Come with me to the court of King Arthur – Arthur of Camelot – Arthur famed for his twelve knights of the round table! The legendary Arthur, guardian of justice and of equity.
This Arthur, in his youth, was caught poaching in the forest of a neighboring king. He could well have been put to death immediately, for that was the punishment for transgressing the laws of property and ownership.
But the neighboring king was touched by Arthur’s charm and youth. He offered Arthur freedom if he could return within the year with the answer to one, very difficult, question.
And the question was – ‘What does woman really want?’
Now, this question had staggered the wisest men. This had challenged the boldest knights, had puzzled the greatest strategists. It seemed insurmountable for the youthful Arthur ? but it was better than hanging.
Arthur returned home and began questioning everyone he could find. Harlot and nun, princess and queen, wise man and court fool. All were approached, but none could give a convincing answer.
Because of their great love of Arthur and their desperate wish to save him, each made an attempt.
The Harlot answered, ‘Money!’ – Yet both she and Arthur knew women of great wealth who were not happy.
The Nun answered, ‘Saintliness!’ – Yet both she and Arthur knew saints whose lives were filled with suffering.
The Princess answered, ‘Romantic Love!’ – Yet both she and Arthur knew that Romantic Love is fleeting – fades with familiarity – and all around them at the court were couples struggling to replace romance with something more enduring.
The Queen answered, ‘Power!’ – Yet on reflection she conceded that power was a heavy burden borne in lonely solitude.
The Wise Man answered, ‘Wisdom!’ – But then lay claim to all the wisdom in the world. Not a crumb was left to share with womanhood.
The Court Fool offered, ‘Beauty!’ as his answer – and immediately laughed at his own foolishness. Beauty touched so few, so fleetingly. It came and went like shadows. And where it came it brought most dangerous companions; arrogance, jealousy and lust!
The fool knew that he was quite wrong, beauty was no great gift to womankind.
As each consultant failed, they advised that although they could not answer, the hag witch who lived in the depth of the haunted forest would surely know and might save Arthur from his fate.
The cost would be high for it was proverbial in the realm that the old witch charged ruinous prices for her services.
The last day of the year arrived. In desperation Arthur was driven to consult the hag. She agreed to provide an answer that would satisfy but, the price had to be discussed first.
And – the price was – her marriage to Sir Gwain! The noblest knight of the Round Table and Arthur’s closest friend.
Arthur gazed at the old witch in horror: she was ugly, had but one tooth, gave forth a stench that would sicken a goat, made obscene sounds, and was humpbacked.
She was the most loathsome creature he had ever encountered.
Arthur quailed at the prospect of asking his lifelong friend to assume this terrible burden for him. But Sir Gwain, hearing of the bargain, asserted that this was not too much to offer for the life of his companion and the preservation of the Round Table.
The wedding was announced. The contracts were discussed by ministers and councilors of the court. They were engraved on vellum, witnessed by aged kings and druid priests. They were sealed with heavy wax. There would be no escape clause.
The old witch stood in front of a huge fire to speak her answer to the question: What does woman really want?
Her voice was like the piercing shriek of the storm wind. Her long grey face distorted in the light of the leaping flame – and she announced …
‘Woman wants sovereignty over her own life!’
On the instant of hearing this everyone knew that a great feminine wisdom had been spoken and that King Arthur would be safe.
In recognition the neighbouring King granted Arthur freedom.
But the Wedding! All the court was there, and none more torn between relief and distress than Arthur himself.
Sir Gwain was courteous, gentle and respectful. The old witch exhibited her worst manners, wolfed food from her plate without aid of utensils, emitting hideous noises and smells.
As she chomped she held forth on every subject. She interjected and opposed opinions. She criticised and belittled all around her. She moved abruptly and without consideration. She shoved and prodded, stepping on feet, jabbing with her sharp elbows, spilling food and drink with reckless greed.
Never before or since had the chivalry of the Court of Arthur been subject to such a strain, but courtesy prevailed and the wedding was accomplished.
Over the wedding night we shall draw a curtain of circumspection, except, for one astonishing moment: When Sir Gwain was prepared for the wedding bed and waiting for his bride to join him, she appeared as the loveliest maiden a man could ever wish to see. Gwain, in his amazement asked what had happened.
The maiden replied that because Gwain had shown her courtesy she would show him her hideous aspect half of the time and her gracious aspect the other half of the time. Which did he choose for day and which for night?
This was a cruel question to put before a man and Gwain made rapid calculations. Did he want a lovely maiden during the day when all of his friends could see, and a hideous hag at night in the privacy of their chamber, or, did he want a hag during the day and a lovely maiden in the intimate moments of their life?
The noble Gwain replied that he would like his bride to choose for herself. At this, she announced that she would be a fair damsel to him both day and night, since he had given her respect and – sovereignty over her own life.
Thus it was that with the nobility of his bearing, Gwain had won himself not only a fair damsel but a woman who valued him above all wealth, and more than saintliness, beyond romantic love, with all her power.
She would forever show him beauty joined with wisdom, would appreciate his valour, and would accept his common human error.
It came to pass that the noble Gwain and the had witch lived – Happily ever after!