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1 - The Inaugural Derek Brewer Essay Prize: Animals at the Feast: Strange Strangers and Courtly Power in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2024

Kevin S. Whetter
Affiliation:
Acadia University, Nova Scotia
Megan G. Leitch
Affiliation:
Cardiff University
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Summary

The one tusk went vp, and the other doun;

A mowthe fulle wyde, and fowlle igrown.

With grey herys many on;

Her lyppes laye lumpryd on her chyn;

Nek forsothe on her was none i-seen, —

She was a lothly on!

The mesh is vast yet intimate: there is no here or there, so everything is brought within our awareness. The more we analyze, the more ambiguous things become. We can't really know who is at the junctions of the mesh before we meet them. Even when we meet them, they are liable to change before our eyes, and our view of them is also labile. These beings are the strange stranger.

Dame Ragnelle in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is difficult to define. She is human, in that she rides a horse, wears a dress, and is to marry Gawain, but she has distinctly animal-like features, boar-like tusks and bristles, which sit alongside grotesque but human characteristics. She is not a hybrid, comprised of two separate parts like a faun, nor does she metamorphosize between wholly animal and wholly human like a werewolf. Instead, before her final transformation into a beautiful maiden, she is a mixture of both. Her presence is frightening and alarming for the Arthurian court, but attempts to isolate her only expose the strangeness already within the court. Despite this frightening revelation, Ragnelle's marriage to Gawain and her presence in the court prove necessary to strengthen the court's sovereign power.

Feasts like Ragnelle's wedding banquet have long been interpreted as a battleground between the wild and courtly. Aisling Byrne argues that the intruder at the feast motif, found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Malory's Gareth narrative, the German Daniel von dem blühenden Tal, and the Occitan Jaufré, provides an opportunity for the court to defeat the outside, proving its context in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight epitomizes this viewpoint: ‘For host and guest it was an act of triumph by culture over nature, an establishment of power, control, civilisation, hierarchy, social bonds’. In this framework, the feast establishes courtly identity by distinguishing the courtly from the wild.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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