Great stories carry hidden secrets that can transform a life. They bring us face-to-face with hidden truths that help free us from false beliefs and attitudes, self-criticism and negativity that crush us. Cultural conditioning has taught us to undervalue the wild creativity that lies within—that part of us which is instinctual, irrational, and full of passion. Conventional society is so frightened of these things that we have been taught to fear ourselves and to judge ourselves harshly. We swallow our anger even when it is righteous. We crush our wild nature and we see ourselves as ugly. Yet locked within what we most hate and fear lies the greatest power for true freedom. Today I’d like to share with you one of my favorite mythologies of self-discovery—as delightful and important for men as it is for women. Here’s how it goes:
THE LOATHLY LADY
One Christmastide Arthur rode out with his knights to hunt. By chance he became separated from his companions and found himself at the edge of a great brackish pond. There, a knight in black armour emerged from the shadows and challenged him to a fight. Arthur reached to draw his sword Excalibur and call on its power to protect him from all harm. Alas, he had come away from court without it. He could feel every ounce of strength drain away from his body in the presence of the dark and evil stranger who raised his sword and threatened to kill him. Being a responsible king, of course, Arthur told the dark knight he didn't think that killing him was such a great idea—he had a country to rule, after all, and knights to look after. Where would they be without him? The stranger, bored at the thought of such an easy kill, relented and replied, "OK, I won't kill you so long as you return to this place in three days with the answer to a riddle I shall give you. If you fail I shall remove your head in one fwll swoop."
WHAT DOES SHE WANT
Arthur agreed. He figured that given half a chance and a mug or two of fancy mead, his pals back at the castle would be sure to come up with something. The riddle the stranger posed was this: "What does every woman want?" So Arthur headed home to ask all of his knights and wise men to give him the answer. Everyone from Merlin to a goose girl he met along the road had a go. Each gave him a different answer: "A woman wants beauty," said one. "A woman wants power," said another, or fame, or jewels, or sanctity. None could agree.
Time was running out. Finally, although he had done his best to hide from his beloved Guinevere the seriousness of the situation, the third morning arrived. Bound by his word of honor to the Black Knight, Arthur had to face the music. Along the road to the meeting at the brackish waters, Arthur came upon an old woman. She sat on a tree stump by the side of the road calling his name. Arthur dismounted and approached her with all the courtesy he could muster. For the closer he came, the more ghastly this old hag appeared. Although she was dressed in fine silk and wore magnificent jewels on her gnarled and twisted hands, she was unquestionably the most hideous thing he had ever seen—or dreamed of, for that matter. Her nose was like a pig's, her mouth was huge, toothless and dribbling. What hair remained on her head was greasy, and the skin all over her misshapen and bloated body was covered in oozing sores.
Arthur swallowed hard, forcing himself not to have to look away. "My Lord," she said in a surprisingly gentle voice, "Why look you so dismayed?" Summoning up all his chivalrous training, Arthur apologized for his manner, trying to explain it away by telling her he was most unsettled at the prospect of returning to meet his death at the hand of an evil knight because he could not tell him the answer to the riddle, "What does every woman want?" "Ah," said the hag. "I can tell you that. But such knowledge cannot be given without payment." Arthur, hoping once again for a reprieve from death, replied, "Of course Madam, anything you desire shall be yours for the answer—even half my kingdom."
The Loathly Lady made Arthur bend down while she whispered a few words in his ear." The moment Arthur heard them, he knew his life and his kingdom had been saved. He was about to leap on his horse again and ride off to meet the stranger when she tugged on his cloak and said, "Now I want my reward." "Of course Madam, what is it that you want?" he asked. "I want to be the wife of your bravest knight and live at your court." Arthur, who only a moment before had felt his spirits soar, was plunged into the deepest despair. How could he possibly expect any knight to consent to marry such a hideous hag? And what would it be like to have to endure such ugliness every day at court? "But Madam, that is impossible!" he said. The words slipped through his lips before he could catch them. Aghast at his own lack of courtesy and agonized by having to ask any of his knights, Arthur said, "I beg your pardon, Madam. You are quite right. Come to court tomorrow. There waiting for you will be your future husband." So saying, he mounted his horse and rode off to meet the Black Knight to convey to him the answer to the riddle.
When he got back to the castle, Arthur was distraught. The knights questioned him. He confessed that he had won his life from the Black Knight but then told them at what cost and reported his promise to the Loathly Lady. "My very honor is at stake," said Arthur, wringing his hands, "unless one of you will agree to wed her." His knights were horrified at the prospect and tried to avoid his gaze. But one—the youngest knight of all—Sir Gawain, the most courageous and purest of heart stood up. "Worry, not my liege," Gawain said, "I shall save you, I will marry the woman no matter what her mien."
Gawain did not have long before he rued his offer. The marriage was planned for the following morning and the hag arrived at court. When he looked upon her, even Gawain with all his chivalry did not know how he could go through with the ceremony. It demanded every ounce of his courage. Somehow he managed it. But things got worse. When the festivities were over, the couple were obliged to retire to their chamber for the night. Gawain, unable to face the hideousness of his wife, sat for long hours in their bedchamber with his back to the lady, writing at his desk and praying she would go to sleep without him. Was he to spend the rest of his life shackled to such a hideous monster?
Long past midnight, as the candle burnt low, he felt a hand come to rest upon his shoulder. "Will you not come to bed now, my Lord?" a voice whispered from behind him. Shuddering with horror, Gawain mustered his courage to look at her. To his astonishment there stood not the ugly hag he had married but the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She had golden hair and ivory skin. "Why do you seem so surprised, My Lord?" she said to him. "I am indeed your wife. I was enchanted by a wicked magician. But now the enchantment is half broken by your having consented to marry me and so you see I stand before you now in my true form." Gawain could not believe his luck.
"Half broken?" he asked. "Yes, my lord" was the reply. "Sadly I am only allowed to spend half the time in my true form. For the rest I must return to the shape of the same hag which this afternoon you married. And now you must choose, my Lord. Would you have me be my true self at night when we are alone together and the hag during daylight hours?" Gawain, whose mind was flooded with passion at the thought of her beauty filling his bed each night replied eagerly, "Yes, that is certainly how it must be."
TEARS FOR FREEDOM
In the eye of his beautiful lady appeared a tear. "But sir," she said, "Would you then have me suffer the humiliation of the court who cannot conceal their horror at my ugliness?" Now Gawain, if he was nothing else, was compassionate. He could not bear to bring this beautiful woman a tear of sorrow. "No, of course not," he replied. "It shall be the other way round, of course. You shall be my beautiful wife for the court during daylight hours and the hag at night." But this only made the lady weep the more. "Oh sir, would you then deny me forever the joy and pleasure of your embrace?" She asked.
Poor Gawain, who after all was but a man (and man has never found it easy to deal with woman's grief) did not know what to do. After much thought he replied, "My lady, whatever choice I make will be the wrong one. It is therefore for you to choose which you prefer." At the sound of his words the Lady threw herself into his arms in glorious laughter. "In so saying, my Lord, you have given the right answer. You have bestowed upon me what every woman wants—her own way. The spell at last is broken. You will never have to look upon the hideous hag again. I am my true self and it belongs to you forever."
Such is the power of accepting that which to ourselves is most loathsome. And such is the power of myth in reminding us of it.