disfigured so as to frighten children away. Her teeth are yellow and crooked, and she has breath that could wake the dead. She is hideous, and she is a hag:
She was as ungoodly creature as evere man sawe witheoute mesure…her face was red, her nose snotid withalle, her mouithe wide, her teeth yallowe overe alle, with blerid eyen gretter then a balle, her mouithe was not to lak, her teethe hing overe her lippes, her cheekis side as wemens hippes…her neck long and therto great; her here cloterid on an hepe…hanging pappis [breasts] to be an hors lode…like a barelle she was made…(Wells 331, 332)
Hags are among the most permanent staples in the fairytale world. They are grotesque women who usually have magical abilities and unearthly power. In The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, by a 14th century anonymous poet, Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s court promises to marry a hag in return for her saving Arthur’s life by revealing the answer to a riddle (Arthur). Although she is a terrible sight, Sir Gawain’s knightly perfection allows him to easily wed this unearthly beast. On their wedding night, the hag (Dame Ragnell) gives Gawain a choice: either Dame Ragnell will be beautiful by day and hideous at night, or she will be horrid during the day and lovely by night. This choice proves to be too difficult for Gawain to make, and he allows Dame Ragnell to choose for him. This is exactly what Dame Ragnell was waiting for: she had been bewitched into hag-dom, and the only way to break the spell was to gain dominance over Gawain after they had wed. When Gawain surrendered to Dame Ragnell, the spell was reversed, and she became beautiful in both the day and night.
Another example of a hag with certain powers at her disposal is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the story, the Lady Bercilak (the wife of the Lord of the house) is attended by an unseemly and grotesque woman. Although she is probably the most ugly woman that anyone has ever seen, she has the best seat at the table, “The old ancient lady, highest she sits; the lord at her left hand leaned…” (Abrams, 179). It is later revealed in the tale that the old hag is actually Morgan Le Faye and she is the one who changes Lord Bercilak (the lord of the house) into the Green Knight who Sir Gawain is sent to fight. Morgan Le Faye’s motive in this story is to attack Guinevere, which is why she manipulated Gawain and Bercilak against each other.
Hags are mystical and terrible creatures with the ability to change a person’s fate with the wave of their hands. They are shape shifters; they change their appearance for either their own motives that are normally undisclosed to other characters within the story, or lie in wait for the right person to come along and break the enchantment that they are under. They are manipulative, intelligent, and intuitive. Hags can make fairytale characters question what they see with their eyes; never judge a book by its cover.
Abrams, et al. The Norton Anthology of
English Literature. Seventh ed., vol . 1
New York, W.W. Norton & Company: 2000.
Wells, J. E. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell
Image borrowed from Ugly Witches