See before you the Wheel of the Year. In ancient times, as high summer holds sway there ensues a great turning seasons. And sometimes it falls out that a hero takes part in this struggle – so earning the title Champion of the Goddess. Come with us now as we re-enact this timeless magic, in the name of the Goddess Sovereignty, whose presence fills the land, in every hill and dale, in every tree and bush, in every river and stream, season on season, year in, year out, throughout all time. Lady, we ask your blessing.
Who is this who comes upon the scene? He looks a fair young lord but his brow shows lines of worry beyond his seeming years. He calls out to the forest. Listen now, he's speaking to us.
"I am Arthur, King of Kings," called the young man, looking up into the high branches. "I am Lord of this Land and this morning I did wake to the call of the hunt, I heard the horn call me from my slumbers and I came out into the forest.” He stopped as he caught sight of the white hart just walking delicately into the glade. “And there she stands, the Antlered One, the Lady of the Ways."
The hart saw him immediately and turned to flee. Quick as thought, the young man had an arrow to his bow and loosed it. It sped straight to her heart and now she lay dead at his feet. He took his hunting knife and began immediately to skin her.
"I will take her skin to cover me," he whispered to himself "and her flesh to feed my hounds."
The leaves on the great oak tree under which he knelt began to quiver and a huge creature emerged. It had the shape of a man but was made entirely of leaves and branches. His antlers shimmered as the last golden rays of the sun caught them.
"Who harries here?" He cried, in a voice like a great bell, "Here in the Lands of Summer?" He towered over the king, shaking his club.
"I do." Arthur jumped to his feet, standing ready to defend himself. "I, Arthur, who am called the King, who was born on mid-winter’s eve to herald the return of the Sun. And who are you to challenge me to my hunt?"
The Green Man tossed up his club and all the leaves in his beard rustled and shook.
"Ha!" He cried. "I am Gromer Somer Jour, the Lord of the Summer Day. This is the Summer Country, my lands, and it is my hart that you have killed. And I will be avenged!" and straight way he aims a blow at Arthur's head.
Arthur just managed to get out of the way and tried to bring his knife down on the Green Man's arm but it was broken against the ancient oak. He took another blow and another and fell back against the bole of a tree.
"The day is mine. Your life is forfeit!" and the Green Man loomed over him ready to smash him to a pulp. Vainly Arthur put up an arm and cried out
"Is there no way out of this?"
"Ahhhh! He would save his life would he!" said Gromer Somer Jour to himself. "Then you shall answer me a question. Tell me, King," he turned contemptuously to Arthur. "what is it that women most desire? Think carefully before you answer! Your life is forfeit should you get it wrong."
Arthur was puzzled. he had no idea. "What can I say to this?" He muttered to himself. "What is the answer? No! – Wait! It may be he will give me time."
And he looked up into the mass of green leaves to find his gaze caught by the bright golden eyes. "Oh Lord of the Summer Day," he said "I have no answer for you now but will you give me time?"
Gromer Somer Jour pulled back, turning slightly away. He leaned on his club.
"Time?! Aye, I’ll give you time!" And the Lord of the Summer Day sniggered into his beard, he had no opinion of this bumptious young king. Then he turned back to Arthur, a cruel smile on his face.
"One chance only I’ll allow you to save your life. One year hence you must return alone to this same place and I shall know by your face if you have the answer I seek."
Arthur ducked and hid his face, turning away. "A difficult task!" he said to himself, but he knew there was nothing he could do, his fate had been sealed when he killed the hart, maybe even when he woke to the call of the hunt that morning. He turned back to Gromer Somer Jour.
"I accept!" he said with as much strength as he could muster. "One year from now I will meet you here again and I will bring you your answer."
The Lord of the Summer Day stepped back, allowing Arthur to rise. He picked up the body of the beautiful hart and carried it off with him over his shoulders. Arthur bowed to his retreating back and then turned to go off in the opposite direction. As he was making his way slowly back to his castle a strange figure came out of the bushes beside him riding a beautiful white steed. The horse was bravely harnessed but the creature aboard it, although clad in silks, was like nothing on earth.
"God’s teeth! What’s this?!" Arthur's breath hissed and he stood at bay despite the beauty of the palfrey.
"By what right do you wander in the Lands of Summer?" The creature addressed him.
"In the name of the Lady of this Land. I am the son of the Kingfisher, the Winter King." He answered as bravely as he could. He had never seen the like of this in his life before.
"Ahhhh!" she sighed the word out long and hissing like a snake. "Then you are Arthur! And I know your quest. I am Ragnall, the owl who passes across the face of the moon and causes all who see me to shiver. I am mistress of the beasts. I hold within me all creatures and give them succour. Any man who harms a beast, harms me! Any man who harms a plant, a flower or a tree, harms me!"
Arthur followed her speech, watching the passage of her hand across the sky and shivered. He could help himself, he ducked and held up a hand as she pointed her long green finger nail at him with her final words. He peered up into her face.
"You are awful!" He whispered. "I see in your face the face of every beast in the world. Your eyes are owl’s eyes; your nose, a cat’s nose; your ears, lion’s ears; your teeth are wolf’s teeth; your hands are bear’s claws and your feet are the hooves of goats. Your legs are like tree roots; your body is gnarled like the trunk of Yggdrasil and your arms are knotted branches. Your breasts are great hills and mountains and your belly and hips are big enough to birth the world!"
As he finished she slithered down from her horse and crouched before him, her knees bent as though she was about to drop a calf. She cackled.
"Aye! I am hideous in my diversity." And she pawed at him with a clawed hand. "Men shun me. Women despise me. I am fearful to all eyes. And yet," she drooled, "I know the answer you seek."
Arthur was disgusted, he turned away. But he has heard her words. "She does?" He questioned himself. "She might!" and hope sprang in his heart.
The dreadful creature followed him and tried to rub her face against the silk cloth of his hunting tunic. He dared not move.
"And I know that you will fail" her hands tugged at him "unless I give you the one right answer that the Lord of the Summer Day requires."
Arthur shuddered at her nearness and the smell of her but he dared not risk alienating her. She could have the answer the needed He leaned against the tree and whispered to it "But would she give it me?" He made up his mind and turned.
"Would you give me this answer or my life is forfeit to the Lord of Summer?"
"But what would you give me for that answer. Every answer has its price!" She was as quick as he.
"And that’s the truth!" he muttered to himself. "What is the price of this answer? And can I afford to pay it? But it is my life and my life is the land …" He made a decision.
"What is the cost of this answer? What will you ask of me in return?"
"Why …!" She turned about, almost as if she would be coy with him. "I am hideous, awful as you say! But I would have me a husband. I wish a consort for all time, to live with me and love me here in the Summer Lands."
Arthur was aghast! "I cannot marry you!" He cried in terror. "I am husbanding already to my Flower Bride, my Gwenhifar, my White Owl!"
"Aye! I know this!" and she laughed at his horror. "I would’t have him anyway!" she muttered to herself, but loud enough for him to hear. "I would have the youngling, the tannaiste, the stand in for the king!"
"Ye gods!" The exclamation escaped him and he tried to catch it back with a hand over his mouth. "My Hawk of May, who stands in my stead!" And then he turned to Ragnall again. "Gawain? You would have Gawain?"
"Aye!" She chuckled, yellow saliva frothing about her rotting gums. "I would have Gawain. Gawain of the red hair, who has the heat and fire of summer flowing through his veins."
Arthur was appalled. "My brave knight!" he whispered. "Must he wed this creature? How can I ask this of him? How can I not? It is my life that is at stake and my life is the land." And he turned back again to Ragnall. "Lady, I cannot speak for him but I will ask him, and I will do all in my power to bring your wish to fruit."
"That is enough" she said to him "At this time."
And she mounted again onto the gay palfrey and turned back into the deep forest.
And so Arthur returned to court. He told Gawain all that had befallen him, his killing of the hart, the appearance of the Lord of the Summer Day, the hideous hag and her demands to marry Gawain.
"I did not know what to do" he cried to Gawain. "Gromer Somer Jour will hunt me down and find me, I must return to him in any case as a man of honour. How can we discover what it is that women most desire? This hag may indeed have the answer for there is something very strange about her and the way she knew what the Summer Lord had asked me."
"Whatever, Lord. I am your tannaiste. I am here to stand as your champion and in your stead. And in any case you know I am a free spirit, I love adventure. There will be some way through this mess if we can but find it. I will marry this Dame Ragnall, to say your life, to save the land. But, let us first see if we cannot discover for ourselves what it is that women most desire.".
And so the king and the knight spent the coming year journeying. They asked every woman in every land what it was that they most desired and wrote all the answers in two great books. But none of these seemed sure to them so, at the end of that time, Arthur returned to Ragnall.
"Lady," he said. "Gawain accepts to be your husband. Now! You keep your part of the bargain."
Ragnall leaned down from her palfrey and took his collar in her hand, drawing him closer so that she could whisper in his ear.
Arthur almost choked at being so close to her, her breath was foul as sulphur, and the answer to seemed very strange to him. He managed to thank her with what courtesy he could muster and continued on his way through the forest to meet with Gromer Somer Jour. He kept repeating the answer over and over to himself, so he would remember it. But he resolved to try first with the books, so strange he found what she had said to him. He would keep Ragnall's answer up his sleeve as a last resort.
Arriving again at the clearing he found the Lord of the Summer Lands already there, waiting for him.
"Greetings, Gromer Somer Jour, Lord of the Summer Day." he called out as bravely as he could.
"Greetings, Arthur" and the leaves around his mouth shook as he spoke.
"A year has passed since we met and I am here now keeping my part of the bargain." Arthur reached up to hand over to the rough, oak bark covered hand. "Here are two books full of what women told us they most desire."
Gromer Somer Jour took the books and leafed through them, never saying a word. As he came to the end he threw them down contemptuously and raised his club.
"There’s no answer here!" He snarled triumphantly. "Forfeit your life!"
"Wait!" Cried Arthur. "I have one answer more! And he whispered what Ragnall had told him into the leaf covered ear. Gromer Somer Jour leaped back as though he had been burned.
"Hell’s teeth!" He shouted. "Only one person could have told you that! My sister, curse her!
"Sister?!" Arthur was aghast.
"But it is indeed the answer that I seek." Gromer Somer Jour quietened down although he was obviously still much aggrieved. "The Lord of the Summer Day is a man of honour" he said. "I will keep my bargain. You shall have your life!"
He bowed to Arthur and went back into the deep forest. Arthur began to make his way homeward again. He had not gone far when there was Ragnall by his side again. She cackled softly as she saw him flinch.
"Greetings, Arthur. Remember me?"
"How could I forget!" He muttered. then he pulled himself together. "Greetings, Dame Ragnall, I remember you!"
"But do you remember our bargain? I have kept my part. Now! You keep yours!" And she grabbed him by the sleeve. Arthur put his hand on hers, covering it, despite his feeling of loathing.
"I too am a king," he said "and a man of honour! I will keep my bargain." and he took Ragnall's hand in his and led her off towards the castle.
When they arrived there was much horror and consternation. Gawain was there to meet him and immediately took Ragnall on his own arm. All the young women of the court, and many that were not so young, hung on his other side. In whispers they tried to persuade him not to go through with this dreadful seeming marriage. What harm could it do now, they said. Arthur had given Gromer Somer Jour his answer and been granted his life. What need to marry the witch now?
Gawain looked at them, not knowing what to say. He understood that they meant him well but he could not understand how they could ask him to break his word.
"My friends!" he said. "Why do you weep, all of you? Why do you beg me not to wed this Loathly Lady? Can you not see there must be some enchantment at work here? The events are too strange for us not to see the hands of the gods."
But it seemed they could not. Even Guinevere, the queen, was speaking to Ragnall, asking her to relent, to give Gawain back to them or, at least, to have a quiet and retired wedding. This made Ragnall very angry.
"What’s this you say Queen Guinevere?" She leaned close to the beautiful young woman. "You wish this wedding to be quiet? Out of sight of the court? Ah, no, Lady! You shall not compound my wounding so! I will be seen! I will be Bride!" she turned to Gawain. "Let our wedding be in full sight of all the court. I wish a grand nuptial and a great feast!"
Gawain at once took her hand and kissed the filthy green claws. "Lady," he said, smiling at her "your wish is my command!
After the wedding, at the banquet, Ragnall slurped and burped and gobbled her way through plateful after plateful of food as though she had been starved. Gawain was horrified but pitied her too. He let none of his distress show as he though to himself "Poor soul! What curse is upon her that she must needs eat like this? And yet my heart senses beauty and goodness within her."
He turned to his new wife and said, very gently "Wife! Come wife! Let us to bed. Let us retire to our wedding chamber."
Wonderingly, Ragnall took a last bite of meat and gulp of wine and then allowed her husband to take her hand and lead her out of the hall and up the stairs. When they arrived in the room Gawain sent all the serving men and girls out, telling them he could manage very well, thank you, without their help. They scuttled off, grateful no doubt to be as far away from the disgusting creature as they could be. As well, he thought, they would have more time to comment to each other on how he would perform in bed. He was disgusted at the thought of the ribald mirth that would be heard in the kitchen that night.
He turned to Ragnall who was waiting, almost defiantly, beside the bed. she turned her back to him.
"Husband!" she said. "Will you be as courteous to me in bed as you are in open court?" Then she turned back to him again. "I know that if I were beautiful I would have no need to ask this question. But I would ask one favour, just one little favour. Give me a kiss, just one little kiss!
Gawain stepped forward, narrowing the gap between them, until he stood very close to her.
"Lady" and he took her in his arms "I’ll do more than kiss you!" and he made to lay her down upon the bed.
She stopped him, pushing him away, but gently.
"Now that we are one" she said softly, her voice very different from before, "it is only right that you should see me as I can be!"
… and before his eyes she transformed into the fairest woman in all the world.
"The Lord and Lady bless us!" Gawain cried out and stumbled back a pace. "My love has grown! She stands now in full flower!" He passed a hand before his eyes. As he looked at her again he saw she was still this new beautiful creature. "You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen." He said to her. "And thus my heart knew you to be. In god’s name, who are you?"
"Sir," and she curtsied to him, smiling under her long lashes, "I am your wife."
"How can this be?" He asked.
"Dear Gawain," and she rested a delicate white hand on his arm, "know that I was under an enchantment until I could find a man willing to wed with me with no thought for the loathsome form which I have had to wear. And you, my friend, are that man." Gawain reached towards her again, wishing to hold and kiss her, but she put him off. "Nay! There is yet one more choice for you to make, husband, if the spell is to be truly broken."
"What choice, dear wife?"
"For the rest of your life, will you have me fair my night and foul by day? Or, will you have me foul by night and fair and fair by day? The choice is yours."
He sat down on the bed. "What do I say?" he thought. "Either way it is a pickle! Fair by day will spare her the world’s loathing but I must bear the brunt of her foulness by night. If, on the other hand, her fairness by night is for our sole delight, then she must bear the brunt of the world’s loathing by day. What can I say? How can I make this choice for her?" He stood up and went to her, taking her by the shoulders and turning her to face him again.
"Lady," he said, looking deep into her eyes, "the choice must be yours!"
He felt her quiver under his hands, it almost seemed a golden light shone out of her skin. Her eyes were filled laughter.
"You have done it, husband!" she cried. "Now I see I chose aright. The spell is truly broken and I am able to be fair or foul as I choose, when I choose! I choose to be fair with you. For you have give me what every woman – indeed, husband, every man as well – desires most, the right to choose for myself who and what I am to be. And in this choice lies Sovereignty!"
And she took him in her arms and pulled him to her. " And so to bed," she whispered, "enough’s been said, the Sun and Moon are royally wed!
© Elen Sentier 2013. All rights reserved.