Gawain and the Loathly Lady, Or Gawain and Lady Ragnell (various spellings available) is a classic Arthurian myth. There’s a story here about honour, a challenge, a riddle. Arthur’s knights must discover what it is that women really want, or Arthur will be in all kinds of trouble. It’s a story that, in a world where we still insist men are from Mars and women are from Venus, strikes chords. That women make no sense to men, and that men cannot expect to make any sense of women is a longstanding myth, and it is central to Gawain and the Loathly Lady, and to Kissing the Hag.
A rather hideous crone of a woman offers to answer the riddle, if only a handsome knight will commit to marrying her. Out of chivalry, and love for King Arthur, Sir Gawain offers to be the bridegroom. (Given how much time Gawain spends kissing men in other adventures, whole other interpretations are clearly available). The Loathly Lady announces that what women want is to always have their own way. Simple! Arthur’s problem is solved, violence is averted, the wedding is on.
The Lady then reveals that she can either be beautiful by day and ugly by night, or ugly by day and beautiful by night, and Gawain can choose. Of course the real question is, which is more important to him; the social advantages of a publically beautiful wife, or the sexual advantages of a privately beautiful wife. Being the courteous chap that he is, Gawain says that it should be for his wife to choose. This changes the game, and she undertakes to be beautiful for him full time.
Emma Restall Orr takes this myth and explores it by looking at aspects of womanhood that are deemed socially unacceptable, and looking at how those play out in our lives, and offering broader ways of thinking about archetypes like the bitch, the witch, the frigid virgin, the mother and so forth. It’s a book that conveys a number of interesting ideas, and brings home the degree to which all femininity has tended to be unacceptable in western culture. We pathologize both the bodily and emotional experiences of women.
Women who read this will likely find reflections of their own experiences, and of the parts of themselves they keep tidily locked away in order to be socially acceptable. I find it somewhat troubling that the book blurb contains the phrase “It is also a book written for men fascinated but infuriated by the women they love.” Is it the case that all women can only ever be alien and other to the men in their lives? Might there be more fluidity, more room for different kinds of femininity, and for more understanding between genders? How much of the unacceptable nature of womanhood is a consequence of the ways in which masculinity is constructed by our societies?
And what about Gawain, in the end? The man who respects his bride enough to recognise that it really should be down to her to decide who she is going to be and when. He doesn’t have the right to demand her to be a certain kind of person in public, or a certain kind of person in his bed. He recognises that what she gives him in this regard should be her gift to him. In returning the right to choose to his wife, Gawain transforms their relationship, and it’s worth noting that he gets everything his way because of this. Not by fighting, or any form of dominance or control, but because when there is mutual respect, things work out better all round. If the men in your life are determined to control you, it’s hard to be anything other than either a doormat, or a loathly lady. Women who are honoured can, in whatever way they see fit, be beautiful in all things.
Kissing the Hag is a powerful expression of trapped and restricted femininity. It expresses very clearly what femininity under control looks like, and why that will drive a person mad. There are some powerful lessons here.