The story of Gawain and Lady Ragnell turns on the knight's willingness to wed a hideous hag and the subsequent revelation of the lady's beauty. Her transformation is complete when he offers Ragnell what women desire most, sovereignity, or the right to live by her own will and rules. In the time of actual kings, this tale was often read as a story of king-making, and the lady was understood to symbolize the land. In times past and present, the story also brings the burden of patriarchy into focus, as a function of both outer and inner relationships between masculine and feminine principles and men and women.
When I contemplate the age of this story, which appears in other well known forms like "The Tale of the Wife of Bath" in Canterbury Tales, I have to wonder if we will ever live in a world without gender inequality. This cause is one reason to continue to tell the story. But we can broaden our view of the hag as any rejected Other that we perceive to be ugly, and find a path through many forms of injustice to healing. Healing for the world and for our selves.
This takes courage and an eye for beauty hidden in the depths. Like Gawain, we have to touch the monster, which transforms our expectations of what it is possible for us to do. In her lovely reading of the story, Trebbe Johnson suggests that deepening soul or Self involves a search for beauty. We can reveal the beauty beneath what is ugly, she says, by showing compassion, acknowledging the sovereignity of the Other, confronting the unbeautiful, and loving actively. In this way we can turn suffering into beauty. She writes,
"Daring to touch the unbeautiful, we realize that not only are we not dragged down into something loathsome, but that just the reverse occurs. We feel empowered, joyous, connected with the other. To give beauty-- to our own misshapen selves, to another person, to a group of people, even to a damaged place on the earth--is to move past the fear or repugnance that keep us separate from life itself. To restore beauty is to marry the world, outside us and within." Trebbe Johnson, "Beauty Redeemed."
You can download the whole article, which first appeared in Parabola magazine, at Radical Joy for Hard Times. I highly recommend it. And may you gaze into the eyes of your monster and give her your sweet kiss of love.