One of the stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is about a young knight of King Arthur’s. The knight could not control his lust when he came across a beautiful maiden. Arthur’s Court was scandalised by the rape and the knight’s execution was ordered. The Queen and her ladies, however, interceded and got the punishment commuted. The knight is given a year’s time to find out what women want most in the world.
The knight went from place to place finding out what women wanted most. He got different answers from different women. “Wealth and treasure,” said some. Honour, jollity, pleasure, gorgeous clothes, fun in bed... thus went the women’s options. Some even wanted to be “oft widowed and remarried.” Seeing that women could never agree on one thing, the knight rode back with the odour of death in his nostrils.
On his way back, he came across an old hag. Chaucer’s narrator, Wife of Bath, reminds us that those were the days of fairies and elves, days before religious leaders displaced those spirits. [Believe me, this is not my personal dig at religious people; read Chaucer, if you don’t believe me.] The horribly ugly old woman promises to salvage the knight’s life provided he pledged himself to her. What can be more important than one’s existence? The knight makes the pledge.
“A woman wants the self-same sovereignty
Over her husband as over her lover.”
This the old hag’s answer to the Queen’s question. Every male lover is a veritable puppet in the hands of his female counterpart. But the roles reverse after marriage. What women want most in the world is absolute mastery over their men. This answer elicits a resounding endorsement from the Queen and her ladies. The knight’s life is spared.
But only to be claimed by the old hag. “... keep your word and take me for your wife,” she demanded in the presence of all the VIPs in the royal court. The knight was nauseated. “Take whatever I have,” he pleaded with the hag, “but leave my body to myself.”
His plea fell on deaf ears though the hag was not deaf in spite of her senility. He refused to look at her, let alone touch her, on the bridal bed. She admonished him, as all grandmothers do, that physical looks did not matter at all. What matter are the inner qualities. What if he marries a woman who is as pretty as Helen of Troy but is also unfaithful like her?
The hag was ready for a compromise, however. The knight was offered the choice: either he could have her old, ugly and faithful till she died, or she could change herself into a pretty young wife whose fidelity he wouldn’t have. Remember, both she and the knight belonged to a time before religious leaders snatched miracles from the fairies along with their habitats.
The knight was in a dilemma, the kind of which only women can fabricate. He submits himself to her. He lets her make the decision. The submission makes her happy. That’s what all women want, hasn’t she taught him? She rewards the knight with both her beautiful youth and fidelity. Submission does bring rewards, especially where women are the masters.
That’s Chaucer’s story. And his narrator’s view.
What if we changed it?
What if we were all willing to be a little vulnerable, to be helpless, to give up control... to be companions rather than masters... willing to trust... ?