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Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady

Retold by Selina Hastings
Illustrated by Juan Wijngaard
1985 Winner of The Kate Greenaway Medal

            During a hunt, King Arthur is separated from the rest of his party.  A black-armored knight astride a black charger accosts the king.  The malevolent knight delivers an ultimatum:  Return in three days' time, on New Year's Day, with the correct answer to a riddle ("What is it that women most desire?" [8]) or be killed, and the knight will become the new King of Britain.

            A horribly ugly "loathly lady" (12) provides the answer to the riddle, but she extracts a high fee from the king.  Eager to save his kingdom and find the answer to the riddle, the king rashly promises to grant the lady anything she asks.

            King Arthur's kingdom is saved, but at a high cost.  The Loathly Lady asks for one of the king's knights to become her husband.  King Arthur is torn by his hasty promise, but the king cannot break his word.

            Young Sir Gawain hears of his king's distress but does not know its cause.  The youngest of the knights, Sir Gawain impetuously and valiantly begs to "save the honour" of his king (17).  Sir Gawain is stunned when he learns what he must do, but "his spirit never faltered (18)."  He gallantly asks the Loathly Lady for the honour of her hand in marriage.

Hastings describes the wedding of Sir Gawain and his hideous bride as a "dismal occasion (21)."  Imagine Sir Gawain's surprise, when, on his wedding night, his hideous wife is transformed into a beautiful woman!  The once-hideous wife lays a choice before her husband:  Keep her hideous by day and lovely by night or change her to be lovely by day and hideous by night.  The correct choice will break the spell under which his wife has suffered.  Which shall it be? 

            Selina Hastings is a skilled storyteller, but it is Juan Wijngaard's incredibly detailed illustrations that make this an unforgettable tale.  Wijngaard's illustrations provide both the perfect backdrop and portrayal of the story.

Each page is bordered with intricately woven floral and geometrical patterns reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts.  Wijngaard's beautiful illustrations are historically accurate in terms of the people (activities and apparel), settings (architecture and décor) and entertainment (musicians, food, dance).

            Wijngaard portrays the characters with striking colors and remarkable detail.  King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and their court are richly dressed in garments that look like the fine silks and velvets worn by royalty.  Delicately defined faces reflect the characters' emotions:  King Arthur's surprise at meeting the Loathly Lady (11); Sir Gawain's courage in defending his king's honor (17); the courtiers' revulsion at seeing the Loathly Lady on the arm of her new husband (22-3); and Queen Guinevere's tenderness as she kisses the new bride on both her gruesome, "pitted cheeks (24)."

            And the Loathly Lady herself!  Through Wijngaard's expertise, one can hardly imagine anything more monstrous.

            Settings in the story are likewise portrayed with Wijngaard's meticulous detail.  A landscape with Castle Carlisle in the background (6); the black knight's horse splashing in the stream and being reflected in the water (7); a cobblestone courtyard (9); the richness of King Arthur's castle (17); and a "richly decorated litter" (19) ready to convey the Loathly Lady, are all examples of Wijngaard's attention to detail.  As reviewer McConnell (1985) puts it:  "Wijngaard combines the illuminator's precision with a modern miniaturist's detailed perspective . . . . [His paintings] are full of details for readers to discover."

            Painters in the Middle Ages used semiprecious gems as the pigment for their paintings, such as lapis lazuli for the vivid blues.  Wijngaard's use of rich colors reflects this painting tradition.  His clear, deep colors strongly remind the reader of a medieval book of hours, such as the Limbourg brothers' Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry.[i]

            Wijngaard won The Kate Greenaway Medal in 1985 for his glorious illustrations in Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady.


About the Illustrator, Juan Wijngaard (2005)


·           Wijngaard is of Dutch heritage, was born in Argentina, attended art school in England, and now lives in California.

·           His mother was a painter, and drawing "was the thing [Wijngaard] liked doing best at school."

·           His first year after school was spent working in an office, where he "learnt the valuable lesson that one should not waste one's life doing something, if one's heart is not in it."

·           After two unsuccessful applications to art schools, he was accepted on the third try.  Wijngaard got his first commission as an artist - to illustrate a children's book - while he was still at art school.


Juan Wijngaard. 2005. Walker Books.

McConnell, Ruth M. 1985. Review of Sir Gawain and the loathly lady, by Selina Hastings, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. School Library Journal 32 (4):88.


[i] To see pages from this famous book of hours, go to Nicolas Pioch's WebMuseum at



Hastings, Selina. 1985. Sir Gawain and the loathly lady. Illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books; [London] Walker Books.

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