King Arthur spends Christmas at Carlisle with Guinevere and his barons. [While hunting near the Tarn Wathelane, he is accosted by a ferocious baron] who agrees to release him if he returns in a year’s time with an answer to the question ‘what do women most desire?’ Arthur returns to Carlisle and confides in Gawain, describing the strength and ferocity of the unknown knight. [Arthur and Gawain search for an answer to the question, collecting a sheaf of answers without success]. On the appointed day, Arthur sets out for the Tarn. On his way he meets a hideous crone, dressed in scarlet. She rebukes him for his discourteous greeting, but offers to help him. He eagerly agrees, offering her Gawain in marriage. [She gives him an answer] and he continues on his way. The baron rejects Arthur’s sheaf of answers, claiming the king as his captive, until Arthur gives him the crone’s reply: ‘a woman desires to have her will’. Vowing to be revenged against the crone, his sister, he admits that Arthur is right and releases him.
[Arthur returns to court and gathers his knights] They all ride into the forest until they come to the crone. Kay scorns her ugliness, but Gawain cryptically remarks that one of them must marry her. Kay and the other knights refuse, [but Gawain agrees and they all return to court. After the wedding, Gawain and his bride retire to his chamber. She transforms into a beautiful young maiden] and offers him a choice: she can be beautiful during the day or during the night. When he chooses night, she reprimands him, reminding him of their public humiliation. He replies that he was simply testing her, and grants her ‘her will’. Delighted, she promises to be beautiful all the time, informing him that she and her brother were bewitched by their wicked stepmother. [They consummate the marriage, and when Kay comes to check on them in the morning, Gawain relates his wife’s story]. Kay kisses the maiden, praising her beauty, and they all go to Arthur. The whole court welcomes them and they celebrate.
From: Thomas Hahn, ed. Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.
Manuscript: London, British Library, MS Additional 27879 (Percy Folio)
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