The Loathly Lady and the Riddle of Sovereignty

SESSION 3: Knowing Women – Gender and Identity

The Loathly Lady and the Riddle of Sovereignty

Taylor, Arwen (Indiana University)


What do women want? When Freud asks this question, he is, ostensibly, looking for an answer; when Guinevere askds it, in, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, she already knows the answer. The speech act she performs in asking thus takes the locutionary form of a question, but does the illocutionary work of something more complicated. Both knowing the answer to the question herself, and knowing that the knight she is addressing does not know it, she violates the expected felicity conditions for asking questions, twice over. Her question is both ritual and challenging, seeking neither the answer, but to challenge him to find the answer. She is, in sum, asking less a question than a riddle.

What do women want? This paper examines riddles in Chaucer and Gower where the speaker is not necessarily looking for an answer. The convicted knight is posed the riddle to save his life in this sub-genre of Loathly Lady tales and the riddle is almost some version of ‘what do women want?’.

In this tale, the knight usually goes in search of answers and meets a hideous woman who will answer the riddle for him in exchange for the promise of marriage. The answer to the riddle is usually sovereignty over men. This usually satisfies the accuser and the knight is freed but now must marry the Loathly Lady.

Both Gower and Chaucer employ this sub-genre in their writing. In Chaucer, the riddle must be answerable. The knight tries to poll women about what they want but gets no consensus: riches, lust, respect. The problem is that the knight is treating the question as a simple interlocution. Chaucer’s riddle, unlike Gower’s, is answerable. Gower’s knight doesn’t intend the question to be answered. ¬†Gower’s Loathly Lady is monstrous, excessive, obnoxious, odious, and ugly until she transforms in Gawain’s bed on their wedding night. She tells him that she was cursed until a handsome knight gave her sovereignty and thus released her from the curse of being a hideous old woman.

The Loathly Lady image is a woman of no social standing yet “in” on things. It is a subversion of roles – the lady must get the promise of marriage to assure her position once she gives up the answer to her riddle.

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