The Marriage Of Sir Gawaine

A poem by Frank Sidgwick

The Text is from the early part of the Percy Folio, and the ballad is therefore deficient. Where gaps are marked in the text with a row of asterisks, about nine stanzas are lost in each case--half a page torn out by a seventeenth-century maidservant to light a fire! Luckily we can supply the story from other versions.

The Story, also given in The Weddynge of Sr Gawen and Dame Ragnell (in the Rawlinson MS. c. 86 in the Bodleian Library), runs as follows:--

Shortly after Christmas, Arthur, riding by Tarn Wadling (still so called, but now pasture-land, in the forest of Inglewood), meets a bold baron, who challenges him to fight, unless he can win his ransom by returning on New Year's Day with an answer to the question, What does a woman most desire? Arthur relates the story to Gawaine, asks him and others for an answer to the riddle, and collects their suggestions in a book ('letters,' 24.1). On his way to keep his tryst with the baron, he meets an unspeakably ugly woman, who offers her assistance; if she will help him, Arthur says, she shall wed with Gawaine. She gives him the true answer, A woman will have her will. Arthur meets the baron, and after proffering the budget of answers, confronts him with the true answer. The baron exclaims against the ugly woman, whom he asserts to be his sister.

Arthur returns to his court, and tells his knights that a wife awaits one of them on the moor. Sir Lancelot, Sir Steven (who is not mentioned elsewhere in Arthurian tales), Sir Kay, Sir Bauier (probably Beduer or Bedivere), Sir Bore (Bors de Gauves), Sir Garrett (Gareth), and Sir Tristram ride forth to find her. At sight, Sir Kay, without overmuch chivalry, expresses his disgust, and the rest are unwilling to marry her. The king explains that he has promised to give her to Sir Gawaine, who, it seems, bows to Arthur's authority, and weds her. During the bridal night, she becomes a beautiful young woman. Further to test Gawaine, she gives him his choice: will he have her fair by day and foul by night, or foul by day and fair by night? Fair by night, says Gawaine. And foul to be seen of all by day? she asks. Have your way, says Gawaine, and breaks the last thread of the spell, as she forthwith explains: her step-mother had bewitched both her, to haunt the moor in ugly shape, till some knight should grant her all her will, and her brother, to challenge all comers to fight him or answer the riddle.

Similar tales, but with the important variation--undoubtedly indigenous in the story--that the man who saves his life by answering the riddle has himself to wed the ugly woman, are told by Gower (Confessio Amantis, Book I.) and Chaucer (The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe). The latter, which is also Arthurian in its setting, was made into a ballad in the Crown Garland of Golden Roses (circ. 1600), compiled by Richard Johnson. A parallel is also to be found in an Icelandic saga.


Kinge Arthur liues in merry Carleile,
& seemely is to see,
& there he hath with him Queene Genever,
That bride soe bright of blee.

And there he hath with [him] Queene Genever,
That bride soe bright in bower,
& all his barons about him stoode,
That were both stiffe and stowre.

The king kept a royall Christmasse,
Of mirth and great honor,
And when . . .
... ... ...

*** *** ***

'And bring me word what thing it is
That a woman [will] most desire;
This shalbe thy ransome, Arthur,' he sayes,
'For I'le haue noe other hier.'

King Arthur then held vp his hand,
According thene as was the law;
He tooke his leaue of the baron there,
& homward can he draw.

And when he came to merry Carlile,
To his chamber he is gone,
& ther came to him his cozen Sir Gawaine
As he did make his mone.

And there came to him his cozen Sir Gawaine
That was a curteous knight;
'Why sigh you soe sore, vnckle Arthur,' he said,
'Or who hath done thee vnright?'

'O peace, O peace, thou gentle Gawaine,
That faire may thee beffall!
For if thou knew my sighing soe deepe,
Thou wold not meruaile att all;

'Ffor when I came to Tearne Wadling,
A bold barron there I fand,
With a great club vpon his backe,
Standing stiffe and strong;

'And he asked me wether I wold fight,
Or from him I shold begone,
Or else I must him a ransome pay
& soe depart him from.

'To fight with him I saw noe cause,
Methought it was not meet,
For he was stiffe & strong with-all,
His strokes were nothing sweete;

'Therefor this is my ransome, Gawaine,
I ought to him to pay:
I must come againe, as I am sworne,
Vpon the Newyeer's day.

'And I must bring him word what thing it is
... ... ...
... ... ...
... ... ...

*** *** ***

Then King Arthur drest him for to ryde
In one soe rich array
Toward the fore-said Tearne Wadling,
That he might keepe his day.

And as he rode over a more,
Hee see a lady where shee sate
Betwixt an oke & a greene hollen;
She was cladd in red scarlett.

Then there as shold haue stood her mouth,
Then there was sett her eye,
The other was in her forhead fast
The way that she might see.

Her nose was crooked & turnd outward,
Her mouth stood foule a-wry;
A worse formed lady than shee was,
Neuer man saw with his eye.

To halch vpon him, King Arthur,
This lady was full faine,
But King Arthur had forgott his lesson,
What he shold say againe.

'What knight art thou,' the lady sayd,
'That will not speak to me?
Of me be thou nothing dismayd
Tho' I be vgly to see;

'For I haue halched you curteouslye,
& you will not me againe;
Yett I may happen, Sir Knight,' shee said,
'To ease thee of thy paine.'

'Giue thou ease me, lady,' he said,
'Or helpe me any thing,
Thou shalt have gentle Gawaine, my cozen,
& marry him with a ring.'

'Why, if I help thee not, thou noble King Arthur,
Of thy owne heart's desiringe,
Of gentle Gawaine . . .
... ... ...

*** *** ***

And when he came to the Tearne Wadling
The baron there cold he finde,
With a great weapon on his backe,
Standing stiffe and stronge.

And then he tooke King Arthur's letters in his hands,
& away he cold them fling,
& then he puld out a good browne sword,
& cryd himselfe a king.

And he sayd, 'I haue thee & thy land, Arthur,
To doe as it pleaseth me,
For this is not thy ransome sure,
Therfore yeeld thee to me.'

And then bespoke him noble Arthur,
& bad him hold his hand;
'& giue me leaue to speake my mind
In defence of all my land.'

He said, 'As I came over a more,
I see a lady where shee sate
Betweene an oke & a green hollen;
She was clad in red scarlett;

'And she says a woman will haue her will,
& this is all her cheef desire:
Doe me right, as thou art a baron of sckill,
This is thy ransome & all thy hyer.'

He sayes, 'An early vengeance light on her!
She walkes on yonder more;
It was my sister that told thee this;
& she is a misshappen hore!

'But heer He make mine avow to God
To doe her an euill turne,
For an euer I may thate fowle theefe get,
In a fyer I will her burne.'

*** *** ***

The 2nd Part

Sir Lancelott & Sir Steven bold
They rode with them that day,
And the formost of the company
There rode the steward Kay.

Soe did Sir Bauier and Sir Bore,
Sir Garrett with them soe gay,
Soe did Sir Tristeram that gentle knight,
To the forrest fresh & gay.

And when he came to the greene fforrest,
Vnderneath a greene holly tree
Their sate that lady in red scarlet
That vnseemly was to see.

Sir Kay beheld this ladys face,
& looked vppon her swire;
'Whosoeuer kisses this lady,' he sayes,
'Of his kisse he stands in feare.'

Sir Kay beheld the lady againe,
& looked vpon her snout;
'Whosoeuer kisses this lady,' he saies,
'Of his kisse he stands in doubt.'

'Peace, cozen Kay,' then said Sir Gawaine,
'Amend thee of thy life;
For there is a knight amongst vs all
That must marry her to his wife.'

'What! wedd her to wiffe!' then said Sir Kay,
'In the diuells name, anon!
Gett me a wiffe whereere I may,
For I had rather be slaine!'

Then some tooke vp their hawkes in hast,
& some tooke vp their hounds,
& some sware they wold not marry her
For citty nor for towne.

And then bespake him noble King Arthur,
& sware there by this day:
'For a litle foule sight & misliking
... ... ...

*** *** ***

Then shee said, 'Choose thee, gentle Gawaine,
Truth as I doe say,
Wether thou wilt haue me in this liknesse
In the night or else in the day.'

And then bespake him gentle Gawaine,
Was one soe mild of moode,
Sayes, 'Well I know what I wold say,
God grant it may be good!

'To haue thee fowle in the night
When I with thee shold play;
Yet I had rather, if I might,
Haue thee fowle in the day.'

'What! when Lords goe with ther feires,' shee said,
'Both to the ale & wine?
Alas! then I must hyde my selfe,
I must not goe withinne.'

And then bespake him gentle Gawaine;
Said, 'Lady, thats but skill;
And because thou art my owne lady,
Thou shalt haue all thy will.'

Then she said, 'Blessed be thou, gentle Gawaine,
This day that I thee see,
For as thou see[st] me att this time,
From hencforth I wil be:

'My father was an old knight,
& yett it chanced soe
That he marryed a younge lady
That brought me to this woe.

'Shee witched me, being a faire young lady,
To the greene forrest to dwell,
& there I must walke in womans likness,
Most like a feend of hell.

'She witched my brother to a carlish b . . . . .
... ... ...
... ... ...
... ... ...

*** *** ***

... ... ...
... ... ...
That looked soe foule, & that was wont
On the wild more to goe.

'Come kisse her, brother Kay,' then said Sir Gawaine,
'& amend thé of thy liffe;
I sweare this is the same lady
That I marryed to my wiffe.'

Sir Kay kissed that lady bright,
Standing vpon his ffeete;
He swore, as he was trew knight,
The spice was neuer soe sweete.

'Well, cozen Gawaine,' sayes Sir Kay,
'Thy chance is fallen arright,
For thou hast gotten one of the fairest maids
I euer saw with my sight.'

'It is my fortune,' said Sir Gawaine;
'For my Vnckle Arthur's sake
I am glad as grasse wold be of raine,
Great ioy that I may take.'

Sir Gawaine tooke the lady by the one arme,
Sir Kay tooke her by the tother,
They led her straight to King Arthur
As they were brother & brother.

King Arthur welcomed them there all,
& soe did lady Geneuer his queene,
With all the knights of the round table
Most seemly to be seene.

King Arthur beheld that lady faire
That was soe faire and bright,
He thanked Christ in Trinity
For Sir Gawaine that gentle knight;

Soe did the knights, both more and lesse;
Reioyced all that day
For the good chance that hapened was
To Sir Gawaine & his lady gay.

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