Through the deepest woods and wilds our knight rides, until one day in a shadowed glade he encounters a grotesque form standing bent but resolute in the middle of the way. Such a walking rag pile could only be a witch, and indeed so it proves, as the hideous hag looks up and meets the imperious gaze of the knight. He commands her to stand aside and let him pass. Well, of course he does. He is, after all, an important knight on an important quest, and has no time to waste on this hag who seems less of a woman than a demon. But the knight is riding through legend, where all reality is enhanced, and nothing is what it seems.
In cracked tones the hag announces that she knows the answer to his unspoken question. That, naturally enough, gets our hero’s attention. He demands of her that she demonstrate to him that she indeed knows the question which is in his thoughts, otherwise how can he believe her?
‘I shall do more than that, Sir Knight,’ croaks the hag, ‘I can help you with the answer! But to hear my words, you will need first to dismount and grant me a sweet kiss..’. So driven by curiosity, or by loyalty to his liege, or by remembering that in the legend through which he is riding a kiss can have unexpected consequences, our hero dismounts and (presumably with his eyes closed during the moment) puckers up and meets those leathery lips with his own. Legend remains true to form, and on the instant of those oh-so dissimilar lips touching each other, the hag is transfigured into a beautiful maiden.
‘And now that your valour has descried my true appearance,’ says the fair Ragnall (for that indeed is the lady’s name) ‘it only remains for you to ask for my hand in marriage, and then the answer which so eluded your king will be given to you. Namely: what is it that women truly wish for the most?’
So after some inner turmoil, or perhaps after wrestling with a very un-legendary fear of commitment, our brave knight duly and dutifully pops the question to the fair Ragnall. Ah, but then comes the following question…
‘So what will you now, my dear betrothed?’, asks the lady, ‘that by the day’s clear light I remain as beautiful as you see me now, and that in the grey night’s shadows I take my hag form? Or perhaps you would prefer things to be reversed, and you would have my hag by the harsh light of day, and know me only in the moon’s dim light as you now see me?’ Ah, poor Gawain… what to choose? Once more our hero is plunged into inner turmoil. And perhaps for that very reason he searches ever deeper into his own being for the answer. And the answer comes.
‘Dearest,’ Gawain at last proclaims, ‘you should decide for yourself what you wish, for surely your true form is whatever form you yourself choose to take.’ Ah, our hero has found the perfect answer at last! Marriage duly and dutifully follows… and with the riddle resolved legend prevails, and the shimmering beauty of the fair Ragnall shines forth both by day and by night.
For what women truly wish for is in the end no different from what men also truly want, which is no less than to be wholly accepted for who they are – whatever that might be, and in whichever way our life’s circumstances might change us.
Painting: La Belle Dame sans Merci by Mark Fishman