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medieval romance, Arthurian romance, liberation of women


In his conclusion of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, the anonymous poet asks "Jhesu" to

Help him oute of sorrowe that this tale did devine,

And that nowe in alle hast,

For he is beset withe gailours many,

That kepen him fulle sewerly,

With wiles wrong and wraste. (842-846)

Although the poet then repeats his cry for help two additional times, this ending has never been seriously considered as an important part of the romance. One critic puzzles as it by saying, "Oddly, the romance ends on a note of pathos," but it is usually ignored in plot summaries and is seldom considered in general discussions of the work. Instead, attention is customarily focused on the situation that confronts King Arthur, who, under threat to his life, must answer the famous question about what women most desire. But the possibility exists that these two dilemmas, the situation confronting King Arthur and that provoking the poet's complaint, are really connected, that the romance, contrary to expectation, makes a serious comment on the general Christian concern to free men from their troubles, and that the romance not only comments on men but on the liberation of women as well. For as in "The Wife of Bath's Tale," where the wayward young knight is put to the very same test by the women of Arthur's court in order to teach him a lesson, here too the seemingly frivolous question and answer can be seen to speak directly to a perennial feminine plight. Indeed, as we will go on to show, the poet believes that the fetters with which all human beings are bound can be broken only by the gift of one person's will to another. But in order to understand the poet's conception, we must consider in turn each of the story's events.