The Wife of Bath’s Tale

In a land where faeries were removed by mendicant friars, one of King Arthur’s knights sexually assaults a young woman by the river. The people are appalled, King Arthur is appalled, yet his queen and her maidens intercede on behalf of the young knight. King Arthur leaves the knight’s fate to his wife, and she poses the option for him to go free if only he can learn the answer to the question: What thing is it that women most desire? The knight is given a year and a day to return with the answer, and here, he realizes he’s gotten himself into a serious problem.

As his quest unfolds, the knight quickly learns that no one knows what women want. Many offer all sorts of possibilities, but none of them seem to be all-fitting for all women. Nearly the entire year passes, and he realizes he must return without the answer and face his punishment. Traveling through the woods back to the castle of King Arthur, he notices faeries dancing amid the trees deep off trail. He approaches them, but they disappear.

In their place, an ugly hag appears. She tells him the road has ended, then asks him what he seeks. He tells her; and she promises an answer to the question upon the condition that he obey her. He’s thrilled and together they arrive at the castle just in time where a gathering has taken place to await his answer. “A woman wants most of all, sovereignty over the heart of her man,” he declares. No one at court contradicts him and his life is spared. The hag then appears before the court and demands that the knight marry her, by the will of her contract with the knight, for the answer she provided saved his life. The knight is thunderstruck, appalled by his rash promise to the ugly woman. He begs for mercy, but she decrees that a curse will fall on both of them if he neglects her. She even pledges her love, and though this disgusts him, he marries her by an early morning ceremony then hides the rest of the day.

 

Later that evening, he groans as they lay together. She desires to know why he’s in distress, and he blatantly tells her: that it’s because she is so impossibly old and ugly, and also because she’s of a lower class. These facts confirmed, the hag offers the possibility of an adjustment to her looks within the span of a few days, providing he be polite to her. To enact this change, she first lectures him on his grievances.

She tells him that nobility should be viewed as a characteristic, not an inherited status. This nobility does not arrive by the family line, that simply because one is born into money and prestige, one does not automatically deserve all that comes along the path. True nobility, declares the hag, is attained through the power of God and is found within. Nobility is a manner of treating others as one expects to be treated. In this way, she denounces the brash way in which the knight felt he had the right to rape the stray maiden in the forest. The hag then addresses her social standing, her lowly class. She asserts that to live poor is to live wealthy in the heart. “Elective poverty is an honest way,” are her words, and she expresses pity for the man who covets. Though the poor have to work hard, the wiser they are by the virtue that they live by. To address her old age, she makes a joke of it by suggesting that he never has to worry about her cheating on him.

Ultimately, she ends her words with a proposition: to either have her remain ugly and faithful, or to become beautiful with the chance of going sexually astray. The knight, overwhelmed by her wisdom in lecture, places the decision before her, for he figures, judging by his own lack of wisdom, that she will know what is best. By choosing this option, the knight gave entire sovereignty to the hag, and in so doing, he is rewarded as she transforms into a young woman who is both beautiful and faithful.

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