The English "Loathly Lady" Tales: Boundaries, Traditions, Motifs is the first book exclusively devoted to the loathly lady since Sigmund Eisner's A Tale of Wonder (1957). The editors bring together eleven essays from rich and varied critical perspectives to investigate ways in which medieval authors "use shape-shifting female flesh to convey ideas about the nature of women, about heterosexual relations, and about national identity" (xiii). While several essays treat the best-known tales of this tradition, Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" and Gower's "Tale of Florent," one of the major achievements of the volume is the promotion of the non-canonical tales "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle," "The Marriage of Sir Gawain," "The Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter," "King Henry," and "Thomas of Erceldoune" as worthy objects of critical study.
The brief introduction sets out the goals of the collection and describes a varied mix of essays focused on several topics, including women's power, political functions, folkloric functions, and challenges to identity (for both men and women). The remarkable range of methodologies (including comparative analysis, narratological theory, New Historicism, analysis of folk motifs, and Jungian analysis) not only demonstrates the variety of ways that the loathly lady in general can be approached as a crucial figure in medieval literature, but also shows why many of these loathly ladies should be rescued from critical neglect. Among the highlights in the volume are expert treatments of Gower by R. F. Yeager and Russell Peck, Lynn Wollstadt's analysis of print and oral traditions of "The Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter," and Stephanie Hollis's original, persuasive challenge to prior scholarly assumptions about "The Marriage of Sir Gawain."
In the first essay, "Through the Counsel of a Lady: The Irish and English Loathly Lady Tales and the 'Mirrors for Princes' Genre," S. Elizabeth Passmore argues that certain loathly lady tales draw on or reflect concepts of counsel and kingship that are articulated in Irish and English "mirrors for princes," limited here to the Audacht Morainn and Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes. She develops useful distinctions between the kinds of advice offered: "formative instruction" describes the step-by-step instruction in strategy given by the Irish loathly lady to Nall, and "transformative advice" refers to the English loathly lady's attempts to transform the hero's understanding of chivalric honor (in Chaucer, Gower, "Ragnelle," and "Marriage"). Passmore offers a broad introduction to the loathly lady as a political counselor that sets the stage for many of the essays that follow. Her essay seems to be a tantalizing but condensed portion of a longer project, and as a result, some of her most insightful points including the definitions of her key terms and an inspired interpretation of Chaucer's tale appear in the notes (30 n. 4, 36 n. 66).
R. F. Yeager's "The Politics of Strengthe and Vois in Gower's Loathly Lady Tale" offers an original reading of "Florent" within the context of Gower's approach to history in the Confessio Amantis (which Yeager reveals through a meticulous and important analysis of the relationship of the Prologue's statue of the Ages of Man to the contents of Book I). Yeager proposes that Gower purposefully alters an Arthurian narrative in order to disguise within a fairy tale his political motive: the critique of sociopolitical events in England, particularly the Appellants' Revolt of 1387-88. Yeager demonstrates that the exercise of inner (rather than outward) strengthe, the silencing of divisive voices, and the submission of sovereignty that are necessities in "Florent" are concepts highly relevant to the turbulent English political situation.
For Elizabeth M. Biebel-Stanley, in "Sovereignty through the Lady: 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' and the Queenship of Anne of Bohemia," the sovereignty theme in Chaucer's tale centers on women's power, specifically the idea of queenship raised by the queen's intervention and the context of Anne's historical intercessions. Biebel-Stanley focuses on the increasing levels of power represented for women: the powerless and silent rape victim, the queen whose intercession is necessary to the knight's reform, and the hag who is an autonomous, outspoken agent. She suggests that "royal implications" from the Irish Sovereignty tales permit us to read the knight-rapist and hag as "correlating to Richard II and Anne of Bohemia" (75). While she does not address whether this correlation might be potentially dangerous for the poet who casts his king as a rapist, I find attractive and plausible her concluding proposal that the good perpetrated by Chaucer's fictional queen, the representation of the hag as authoritative counselor, and the final scene of mutual love combine to formulate a call for increased power for medieval queens.
Studying the motif rather than the function of the loathly lady, Susan Carter, in "A Hymenation of Hags," reasons that virginity ought to be a crucial question in narratives that concern female sexual power and the unstable female body. The tales' apparent disregard for the hymen as signifier of innocence (or its lack as experience) indicates that the loathly lady motif emphasizes female control rather than chastity in the Irish sovereignty tales, "The Wife of Bath's Tale," "Florent," and "Ragnell." Carter's analysis begins with the physical body but ends by revealing the political or personal motivations for individual hags' desire for sex or a husband. She suggests three types of hags: the Irish sovereignty hag who presumably reappears and offers her body whenever a new ruler is needed; the virginal hag of "Florent" and "Ragnell" who has been bewitched by a stepmother; and finally, Chaucer's hag who "destabilizes the romance clich" of "perfit joye" and collapses the boundaries between innocence and experience through her association with the Wife, known for her own sexual appetite (91- 92).
Russell Peck, in "Folklore and Powerful Women in Gower's 'Tale of Florent,'" demonstrates that Gower's narrative mode is folkloric and produces a complexly staged work that is illuminated by Greimas's theories of destinateur and actant. Peck finds that Gower uses folk motifs like the wicked stepmother (the destinateur of the tale) and the loathly lady to represent Florent and the princess of Sicily as mutually dependent victims whose salvation depends on Florent's obedience to law and ethics. Peck's thorough analysis of Gower and folk motifs make this piece important reading for those interested in folklore and the loathly lady alike. He argues that "Florent" contains the primary functions of the English loathly lady tale that are adapted by Chaucer and the Ragnell-poet, and he persuasively places Gower at the head of the English loathly lady tradition.
In "Controlling the Loathly Lady, or What Really Frees Dame Ragnelle," Paul Gaffney contrasts folklore with elite (bookish) texts by combining a narratological approach with attention to the oral tradition. He proposes that once an author like Chaucer or Gower adds framework, commentary, detail, and other designated meanings to a basic story line, the meaning of that embodiment of the story becomes more determined. In contract, because "Ragnelle" lacks such determining characteristics, Gaffney argues that readers are freer to draw their own conclusions about sovereignty, politics, gender dynamics, honor, courtesy, loyalty, or any of the other issues that may be raised through the loathly lady. Even though there remains much open to interpretation in the tales by Chaucer and Gower, Gaffney offers an image of the "Ragnelle"-poet as presenting a freer Ragnelle because he employs fewer strategies to direct meaning.
Stephanie Hollis's contribution, "'The Marriage of Sir Gawain': Piecing the Fragments Together," will change the way that this poem is studied. Hollis convincingly challenges the scholarly consensus that "Marriage" is an inferior, abridged version of "Ragnelle." Instead, she argues that it is an original recasting of the plot. Notable among the key differences are the way that "Marriage" reconceives of marital choice as an exercise of the hag's will (not Arthur's or Gawain's); the treatment of the bedroom scene as a unique, more genuinely cooperative decision by the couple; and the redefinition of courtesy. Hollis's important, careful reading of the fragments of "Marriage" uncovers compelling deviations from "Ragnelle" and establishes "Marriage" as a worthy object of study in its own right.
"A Jungian Approach to the Ballad 'King Henry'" by Mary Shaner develops a literary application for Marie-Luise von Franz's clinical analysis that sees elements of story as representative parts of the human personality that need to become whole (187-88). For Shaner, Henry represents the animus initially threatened by the horrifying anima of the loathly hag who is hungry and who threatens to devour him. His process of dealing with the beastly woman's demands and finally lying with her leads to the union of masculine and feminine psychological principles (Jungian "syzygy"). Shaner proposes that the narrative aligns suggestively with Jungian concepts of the self and self-healing.
Through her essay, "Repainting the Lion: 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' and a Traditional British Ballad," Lynn M. Wollstadt calls attention to the probability that women singers or audiences influenced "The Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter." The printed, broadside text is the only version of the ballad that reduces the implication of rape between the title characters; it also shows the knight celebrating his financial gains once he realizes that the shepherd's daughter he wed is in fact the daughter of a king or duke. For Wollstadt, these represent masculine concerns that contrast greatly with oral versions of the ballad that retain emphasis on the woman's power over her husband, some of which may have had women performers and certainly had female audiences. The focus on the punishment of the knight who has wronged a woman in the oral versions, Wollstadt suggests, may explain the ballad's appeal to women and be considered "repainting the lion."
In "Why Dame Ragnell Had to Die: Feminine Usurpation of Masculine Authority in 'The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell,'" Mary Leech reads Ragnell as a Bakhtinian grotesque whose presence consistently disrupts social values and points out flaws in masculine social identity. Ragnell has access to authority that is not available to other women and that is problematic within the male-dominated court, especially because even after her transformation, she remains able to exercise influence over her husband and Arthur. While alive, Ragnell poses a threat to masculine authority; once she is dead, she functions as an ideal of beauty and love that does not challenge the homosocial, male-dominated order. Although a distinction between independent authority and power or influence might nuance Leech's argument (and, indeed, other arguments within the collection), Leech provides convincing reasons why the narrative must end with Ragnell's death.
The final essay by Ellen Caldwell, "Brains or Beauty: Limited Sovereignty in the Loathly Lady Tales 'The Wife of Bath's Tale,' 'Thomas of Erceldoune,' and 'The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,'" is a useful lens through which to reflect back on the previous essays. Caldwell questions the degree to which the loathly lady is a subversive figure. In these three stories, she argues, the lady may appear to possess sovereignty, but the narratives restrain female sovereignty and ultimately resist challenges to male authority. Only while she is loathly and "ungendered" (in a state in which traditional gender roles are suspended) does the lady exercise power over men; once she transforms into a beautiful woman, she reverts to a conventional, powerless role (236). In short, Caldwell problematizes the idea of sovereignty by revealing that only while unattractive is the lady able to challenge the gendered and social roles represented in each narrative (the knight's elitist attitude, Thomas's sexual aggression, and the court's unfriendly treatment of Ragnell).
The loathly lady is the sort of figure that carries meaning with her from tale to tale; when she appears in a narrative, she brings with her a set of associations that readers would likely recognize and that create certain expectations for the text. The authors in this volume explore those associations as political and cultural, and as integrally related to identity and gender. As a whole, the collection demonstrates the variety of ways that the figure of the loathly lady can be manipulated to produce a wide range of meanings, depending on the authors overarching goals for the narrative. Like many collections, the quality of the essays in The English "Loathly Lady" Tales can be uneven. While some of the essays are less convincing than others, there are a number that make the entire volume important reading for the medievalist interested in the representation of women, in the concept of ideal kingship (or knighthood), in folklore and ballads, and in the representation of identity.