[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Smith suggests that despite containing subtle sexual allusions as well as a more overt feminist theme, Hastings and Wijngaard's Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady is a valuable book, albeit one better suited for readers older than the typical picture book audience.]
When Selina Hastings paired up with the Greenaway-winning illustrator Juan Wijngaard to retell the Arthurian legend of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, the result was simply stunning. In 1985, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady garnered the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, the award given to the best illustrations found in a British book for children. Since then, it has achieved near classic status. One finds their book on reading lists throughout the English-speaking world. While there is so much to admire in these twenty-nine pages, there is also much to be concerned about--from profanity to sexual innuendo. Wijngaard's depiction of the gruesome Dame Ragnelle alone is enough to distress very young children, not to mention parents and educators. Furthermore, its explicit feminist theme is bound to offend some conservatives. Thus, I am left with this question, a dilemma faced almost daily by practicing librarians like me: do the merits of this book outweigh the controversy it will create? My answer is an unequivocal yes.
I first encountered Hastings and Wijngaard's Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady while in library school and have not stopped using it since. I booktalk it to help introduce a unit on traditional literature and folklore. I have incorporated Wijngaard's brilliant but at times bizarre illustrations into a lesson on art history and styles in art. Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady remains the centerpiece for my annual multimedia storytelling project.
Then again, I am a high school librarian. The students who make up my audience and who check the book out from the shelves are not horrified by the ghastly portrayal of the nightmarish Loathly Lady. Nor does the abusive language of the Black Knight fall upon innocent and sensitive ears. These kids have heard it all and repeated most; foul language is not a concern. As for the sexual themes, let's be realistic. In today's sex-charged teen environment, the sexual consummation of a marriage is a mild topic indeed. I figure teenaged males, as devoted fans of misogynistic rap music, could use a strong dose of feminism. Again, I work with teenagers, and technically speaking, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady is a picture storybook for children. If I were a librarian in an elementary school or even in a middle school, I would have to ask myself, is this book age appropriate?
Depending upon which bibliographic source one uses, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady is recommended as appropriate from anywhere from first grade to fifth grade, from age nine to adult. I tend to agree with the latter. At this point, we must recognize some of the inherent differences between the aforementioned British Greenaway Medal and its American counterpart,...