"The Marriage of Sir Gawain"

Hello, and welcome to the November 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. This month, I'm bringing you a bit of Arthuriana rescued from a fire and later added to the Child ballad collection. I wish I could sing it for you, but alas! There is no air to pair with it, and the ballad itself is fragmented. Dispatch readers will see evidence of this fragmentation in the transcript, while podcast listeners will hear it in the pauses I've added to the reading.

Let's get started.

"The Marriage of Sir Gawain"

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 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?'

8 '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.

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

10 'And he asked me wether I wold fight
Or from him I shold begone,
O[r] else I must him a ransome pay,
And soe depart him from.

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

12 'Therefor this is my ransome, Gawaine,
I ought to him to pay;
I must come againe, as I am sworne,
Vpon the New Yeers day;

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

14 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.

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

16 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.

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

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

19 '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.

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

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

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

23 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.

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

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

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

27 He said, As I came over a more,
I see a lady where shee sate
Betweene an oke and a green hollen;
Shee was clad in red scarlett.

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

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

30 But heer Ile 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.

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

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

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

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

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

36 '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.'

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

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

39 And then be-spake him noble King Arthur,
And sware there by this day,
'For a litle foule sight and misliking
. . . . .

40 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.

41 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!

42 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.

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

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

45 Then she said, Blesed be thou, gentle Gawain,
This day that I thee see,
For as thou seest me att this time,
From hencforth I wilbe.

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

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

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

49 . . . . . .
. . . . . .
'That looked soe foule, and that was wont
On the wild more to goe.'

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

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

52 '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.'

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

54 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 and brother.

55 King Arthur welcomed them there all,
And soe did Lady Geneuer his queene,
With all the knights of the Round Table,
Most seemly to be seene.

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

57 Soe did the knights, both more and lesse,
Reioyced all that day
For the good chance that hapened was
To Sir Gawaine and his lady gay.1


This month, our motif information comes from the Motif Index of the Child Corpus, and because the ballad itself might be difficult for readers and listeners to parse, I'm including the provided summary as well:


Arthur meets a knight in the forest, who demands that he either fight with him or save himself by answering the question: what do women most desire? Arthur cannot find an answer, but the solution needed for his release from the baron's power is eventually given him by an ugly, misshapen woman whom he chances to meet: women's greatest desire is to have their own will. In gratitude for her help Arthur promises her Gawain in marriage. When the latter is prepared to marry her in spite of her ugliness (the actual marriage is omitted, though a logical consequence), she suddenly changes into a beautiful woman. As she can only retain her beauty for one half of each day, Gawain must decide whether he wishes her to be beautiful by day or by night. Gawain leaves the choice to her, and in so doing breaks the spell which her stepmother cast on her (and her brother the baron). By letting her have her will he has enabled her to be beautiful all the time. [...] The couple are made welcome at the court of the King.

greenwood (as scene of encounter with enemy)

task, setting of (solving of riddles)

task, solving of (prevents —> combat (between two enemies -> single combat))

reward (for solving task; of man in marriage)

marriage (?)

magic (—> bewitchment (of woman by --> woman, wicked —> stepmother, wicked; transformation into misshapen woman))

magic (—> spell, breaking of (by unconditional fulfilment of wishes)) / help (—> rescue (of bewitched person))2

Francis James Child found "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" in Bishop Thomas Percy's 1794 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which is itself an important resource for traditional English ballads.3 Percy himself discovered the fragment by accident in the 1750s while visiting a friend whose maids were using a handwritten folio of ballads, metrical romances, and popular songs to light a fire.4 He quite literally saved the folio from the fire but writes that "This ballad had most unfortunately suffered by having half of every leaf in this part of the manuscript torn away; and as about nine stanzas generally occur in the half page now remaining, it is concluded that the other half contained nearly the same number of stanzas."5

Percy believes the fragment is quite old, and the Database of Middle English Romance at the University of York places the date of composition in the 15th century.6 But the ballad is also an adaptation of a much older medieval poem titled The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, and here we find a more complete story. One of the most popular in medieval England, the plot also makes an appearance in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale."7 I'm not a competent narrator of Middle English prose, but I've found a woman who is, and her performance of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle in Middle English is both lovely and captioned in Modern English. Dispatch readers will find it embedded or linked below, and podcast listeners should visit the dispatch to find it.

All three pieces feature a man who is spared from death by learning the answer to the question, "What do women want?" However, the answers to the poem and ballad are somewhat different. In The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, we learn that women want sovereignty over men, both high and low.8 "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" tells us that "a woman will haue her will / And this is all her cheef desire."9 I would argue that this is a distinction with a considerable difference. English literature scholar Thomas Hahn writes that "In the case of Ragnelle, the narrative unfolds in ways that have the heroine clearly serve the interests of the male chivalric society that the poem good-humoredly celebrates."10 I would agree and add that Dame Ragnelle's answer to Sir Gromer Somer Joure's question is itself a man's conceptualization of what women want, a mistake in reasoning that supposes the self-will of women is so transgressive that it must actually be a desire to subdue men. But our lady of the ballad gives King Arthur a simpler, truer answer. Women want sovereignty over their own bodies and lives.

We still do.

Folk Narrative and Storytelling

For the last four years, I've encouraged you to make the old stories new again with your adaptations and subversions of folklore genres, tale types, and motifs while I gathered and organized the material I would be using to write a folklore handbook for storytellers. This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents the final piece of research I planned to do for that book, which I'll be writing in the coming year before moving on to an entirely new Folklore & Fiction series. I selected "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" for this important edition because the ballad is an example of what I've been encouraging you to do all along. It's an adaptation of a much older, medieval tale. Francis James Child only gives us one, incomplete version of "The Marriage of Sir Gawain." Bertrand Harris Bronson tentatively offers a ballad titled "The Half-Hitch" as a possible 20th century descendant, but while the plot scaffolding is similar, the ballad tells an entirely different tale.11 Even the Roud Folk Song Index only offers four versions of the ballad and those from sources I've already mentioned. But while it was popular, this medieval tale of King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and Dame Ragnelle inspired storytellers to create adaptations of it for hundreds of years. A few of these tales have survived for us to adapt and subvert again for modern audiences. So don't be afraid to do that, because it's how these tales live on. With this in mind, your last "Folk Narrative and Storytelling" discussion is a glance back at the road we've traveled together so far.

In 2019, I began with an "Introduction to Folklore Genres" and argued that the more you knew about them, the broader your storytelling palette would become. I taught you how to recognize a myth and write one yourself. I gave you a checklist for identifying legends and a number of ways to utilize them in fiction. I told you that a memorate was a supernatural personal experience narrative and invited you to write one in a story world where rational thinking isn't privileged. I compiled a list of questions to use when you're writing fictional personal experience narratives. I suggested ways to bring traditional ballad transmission to your science fiction. I pointed out features of fairy tale plot scaffolding. I discussed the structure and morality of fables with an eye toward helping you write them yourself. I taught you how to tell a convincing lie with tall tales. Finally, I helped you understand the structure and mechanics of ritual so you could include compelling rituals in your fiction.

In 2020, I helped you understand rites of passage. I explained the embedded power imbalances in superstitions. I discussed the various elements of traditional charms so you could create them in your storytelling. I paused in the early days of the pandemic to encourage journal-keeping. I pointed out that expressions of powerlessness and deeply-held grievances give rise to curses. I gave you exercises in writing with folk customs and material culture. I taught you how to evaluate conspiracy theories. I brought language and verbal lore to your storytelling tool kit, and I argued that child lore could help imbue our fiction with humanity and humaneness. Finally, I connected performance theory principles to scene-crafting and characterization.

In 2021, I began with an Introduction to the ATU Tale Types and a promise to help you understand various categories of folk narrative plots so you could include them in your storytelling. I used ATU 60 "Fox and Crane Invite Each Other" and ATU 113B "The Cat as Sham Holy Man" to discuss Animal Tales, the morality of fables, and the importance of telling difficult stories. I presented Tales of Magic via ATU 365 "The Dead Bridegroom Carries off His Bride" and ATU 450 "Little Brother and Little Sister," pairing these tale types with folk narrative adaptation and subversion and the value of motifs in fantastical storytelling. I sang my own version of Religious Tale type ATU 780 "The Singing Bone" and used it to scrutinize the ways our own ideas about the world intersect with the ideas presented in folk narratives. ATU 780 "The Singing Bone" Supplement followed with an examination of the intersections between traditional tales and ecology. Tall tales returned to the series with ATU 852 "Lying Contest," a Realistic Tale type I used to write about con artists. ATU 1096 "Sewing Contest," a type categorized under Tales of the Stupid Ogre (Giant, Devil), gave me an opportunity to help you craft folk narrative poetry. Categorized as Anecdotes and Jokes, ATU 1284 "Person Does Not Know Himself" and 1326 "Moving the Church" were good windows into comedic narrative. Finally, ATU 2014 "Chains Involving Contradictions or Extremes," a Formula Tale type under the sub-categories "Cumulative Tales" and "Chains Based on Numbers, Objects, Animals, or Names," gave me an opportunity to discuss formulaic beginnings and endings, emboxment in tale structure, and asserting the absurd in your storytelling.

This year, I focused on folk narrative motifs, took requests from readers and listeners, and invited literary guests to write about their work. Marie Brennan asked for information on "The Prickle Holly Bush," a variation of Child Ballad 95 "The Maid Freed from the Gallows," and I used her request to write about adaptation and subversion of Child Ballads. Maria Diaz wanted to know more about "The King with the Horse's Ears," so I paired her interest with a look at theme in storytelling. Danielle Cudmore wanted to offer her class of Swedish middle school teachers-in-training a folkloric lesson plan for their own students, and I responded by using "The Specter in Fjelkinge" as a launch point for a lesson plan that included low-cost or free teacher-friendly resources. "Molly Whuppie's" "Fe Fi Fo Fum!" was a great opportunity to write about the use of foreign languages in characterization, while "Tam Lin" opened the door to a study of magic systems in folk narratives and fantasy fiction. "Usheen's Return to Ireland" followed "Tam Lin" with a look at lapses of time in the fairy otherworld and the ways folk heroes navigate implacable conflicts. "The Span of a Man's Life" took a theoretical turn with a discussion of the differences between folkloristic and literary analysis of narrative. "Luck from Heaven and Luck from the Earth" utilized a Japanese tale to interrogate structural symmetry in storytelling. Poet and actor Math Jones joined me for a reading of his poetic rendition of "Gylfaginning" and offered wisdom on writing for communities, while I added to the discussion with a short primer on writing alliterative poetry. Finally, we'll hear from author and editor Rebecca Buchanan in the Winter Solstice Dispatch 2022 with a reading from her short story "Hysthaany" and a discussion of Pagan futurism in science fiction and fantasy writing.

I'm proud of this work. It was the first of its kind; a marriage of folkloristics to the craft of storytelling written by a folklore scholar and professional writer. It was also a gift to the public, one I was able to make because of the pandemic and because I was still a graduate student working on my doctorate. Next month, I'll discuss my future plans for the Folklore & Fiction project, but for now, I'll close this four-year chapter by telling you that the book I've been promising is finally on the horizon! You can expect it in 2023.

This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for the Winter Solstice dispatch and podcast, featuring guest author and editor Rebecca Buchanan. Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.


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  • 1. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume I (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 293-296.
  • 2. Natascha Würzbach and Simone M. Salz, Motif Index of the Child Corpus (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1995), 87.
  • 3. Child, 288.
  • 4. Nick Groom, The Making of Percy’s Reliques (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 6.
  • 5. Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (London: J. M. Dent & Company, 1906), 403.
  • 6. University of York, “Marriage of Sir Gawain,” Database of Middle English Romance, accessed July 15, 2022, https://www.middleenglishromance.org.uk/mer/73.
  • 7. Thomas Hahn, “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle: Introduction,” Robbins Library Digital Projects, accessed July 15, 2022, https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hahn-sir-gawain-wedding-of-sir-gawain-and-dame-ragnelle-introduction.
  • 8. “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” Robbins Library Digital Projects, accessed July 18, 2022, https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hahn-sir-gawain-wedding-of-sir-gawain-and-dame-ragnelle.
  • 9. Child, 295.
  • 10. Hahn.
  • 11. Bertrand Harris Bronson, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Volume I, Annotated Edition. (Loomis House Press, 2009), 317.