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?" ) 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.