In Quest of Truth and Beauty

What is noteworthy to me about the Shrek movies is the princess who could chose to be beautiful some of the time choosing to be an ogre all of the time.  This strikes me as nobler then the King Arthur legend I will now relate.


King Arthur sets out to right a lady’s wrong.  However, the castle of the guilty knight stands on magic ground and Arthur’s courage fails him and his strength decays.  He yields himself prisoner to the wicked knight who released him on the condition that at the end of a year he bring him the answer to this question:  “What thing is it which women most desire?”  If Arthur doesn’t bring back the answer he forfeits himself and all his lands.


Off Arthur goes in a quest to answer this beguiling question (Let the reader note the writer purposely uses the word “beguiling.”).  He asks everywhere to all; some tell him the answer is riches, some pomp and state; some mirth; some flattery, and some a gallant knight.  The answers are so diverse there is no certain one.  The year is all but spent when he happens upon “a lady of such hideous aspect that he turned away his eyes.”  She says that though she is ugly as can be she has the answer he seeks.  Arthur says that if this is the case she can choose her reward.  What this woman wants is as fair and courtly knight for a husband.


Arthur returns to the evil knight.  One by one Arthur gives all the answers except for the one offered by the ugly woman.  The wicked knight demands Arthur yield.  The noble king finally responds with the revolting woman’s answer., “All women would have their will.  This is their chief desire.”  The oafish knight admits he’s right, and Arthur is free, but still burdened.  As an honorable knight he must keep his word to the most ugly woman he had ever not seen, but where could he find a young, gallant knight willing to marry her?


Arthur relates his plight to his nephew Sir Gawain.  Gawain says, “Be not sad, my lord, for I will marry the loathly lady.”  Arthur replies, “The loathly lady’s all too grim, and all too foul for thee.”  Gawain persists and brings the hideous woman to court to wed. He is scoffed and jeered by his companions, but makes good on his promise.  “For privately he wed her on the morrow,/ And all day after hid him as an owl,/ So woe was him his wife looked so foul!”  So much for Jimmy Soul’s assertion that if you want to be happy for the rest of you your life get an ugly girl for a wife!


But the story does not end here.  On their wedding knight, when they got behind closed doors and she let her hair hang down, he still can’t look at her.  When the loathsome lady asks why he answers honestly if not nobly:  It is on account of 3 things: her age, her ugliness, and her low station in life.  The remarkable lady, who by the way is the sister of the churlish knight who captured Arthur, isn’t offended.  She replies with excellent arguments: with age comes discretion, with ugliness security from rivals (see song referenced above), and true gentility doesn’t depend on the accident of birth but upon the character of the individual.


Then Sir Gawain turned to look at her, and behold she was a raving beauty.  She then told him that her hideous appearance was not her true form but a curse imposed by a wicked enchanter.  She was condemned to endure it until two things happened.  The first was that she would be married by a young, gallant knight.  When that happened, one half of the curse would be removed.  She was now free to have her true beauty half of the time.  Sir Gawain could have her fair by day or by night.


Now Sir Gawain had a dilemma.  Should he have her fair by night for him or by day for others?  Which do you think he chose?  He decides to have her beauty for him by night and her repulsiveness for others by day.  She counters that it would be much more pleasant for her to wear her beauty among the knights and ladies.


Sir Gawain yields and gave up his will to hers. Getting a man to give up his will in favor of hers is what was needed to break the other half of the curse.  She would now be all beauty all the time.


Two concluding remarks from me:  1) They both got what they wanted but at what price?  2) There are many lessons here relating to Christ, His Bride, the Fall, Genesis 3:16, marriage, men, women, life, and love that I can’t begin to relate them, so sally forth on your own quest.


The complete story is found Bulfinch’s Mythology, VI, 414-417.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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