*This is a story passed down from generation to generation, changed along the way. This is my favorite version, however, taken from my favorite book, Eating in the Light of the Moon, by Anita Johnston.
There was once a young knight who had committed the most horrible crime a man could commit against a woman. For this crime, he was arrested and brought before the king for sentencing. The king said, "This crime is so terrible that I think it is only fair to let the woman you have wronged decide your sentence." He called the women forth and asked what his sentence should be. She said, "He should be given a riddle to solve and if he does not solve this riddle in one year's time, he should be put to death."
The king said, "And what is the riddle?"
She said, "The riddle is this. He is to answer the question, 'what is it a woman desires most?'" The king turned to the young knight and said, "So be it. You are to find the answer to this riddle in one years time or you shall be put to death."
Well, the young Knight walked out through the courtyard pleased to have been let off so easily, with only a silly question to answer. He hadn't gotten very far when he saw a beautiful young woman coming his way. With a big smile on his face, he approached her and said, "Excuse me, Miss, can you please tell me what it is a woman desires most?" She cocked her head, looked at him coyly and said, "A lover. A lover is what a woman desires most."
The young man thanked her and began to head on his way when he spotted a middle-aged woman walking down the road with a baby in her arms and four small children tugging at her skirts. He walked up to her and said, "Madam, would you mind telling me what it is that women desire most?" "Peace!" she exclaimed. "Peace is what a woman desires most." He thanked her and headed on his way. Within a short while he came across an old lady, hobbling with a cane and politely asked, "Excuse me, Ma'am, wold you mind telling me what is it that a woman desires most?" "That's easy," she said without hesitation. "Health. Health is what a woman desires most."
He thanked her. But as he continued on his way, he grew very concerned. "I've asked three women the answer to this riddle and they have all given different answers. This might not be as easy as I first thought." So he went and got a book with blank pages and wrote the answers down. The young man proceeded to travel through many villages, towns, and into the countryside, offering women the riddle and writing down the answers in his book. The days turned into weeks, turned into months, turned into...well, it was not quite a year when the young knight found himself sitting on a curb with his head in his hands.
"In one more day, an entire year will have passed," he sobbed in despair. "I have asked thousands of women this question and have received thousands of different answers. I am no closer to solving this riddle than I was when I first heard it." Tomorrow I will be a dead man!"
Just then, he heard a voice close by. "Excuse me, may I help you?" He looked up and there, in front of him, stood the ugliest creature he had ever seen! Her head was too big for her body. Her eyes were too big for her head. She had a long, pointy nose, thin lips and teeth like splinters. Her hair hung down her shoulders like rat tails, and she had the skin like the belly of a dead fish.
"Why are you crying?" she asked.
"Well," said the young man, "I have been given a riddle to solve, and if I don't solve it by tomorrow I shall lose my life."
"What is the riddle?" she asked.
"I am to find the answer to the question what is it a woman desires most," he replied.
"Oh! I know the answer to that riddle," she said. "And I would be happy to tell you, if you would agree to marry me." The young man was taken aback by this woman's request but thought "what does it matter; without the answer to this riddle I am a dead man. Better I live with this ugly shrew than lose my life."
So he agreed to marry her and in that moment waited for her response. The woman spoke, "the answer to the riddle is this: what a woman desires most is sovereignty, the right to create her own path through life".
The young knight thought about this and all of the other answers he'd been given. "Yes!" he exclaimed. "This fits with all that I have been told. It is the correct answer!" And so in a flurry of excitement he headed off to the town where he had received his sentence just one year before. The next day, he found himself facing the king and the woman he had wronged. "Well," said the king. "Do you have the answer to the riddle?" "Yes I do, sire." the young man replied. "What is it?!" demand the king. "The answer to the riddle, 'what is it that a woman desires most?' is sovereignty, the right to create her own path through life." The king turned to the woman standing beside him and asked, "Is that correct?" "Yes, it is, your honor." she replied.
"Well then," said the king, "you are free man. Be on your way." This time the young knight nearly flew through the courtyard, filled with the relief and sense of a new found freedom. But true to his word, he returned to the place where he had met the ugly woman, intent on keeping his side of their bargain. As he had promised, they went to be married, and after their wedding, they journeyed to a small inn where they planned to spend their first night together.
Upon arriving at the inn, the ugly woman went upstairs to the bridal suite, while the young knight went immediately into the tavern.
Hours past, and eventually the Tavern Keeper told the young man that he must leave, as he was closing for the night. And so, very slowly, the young man grudgingly climbed the nearest staircase to the room where he knew his bride was waiting.
He reached the room, slowly opened the door, and peered inside. There, across the room, he saw a large bed upon which lay his bride, her hair soiling the pillows. Gingerly, he made his way across the room.
"Husband, come," she said as she patted the bed.
The young knight sat on the very edge of the bed and, ever so slowly, first removed one boot, then the other. He took off his trousers and shirt, and then, completely naked, he slid between the bedsheets. He lay next to her, stiff as a board, with his arms pressed tight against his side and his face riveted straight ahead.
"Husband, it is our wedding night. Kiss me," she implored. And so, scrunching up his face, he pursed his lips, closed his eyes tightly, and kissed her. But, as he kissed her, his lips brushed against her cheek, and he was startled because it did not feel like the belly of a dead fish. He opened his eyes and was amazed to be face-to-face with the most beautiful woman he had ever seen!
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" He blurted out, as soon as he could speak.
"I am your wife," she said. "I was under a spell, and when you agreed to marry me and kissed me, you broke the spell. "Well," she clarified, "you have broken part of the spell. Now it needs to be decided if I am to be beautiful by day and ugly by night or beautiful by night and ugly by day."
"That's easy," the young man responded quickly, "beautiful by day and ugly by night." "Well," she said, "that means that every night when you come live with me, I will be ugly." "Oh," the young man said as he sucked his breath between his teeth and shuddered at the thought. "Then, ugly by day and beautiful by night."
"Then that means that whenever we walk down the road together, people will shrink away at my ugliness and children will throw stones and taunt me." "That's not good, either," said the young man as he shook his head, contemplating his new puzzle. After thinking for a moment, he said, "You know, it doesn't seem quite right for me to make this decision. After all, it is you that will have to live with the consequences." "Ahh," said the now beautiful woman, "you have just broken the second half of the spell. For what a woman desires most is sovereignty, the right to create her own path through life. And, since it is my choice, I choose to be beautiful by day and beautiful by night."
Though this ancient story depicts sovereignty as what a woman desires most, we all know, deep down, this message is universal, that it applies to men and women, equally. For us to be truly sovereign, we must be able to make our own choices; to say no when we mean no, and yes when we mean yes. Without this freedom, we can become quite "ugly" toward others: sullen and resentful over being taken advantage of.
This, sovereignty, has been weighing heavily on my mind lately and I wonder...if we practice this more and more, will it give others the freedom to do the same? I know the answer. And I know you do, too.