King Arthur and the Legend of the Loathly Lady
by Helen Hollick
In April 1993 – 30 years ago – I was accepted by William Heinemann (now a part of UK Random House), for the publication of my Arthurian novels, The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy. I received the exciting news one week after my 40th birthday. (So life does begin at 40!)
It had taken me over 10 years to write what eventually became books 1 and 2, The Kingmaking and Pendragon’s Banner (with book 3 Shadow Of The King to follow).
I set my version of the King Arthur story in the post-Roman era of British history – the fifth century, setting aside the later Medieval tales of knights and chivalry, in favour of the much earlier Welsh legends such as the Mabinogion, Gildas’s 6th-century polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) the Welsh cleric Nennius’s The Historia Brittonum, a 9th-century semi-historical compilation which listed twelve battles that Arthur(supposedly) fought, culminate in the Battle of Badon, and the early Welsh poetic sources such as Y Gododdin.
I have written various articles relating to the background of my Trilogy for this, my 30th Anniversary Tour Celebration, so I won’t repeat the whys and wherefores of Arthur or my writing, except to say that I stripped away all the blatant legendary stuff, and kicked out anything dating from after the Norman Conquest, so there is no Lancelot in my tale, no Holy Grail, no turreted castle of Camelot – and no Merlin. (Follow the tour here: https://www.helenhollick.net/ )
I did want to blend in some of the early folk tales, however, and the tale of the Loathly Lady is a good example. After all, if it was good enough for Chaucer to use in The Wife Of Bath…
The story is based around an unattractive (ugly = loathly) woman who undergoes a transformation on being approached by a handsome young man. The story culminates in the revelation that her ugliness was the result of a witch’s curse that is broken by the hero. The tale is common in many folk settings, Irish, Welsh and Norse, as well as the later Medieval writers of Romance. (Romantic Fiction is nothing new!)
In The Canterbury Tales the story begins when a knight of King Arthur’s court rapes a young woman. The king and his court judge that execution should be the punishment for the crime, but the queen and women of the court disagree. They persuade Arthur to grant the knight another chance on condition that he must find out what women desire most. The knight sets off on his quest, only to find that the answer he seeks is more difficult than he anticipated. No two women give him the same answer!
He then meets an old woman who offers to help him. They return to court where the Loathly Lady reveals that women want to be treated as equal partners in their relationships, and then asks the knight to marry her in return for helping him. He is obliged to submits to the request. They marry but when she asks him why he is unhappy he replies that he has had to marry an unattractive woman. His wife responds by giving him a choice: either he can have an old, unattractive, yet loyal wife or a young and beautiful wife who will be unfaithful to him. The knight decides to let her make her own choice, and the spell is broken – she transforms into a wife both beautiful and loyal.
I have used something similar in the third part of my trilogy, Shadow Of The King. No spoilers… Both characters, Ragnall and Cadwy are disfigured or disabled in some way. Ragnall is sentenced to die, but Cadwy steps forward and offers her marriage, thus saving her…
Here’s a short excerpt:
For Ragnall and Cadwy, the day had begun as an ordeal. Neither of them particularly easy in company, both timid and shy of strangers, they had found themselves unwillingly cast as principal players in this whirlpool of marriage celebration. Ragnall, still frightened of the threat of death hanging over her – though Gwenhwyfar and many others had repeatedly assured her of the invalidity of that punishment – attempted to smile, to show happiness. But other fears were crowding her, fears real and imaginary. Together, they had shuffled a few brief, stumbling steps, as custom decreed, to begin the dancing. Holding Cadwy’s hand awkwardly, Ragnall had wondered at his motive for taking her as a bride. She had no beauty, only ugliness, no grace or elegance. He knew not enough of her to be aware of the laughter that longed to escape from deep inside her, nor did he know of her sweet singing voice or her love of tale-telling. He did not know her at all, for until this day they had been apart since the ordeal of shame and fear at Yns Witrin.
Nor did she know him, but this did not matter. He had given her the gift of freedom – albeit that freedom might be short-lived, for no woman could be certain how a husband would treat her in marriage. His features were strong, his countenance gentle and compassionate. He did not seem a man who would tend to violence towards his lady. Ragnall did not mind his limping, his awkward gait, for she saw only her own ungainliness. Wished so much that she might find some way of pleasing him as wife.
Cadwy, for his part, was as mindful of his own disability. How must she think of him as he shuffled and lurched those few, embarrassingly public steps? Acutely, was he aware of the glances and smothered sniggers. For all the joyfulness, the comments directed at the couple who had caused the celebrations were overloud and over-rude. Cadwy reddened at the cruel jesting, his fist clenching, schooling his expression to remain plain, untroubled, but Ragnall saw, read the thoughts behind his eyes. Took his discomfort as shame of her.
What happens next, sorry, it’s in the book!
© Helen Hollick
Helen’s new, self-published, editions with beautiful covers designed by Cathy Helms of www.avalongraphics.org are, alas, only available outside of USA and Canada, where the same books are published by Sourcebooks Inc. (The new covers were offered – free – to Sourcebooks, but the offer was declined.)
Buy The Books:
THE PENDRAGON’s BANNER TRILOGY
New Editions available worldwide except USA/Canada
First accepted for traditional publication in 1993, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She has also branched out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her, often hilarious, memories of working as a library assistant.
Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She lives with her family in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon and occasionally gets time to write…
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