The Loathly Lady transformed: A literary and cultural analysis of the medieval Irish and English hag-beauty tales

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, Medieval|Folklore|History, Medieval




This dissertation examines five extant Middle Irish kingship tales (of Níall Nóigíallach and Lugaid mac Dáire) along with four Middle English Loathly Lady tales (Gower's “Tale of Florent,” Chaucer's “Wife of Bath's Tale,” “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” and “The Marriage of Sir Gawain”) to demonstrate their connection through the role of the Loathly Lady as counselor to the male protagonist. The themes of kingship (encompassing all aristocratic leadership) and counsel (focusing on the role of the Loathly Lady as advisor) are viewed through historical and cultural factors in eleventh to twelfth century Ireland and fourteenth to fifteenth century England. The common thread of these themes is explicated through the forms of Irish and English monarchy and aristocratic relations as well as through Irish political propaganda, the Irish poet-historian as “seer” and king-maker, and the genre of “mirrors for princes” as exemplified by Audacht Morainn and Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes. Using Mieke Bal's narratological terms, I distinguish among the Irish and English texts, stories, and fabula to solidify their association through the Loathly Lady's role as counselor. ^ Chapter 1 serves as the general introduction to the argument, including describing my methodological approach and textual information. Chapter 2 demonstrates how the Irish protagonist already possesses the exemplary characteristics of a king, while it also investigates the literary and cultural significance of the emphasis on prophecy in the twelfth-century Irish tales. Chapter 3 demonstrates how the English male protagonist lacks some innate quality necessary for lordship and indicates cultural similarities in education and expectation of behavior of late medieval English kings and knights. In Chapter 4, the nature and importance of the Loathly Lady's counsel (either formative instruction or transformative advice) is viewed in conjunction with such “mirrors for princes” as Hoccleve's fifteenth-century Regiment of Princes and the Irish Audacht Morainn. This interpretation of the Loathly Lady's role as counselor enables the recognition of a significant connection among these tales in addition to the previously recognized one of the visual motif of the shape-shifting woman, thereby expanding possibilities for future scholarship in both medieval Irish and English studies. ^