What Does a Woman Want?

This is a story Leonard Cohen told me, late one night over drinks on the island of Hydra. (See Leonard: A Memoir.) I have preserved his unique phrasing as well as I could. Chaucerians will recognize it as the tale the Wife of Bath tells on her way to Canterbury.

King Arthur was hunting in the forest. He rode into a clearing and there before him was a knight in black armor, on a black horse, his visor down, his lance at the ready.

He accosted Arthur saying, "Well, Arthur, Fate has delivered you into my hands. Prepare to do battle."

Arthur said, "I'll gladly fight you. Let me ride back to Camelot and put on my armour."

"No, Arthur, Fate has decreed it thus."

"But I'm in hunting greens! Let me don my armor and we'll do battle evenly matched."

"No," said the Black Knight.

"But this is not chivalry! These are not the rules!"

They argued and argued, and finally the Black Knight threw up his hand and said, "All right, Arthur, ride back to Camelot. But you must meet me here in a year and a day with the answer to a riddle. And if you don't have the right answer you must do battle dressed as you are now."

"All right. Tell me riddle."

And the Black Knight said, "What does a woman want?"

So Arthur rode back to Camelot, called his knights to the Round Table and told them what had happened. "Don't worry, Arthur," they said, "we'll find out." 

And they mounted their horses and rode off in all directions, some to Ireland, some to Sweden, some to Italy, some to North Africa. They interviewed queens and princesses, merchants' wives, fish wives and peasant women, and they compiled scrolls upon scrolls of answers: "Eternal love," "Great prowess in bed," "Riches," "Three chickens and a goat"—every possible answer was there, and by the end of the year the scrolls were piled high on the Round Table. 

Arthur read it all, studied it all, contemplated it all—but somehow he sensed the answer wasn't there.

Nevertheless, trusting to the spontaneity of the moment, he mounted his steed and set off to keep the appointment. And as he was riding along the forest trail he saw before him a woman—though she was scarcely a woman any more—a hag, ancient and bent and wearing a black cowl, and from the cowl protruded a nose that bent in two places, and on the end of the nose a wart, and from the wart, hairs.

So ugly was she that he steered his horse to the far side of the path, but as he was passing she looked up and caught his eye, and raised a long bony finger. "You don't know the answer, do you," she cackled.

He reined his horse. "No," he said. "Do you?"

"Of course I do!"

"Then tell me!"

"Ah," she said, raising the long bony finger, "if you wish me to do that for you, you must do something for me."

"What?" he said.

"You must wed me to Sir Gawain."

Now Sir Gawain was the youngest, the handsomest, the most eligible of all the knights, and Arthur said, "The thought of his beautiful young body and yours in the marriage bed is grotesque! I won't do it!" There was a silence. "Besides, I couldn't possibly give Sir Gawain in marriage without his permission."

"Then ride back to Camelot and get permission."

So Arthur went back and called his knights around the Round Table and told them what had happened. "Of course it's impossible," he said.

But Sir Gawain came to him, put his hands on Arthur's shoulders and said, "My Liege, my life is pledged to you. If this can help you, I will do it."

Arthur sighed. "Well, we'll have a small wedding."

He rode back into the forest and found the hag. "It is done. You shall wed Sir Gawain. What does a woman want?"

"Her will in all things," she said.

Now Arthur was a man of the world and knew the right answer when he heard it. He spurred on into the forest and found the Black Knight. 

"Well, Arthur, a year and a day have elapsed. What does a woman want?"

"Her will in all things," said Arthur.

The Black Knight threw up his hand. "Bah!" he said, "my sister told you," and rode off into the forest.

Came the day of the wedding, and the hag arrived at Camelot. 

There was a small ceremony in a chapel, and afterward a modest feast. The tumblers tumbled, the jugglers juggled, the fools fooled, the fiddlers fiddled, and each knight danced once with the hag. 

Then Sir Gawain took a candle, gave her his arm and escorted her up the stone stairs to the bridal chamber. When they arrived before a tall oaken door he handed her the candle and said, "So, we are wed. the bargain is fulfilled. Now you go your way, and I mine."

She raised the long bony finger. "Ah," she said, "but the marriage is not yet consummated. Come in with me."

Sore reluctant, Sir Gawain followed the hag into the bridal chamber. She closed the door, placed the candle on the table and took off her robe. She looked—as we would expect her to look.

She lay on the bed. "Lie here beside me."

Much loath, Sir Gawain got on the bed.

"Embrace me," she said.

Trembling at the task, he fitted his hands around her waist.

"Kiss me," she said.

He squeezed his eyes shut and, puckering his lips so as to extend them as far as he could, bent towards her—

And the moment his lips touched hers she turned into a princess more beautiful than his most extravagant fantasies. They made fabulous love, and afterwards lay together in a profound peace.

She got up on her elbow and looked at him. "Now you must choose," she said. "I can be the princess you see before you by day, and the hag you knew me as by night, or I can be the hag by day and the princess by night. Which shall it be?" she twinkled.

Sir Gawain was cast into a brown study. He couldn't acquit his husbandly duties with the hag at night, but neither did he want to come find her waiting at his board.

Suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he got up on his elbow and said, "Your will in all things."

"Ah," she said, "I will to be as I am now, always."


  1. Excellent, Robert. Thank you for sharing. Kind regards, Dean

    1. Glad to have you look, Dean. Thanks for commenting.