Better late than never — a look at the story of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell and what it has to do with us today.
Our story is from medieval England. It is often titled ‘Sir Gawain and The Lady Ragnell. Lady Ragnell also known as the loathsome Lady Ragnell, bargained with King Arthur. A spell had been placed over him. Unless he could correctly answer the riddle “What do women desire above all else?”, he would die. She agreed to tell him the answer to the riddle. In exchange, she desired to be married to the King’s nephew, Sir Gawain. He was known as the most handsome, skilled and compassionate knight at the Round Table, whereas Lady Ragnell was a very ugly hag. Sir Gawain willingly chose to marry the Hag Ragnell, so that his King’s life would be spared. He did not know that a spell cast over Ragnell, had turned her into a loathsome Hag for half of each day, but left her as a lovely princess for the other half.
On their first night, after brief hesitation, Gawain decides to treat his new bride as he would if she were desirable, and go to bed with her as a dutiful husband is expected to do. However, when he looks up, he is astonished to see not an ugly hag, but the most beautiful woman he has ever seen standing before him. Ragnell explains she had been under a spell to look like a hag until a good knight married her; now her looks will be restored, but only half the day. She gives him a choice-would he rather have her beautiful at night, when they are together, or during the day, when they are with others?
He wisely gave her the right to choose, having learned that above all else, women desire the right to have sovereignty over their choices. In giving the Hag Ragnell the right to decide when she would be beautiful, the spell was lifted, and she was beautiful all day long.
It is in fairytales that when a spell is broken, the entrapped woman becomes a beauty. Most of us have heard those stories for decades. We may think we don’t accept them as literal because we cannot see how they are present in our modern lives. The entire diet and weight loss industry and cosmetic surgery depend on our belief that we will be better loved, have more opportunity, live happily ever after if/when we lose weight, make our breasts larger or smaller, reshape our nose. Even among many therapists the assumption is that the best outcome is for s fat patient to lose weight — more about this on another day.
We recoil from the language but fatness is also seen as reason to blame the fat person who ate his or her way into ‘freakishness’. Even using the word ‘fat” makes people uncomfortable, thus betraying the assumption that fat is bad. But many, perhaps most fat women and girls feel themselves cursed, bewitched like Lady Ragnell and condemned to life as a hag unless or until a modern day Gawain comes along and is willing to be with, to love her as she is. Because giving Ragnell the authority to choose for herself what she preferred was in fact being willing to be with her as she was.
How many of us have head of husbands complaining that his wife “had let herself go”, meaning she had gained weight and gotten older, and implying that he wanted her less? Or know women who are constantly trying to lose that 10 or 25 or more pounds that stands between them and beauty?
In my own life, in my first marriage from the time we got married until the time of the divorce, he kept telling me he would really love me when I weighed 120 pounds. It went on for 24 years. I was angry that he kept telling me throughout the marriage that he would really love me when I weighed 120 pounds. And he was angry that I never attained that goal. In the end the spell was broken, but I did not transform into a slender woman. I divorce him and a few years later met and married my own Gawain, a man who was and is willing to love me as I am.
Polly Young Eisendrath’s book, Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to be Wanted . Wanting to be wanted, fearful of not finding the partner who will want us, believing ourselves that fat is unloveable, is the curse many woman live under. Therapy and doing the work of coming to value ourselves and the right to be loved for who we are is the way out.