The Loathly Damsel
Description from the Mabinogion
He is busy with the "laide demoiselle", as Kundry is called in Chrétien de Troyes. [Cosima's Diaries, entry for 5 October 1877]
[Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, vol. 4 Creative Mythology, page 455.]
This figure of the Loathly Damsel is comparable, and perhaps related, to that Zoroastrian
Spirit of the Way who meets the soul at death on the Chinvat Bridge to the Persian yonder world. Those of wicked life see her as ugly; those of
unsullied virtue, most fair. The Loathly Damsel or Ugly Bride is a well-known figure, moreover, in Celtic fairytale and legend. We have
met with one of her manifestations in the Irish folktale of the daughter of the King of the Land of Youth, who was cursed with the head of a pig (as [in Wolfram's text below] a pig's bristles and boar's snout), but when boldly kissed became beautiful and bestowed on her saviour the kingship of her
timeless realm. The Kingdom of the Grail is such a land: to be achieved only by one capable of transcending the painted wall of space-time with its foul and fair,
good and evil, true and false display of the names and forms of merely phenomenal pairs of opposites. Geoffrey Chaucer (1340? - 1400) provides an elegant example
of the resolution of the Loathly Bride motif in his Tale of the Wife of Bath; John Gower (1325? - 1408) another in his Tale of Florent. There is
also the fifteenth- century poem The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnall and a mid-seventeenth- century ballad, The Marriage of Sir Gawain.
The transformation of the fairy bride and the sovereignty that she bestows are, finally, of one's own heart in fulfillment.
he following description of the Loathly Damsel is from the Middle English The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame
225 Kyng Arthoure rode forthe on the other day
Into Yngleswod as hys gate laye,
And ther he mett with a Lady.
She was as ungoodly a creature
As evere man sawe, withoute mesure.
230 Kyng Arthure mervaylyd securly.
Her face was red, her nose snotyd withalle,
Her mowithe wyde, her tethe yalowe overe alle,
With bleryd eyen gretter then a balle.
Her mowithe was nott to lak:
235 Her tethe hyng overe her lyppes,
Her chekys syde as wemens hippes.
A lute she bare upon her bak;
Her nek long and therto greatt;
Her here cloteryd on an hepe;
240 In the sholders she was a yard brode.
Hangyng pappys to be an hors lode,
And lyke a barelle she was made.
And to reherse the fowlnesse of that Lady,
Ther is no tung may telle, securly;
245 Of lothynesse inowghe she had.
She satt on a palfray was gay begon,
With gold besett and many a precious stone.
Ther was an unsemely syghte:
So fowlle a creature withoute mesure
250 To ryde so gayly, I you ensure,
Ytt was no reason ne ryghte.
She rode to Arthoure and thus she sayd:
"God spede, Sir Kyng! I am welle payd
That I have with the mett;
255 Speke with me, I rede, or thou goo,
For thy lyfe is in my hand, I warn the soo;
That shalt thou fynde, and I itt nott lett.
snotted as well
mouth; teeth yellow
hair clotted; heap
breasts [large enough]
neither proper nor
agner first encountered the Loathly Damsel in Wolfram's
Parzival, book 6. He told Cosima that Wolfram's text had nothing to do with Parsifal;
when he read the epic, he first said to himself that nothing could be done with it,
but a few things stuck in my mind - the Good
Friday, the wild appearance of Condrie. That is all it was. In this extract (312, 6 to 314, 10) the Middle
High German text is shown in the left column and an English paraphrase in the right column.
der meide ir kunst des verjach,
alle sprâche si wol sprach,
latîn, heidensch, franzoys.
si was der witze kurtoys,
dîaletike und jêometrî:
ir wâren ouch die liste bî
si hiez Cundrîe:
surziere was ir zuoname;
in dem munde niht diu lame:
wand er geredet ir genuoc.
vil hôher freude se nider sluoc.
Diu maget witze rîche
was gevar den unglîche
die man dâ heizet bêâ schent.
ein brûtlachen von Gent,
noch plâwer denne ein lâsûr,
het an geleit der freuden schûr:
daz was ein kappe wol gesniten
al nâch der Franzoyser siten:
drunde an ir lîb was pfelle guot.
von Lunders ein pfæwîn huot,
gefurriert mit einem blîalt
(der huot was niwe, diu snuor niht alt),
der hieng ir an dem rücke.
ir mære was ein brücke:
über freude ez jâmer truoc.
si zuct in schimpfes dâ genuoc.
über den huot ein zopf ir swanc
unz ûf den mûl: der was sô lanc,
swarz, herte und niht ze clâr,
linde als eins swînes rückehâr.
si was genaset als ein hunt:
zwên ebers zene ir vür den munt
giengen wol spannen lanc.
ietweder wintbrâ sich dranc
mit zöpfen vör die hârsnuor.
mîn zuht durch wârheit missevuor,
daz ich sus muoz von vrouwen sagen:
kein andriu darf ez von mir klagen.
Cundrîe truoc ôren als ein ber,
niht nâch vriundes minne ger:
Rûch was ir antlütze erkant.
ein geisel vuorte se in der hant:
dem wârn die swenkel sîdîn
unt der stil ein rubbîn.
gevar als eines affen hût
truoc hende diz gaebe trût.
die nagele wâren niht ze lieht;
wan mir diu âventiure gieht,
si stüenden als eins lewen klân.
nâch ir minne was selten tjost getân.
this maiden was so talented
that she spoke all languages:
Latin, Heathen and French.
She was familiar with both
dialectic and geometry;
and she had also knowledge
Her name was Condrie;
her nickname the sorceress.
Her mouth was not restrained
for she could say quite enough.
With it she dampened much joy.
In appearance this learned lady
did not resemble
what we call fine people.
She wore a fine fabric of Ghent,
bluer even than azure
such as bridal gowns are made of;
made into a well-cut coat
in the French fashion.
Beneath it there was fine brocade.
A hat of peacock feathers from London,
lined with cloth-of-gold
(the hat was new, the ribbon not old),
hung down over her back.
Her news was a bridge
carrying grief over happiness.
She killed the joy of the company.
A plait of her hair fell down over her hat
and dangled over the mule: it was so long,
black, tough, not altogether lovely,
about as soft as a boar's bristles.
Her nose was like a dog's,
and tusks jutted from her jaws
to the length of several spans.
Both eyebrows pushed past her hair-band
and drooped down in tresses.
In truth I have erred against propriety
in having to speak thus about a lady,
even if no other has cause to complain
Cundrie's ears resembled a bear's,
her rugged visage was not such
as would arouse a lover's desire.
In her hand she held a knout:
the lashes were of silk
and the stock of ruby.
This fetching sweetheart had
hands the colour of ape-skin.
Her fingernails were none too
for my source tells me
that they were like a lion's claws.
Seldom were lances broken for her love.
he above account was based upon the following description of the Loathly Damsel from Chrétien's Le Roman de Perceval ou le Conte du Graal in the translation by Nigel Bryant,
starting at line 4603:
Left: Marianne Brandt as Kundry in Act 1, Bayreuth 1882. © Richard- Wagner- Gedenkstätte.
The king, the queen and the barons gave the most joyful welcome to Perceval the Welshman, and led him back to Carlion, returning there that day. They celebrated all night and the day that followed: until, on the
third day, they saw a girl coming on a tawny mule, clutching a whip in her right hand. Her hair hung in two tresses, black and twisted: and if the words of my
source are true, there was no creature so utterly ugly even in Hell. You have never seen iron as black as her neck and hands, but that was little compared to the
rest of her ugliness: her eyes were just two holes, tiny as the eyes of a rat; her nose was like a cat's or monkey's, her lips like an ass's or a cow's; her
teeth were so discoloured that they looked like egg-yolk; and she had a beard like a billy-goat. She had a hump in the middle of her chest and her back was like
a crook ... She greeted the king and his barons all together - except for Perceval.
Sitting upon the tawny mule she said: 'Ah, Perceval!
Fortune has hair in front but is bald behind. A curse on anyone who greets or wishes you well, for you didn't take Fortune by the hand when you met her. You
entered the house of the Fisher King and saw the lance that bleeds, but it was so much trouble for
you to open your mouth and speak that you couldn't ask why that drop of blood sprang from the tip of the white head; nor did you ask what worthy man was served
by the Grail that you saw. How wretched is the man who sees the perfect opportunity and still waits for a better one! And you, you are
the wretched one, who saw that it was the time and place to speak and yet stayed silent; you had ample opportunity! It was an evil hour when you held your
tongue, for if you had asked, the rich king who is so distressed would now have been quite healed of his wound and would have
held his land in peace ...'
ere is a remarkably similar account of this incident from the tale of Peredur as
translated by Lady Guest:
Arthur was at Caerlleon upon Usk, his principal palace; and in the centre of the floor of the hall
were four men sitting on a carpet of velvet, Owain the son of Urien, and Gwalchmai the son of Gwyar, and Howel the son of Emyr
Llydaw, and Peredur of the long lance. And thereupon they saw a black curly-headed maiden enter, riding upon a yellow mule, with jagged
thongs in her hand to urge it on; and having a rough and hideous aspect. Blacker were her face and her two hands than the blackest iron covered with pitch; and
her hue was not more frightful than her form. High cheeks had she, and a face lengthened downwards, and a short nose with distended nostrils. And one eye was of
a piercing mottled grey, and the other was as black as jet, deep-sunk in her head. And her teeth were long and yellow, more yellow were they than the flower of
the broom. And her stomach rose from the breast bone, higher than her chin. And her back was in the shape of a crook, and her legs were large and bony. And her
figure was very thin and spare, except her feet and her legs, which were of huge size. And she greeted Arthur and all his household except Peredur.
And to Peredur she spoke harsh and angry words. "Peredur, I greet thee not, seeing that thou dost not merit it. Blind was fate in giving thee fame and favour. When thou wast in the Court of
the Lame King, and didst see there the youth bearing the streaming spear, from the points of which were drops of blood flowing in streams, even to the hand of
the youth, and many other wonders likewise, thou didst not inquire their meaning nor their cause. Hadst thou done so, the King would have been restored to
health, and his dominions to peace. Whereas from henceforth, he will have to endure battles and conflicts, and his knights will perish, and wives will be
widowed, and maidens will be left portionless, and all this is because of thee." Then said she unto Arthur, "May it please thee, lord, my dwelling is far hence,
in the stately castle of which thou hast heard, and therein are five hundred and sixty-six knights of the order of Chivalry, and the lady whom best he loves with
each; and whoever would acquire fame in arms, and encounters, and conflicts, he will gain it there, if he deserve it. And whoso would reach the Summit of fame
and of honour, I know where he may find it. There is a Castle on a lofty mountain, and there is a maiden therein, and she is detained a prisoner there, and
whoever shall set her free will attain the summit of the fame of the world." And thereupon she rode away.
© Derrick Everett 1996-2019. This page last updated (minor tweaks) --- Sun 8 Dec 2019 20:30 CET ---