Author’s Note: This is a sort of modernization-rewrite of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales.
“All right. I have a story.” I said. I stood up in the middle of the large gathering room of the sizeable bed and breakfast. I took over the spot at which the B&B host had been standing, surrounded by at least a dozen other people sitting comfortably and blithely on nicely appointed couches and chairs. They were enjoying the fireplace, which was lit each night.
“For those of you who don’t know me,” I scanned the crowd, “my name is Mrs. Bathe. I am a widow of five husbands.” A slight moan of pity seeped from my quaint audience. “No matter, that.” I started. “My husbands were all powerful, wealthy, conservative, and very willful. Actually, I willingly admit that I loved my last husband more genuinely than the rest, and yet, I am still quite content and happy this very day.” I saw a few of the older gentlemen shift a little bit. “You see, I married for the political sake of my family. I wanted to show my father that I was just as competent with family affairs and estate affairs as my brothers or even as competent as my father was, himself.” I paused. “However, every husband save the last treated me as a trophy wife for our entire marriage.”
I reminisced as I carried on, “John was like the others: he spoke nothing to me about the affairs of the estate; he only lectured me on what it meant to be a good wife.” I heard a quiet gasp, most likely from a young woman, but I could not discern. “I was rightfully fed up with being treated as an inferior. One day, we had quite the row, and when he realized his behavior was no different than that of a brigand, he apologized sincerely and embraced me as an equal, as a partner.” I felt my eyes well up just a touch. “That was the first time I felt like I truly had the power of free choice in my life. It was the first time that I felt I could live without being forced by the will of another.” “Well, then.” I gathered my thoughts, “I tell you all that because when I first heard the story I am about to tell you, my own experiences made it something special to me.” My audience grew a bit more attentive, even the gentlemen with hoary beards sat up straight.
“The tale begins in the times of knights and dragons and the like. As it was, a young and robust bachelor knight happened to be riding down a country road, when he saw a young and very fair maiden walking lazily through a field of corn. Being a knight of the court and a hero of adventure, he attempted to use his fame to woo this young woman. However, when she coyly refused his sensual offers, he decided to make her virginity another one of his conquests with the force of his will. Considering the more barbarous times and the station of the knight, this would have been more acceptable behavior had he not been a knight of King Arthur’s court!
“So it was that the knight was made to face judgment by King Arthur for this heinous deed. And King Arthur would have taken this knight’s head had his queen not pleaded for the chance to exact justice. When the knight stood before the queen, she said to him, ‘Your life shall be made forfeit to the headsman unless you can tell me what it is that women most desire. And if you cannot answer me now, then you may have the span of one year and one day to return to me with the answer that can restore your life to your own possession; but you must give your word on your honor as a knight to return here at the end of that span.’
“The knight was clueless as to the answer that the queen might want, so he made the promise on his honor to return after one year and one day. And so he set out on a quest to find what women love most of all. With fervor, the knight searched out and asked every person who would talk to him in the kingdom. He asked each and every one what does a woman most desire, but to that question, no two answers were ever the same.
“The time eventually came for him to return to the queen’s audience chambers. As he traveled the road back to the castle, he happened upon an older, homely lady. This lady was rather perceptive and asked, ‘Sir Knight, for what are you questing?’ The knight, with resignation in his tone, answered, ‘Upon my life, I seek the answer to what a woman most desires. This answer I must provide the queen, herself, lest my head should be cleaved from my shoulders. For this thing that I seek, I would certainly pay most handsomely.’ With a knowing smile, this hag of a woman replied, ‘for this answer, would you promise payment of anything that I might request within your power?’ The desperate knight gave his consent. So the hag whispered in his ear and promised him it was the answer that the queen had sought. And then they hurried off to the castle together.
“When all had convened to the court of this knight’s final trial, the queen asked him once again what women most desire. The knight responded confidently, ‘women most desire not only the love of their husbands, but also to be as much the master.’ Of this response, no woman or wife assembled could refute it. And as the queen was about to restore the knight’s possession of his life, the hag spoke up, ‘Good Queen, hear me! I told this knight the answer he gave to you in exchange for anything I would desire within his power! And I would have him take me for his wife!’
“Despite the knight having bemoaned the hag’s request, the queen deemed the exchange to be fair and legal. So the two were wed with ceremony and applause under the eye of the royal court. The knight, however, spoke most rudely to his new bride and pleaded with her not to ask for the love that only his body could give. Of course, the knight was bound by law and custom to consummate the marriage on the night of the ceremony. So when they lied unclothed in their marriage bed, he merely sulked and stewed. And when she asked what she might do to mitigate his unrest, the knight spat back, ‘you are old, loathsome, low born — ‘tis any wonder that I should be so dour?’
“At this, the hag was very reproachful. She said, ‘how is it that you call yourself a knight, when all knights act most noble and honorable in all deeds conducted? Do not look down upon me for my station if you should call yourself a gentleman!’ She continued, ‘Fine, then! For you who behaves most base and undeserving, as your most loving wife, I can appease you with this choice: love me wholly as I am, old and foul, and I shall behave most loyal in all things, or I can bring nameless, fair maidens to our marriage bed, and you will have to suffer the consequence of any action I may take.’
“The knight sighed and pondered, but ultimately responded, ‘my dear lady wife, ’tis not a choice I may make, for we are wed and as two halves a union. Do as you think is best in all things, and I will love you to the fullest of my power.’ She gasped and replied, ‘so you would consider me as much master as yourself?’ In response, he nodded. And then she said, ‘oh, my love, then kiss me, and we shall bear no more anger.’ And as they kissed in the dim light of candles atop their marriage bed, a fairy curse upon the hag was lifted. Thus, when the knight opened his eyes to behold his beloved, he saw the visage of his wife had been transformed to young and fair. For, as she would tell him, a fairy queen, wroth with mankind, cursed her with foul appearance and advanced age, and she would only be freed when a man would regard her as an equal master.”
I smiled and look around at grinning faces. I ended the story by saying, “thus, a woman can only be happy when she is treated as an equal master.”