It’s dispiriting that some of our greatest female characters were more inspirational hundreds of years ago than their modern-day updates. Irene Adler for example went from one of the few people (and only woman) who successfully outwitted Sherlock Holmes, to a fridged girlfriend (courtesy of Guy Ritchie) and villainous damsel in distress (cheers Moffat).
If the Loathly Lady (also known as Ragnell) has a contemporary counterpart, it would have to be Lady Catrina from Merlin. The character may well have been inspired by the ancient ballad, though she ends up being its total inversion: whereas Ragnell was a beautiful woman under a spell to make her hideously ugly, Catrina is a grotesque troll who disguises herself as a regal beauty. Ragnell was a benevolent figure who only wanted to be free of her terrible curse, Catrina attempts to seduce King Uther for her own gain. And whilst Ragnell’s story concludes with her restored to her true self thanks to the respect and courtesy of her husband, Catrina is run through with a sword after her husband’s eyes are opened to her true appearance.
Why the Merlin writers never capitalized on the story of Gawaine and the Loathly Lady is a mystery for the ages. The script practically writes itself, and Eoin Macken would have been fantastic in the role (I’ll let you decide which actress should have played Ragnell)...
One day King Arthur is hunting in the forest when he’s challenged by a dark knight, who swears to kill him if he does not answer a simple riddle: “what is it that women most desire?” He has a year to find the answer, or his life is forfeit.
Naturally, he asks the question of every woman he meets, but all give him a different answer. He despondently returns to the black knight once the year is up, but on the way comes across a hideous hag sitting on the side of the road, who claims that she knows the correct answer. She’ll give it to him, but on one condition: he’ll promise her hand in marriage to one of his knights. Seeing little choice, Arthur agrees, and knows he’s made the right decision when she reveals that the answer to the riddle is simply: “women most desire their own way.”
Thus the black knight is defeated, though now Arthur faces a grim task – to talk one of his knights into marrying a disgustingly hideous woman. Moved by pity for both lady and liege, Gawaine volunteers, and the two are duly wed. But when the time comes to consummate the marriage, Gawaine is stunned to find that the woman in his bedchamber is actually a beautiful woman, who presents to him a choice: she can remain beautiful to him alone during the nights and transform back into a monster by day, or she can retain her beauty during the day and become a wretched hag by night.
Realizing that either option could cause her equal amounts of grief or happiness, Gawaine concedes the decision to her. And of course, by giving her “her own way”, the curse is broken.
Stories don’t get much more perfect than this, and that there hasn’t been any sort of televised adaptation (at least as far as I know) is a tragedy! It’s not just one of my favourite Arthurian stories, but one of my favourite stories, period.
In case you were wondering, the above picture comes from a retelling by Selina Hastings, with illustrations by Juan Wijngaard. It was my favourite version when I was a kid (though oddly, it omits the lady’s name as Ragnell) and I was lucky enough to find it again at my second-hand bookshop in near-perfect condition.