Monday 5 March 2012

Ladies' choice

I was recently passed the following story by a friend.

The Lady and the Tiger

The semi-barbaric king of an ancient land used an unusual form of punishment for offenders in his kingdom. The offender would be placed in an arena where his only way out would be to go through one of two doors. Behind one door was a beautiful woman hand-picked by the king and behind the other was a fierce tiger. The offender was then asked to pick one of the doors without knowing what was behind it. If he picked the door with the woman behind it, then he was declared innocent but was also required to marry the woman, regardless of previous marital status. If he picked the door with the tiger behind it, though, then he was deemed guilty and the tiger would rip him to pieces.

One day the king found that his daughter, the princess, had taken a lover far beneath her station. The king could not allow this and so he threw the offender in prison and set a date for his trial in the arena. On the day of his trial the suitor looked to the princess for some indication of which door to pick. The princess did, in fact, know which door concealed the woman and which one the tiger, but was faced with a conundrum —if she indicated the door with the tiger, then the man she loved would be killed on the spot; however, if she indicated the door with the lady, her lover would be forced to marry another woman, a woman that the princess deeply hated and believed her lover had flirted with. Finally she did indicate a door, which the suitor then opened.

At this point the question is posed to the reader, "Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?" The question is not answered, and is left as a thought experiment.

The version I was sent also had the following explanation appended.

"The Lady, or the Tiger?" is a much-anthologized short story written by Frank R. Stockton for publication in the magazine The Century in 1882. "The Lady, or the Tiger?" has come into the English language as an allegorical expression, a shorthand indication or signifier for a problem that is unsolvable. The underlying allegory is parallel to the dilemmas often faced by participants in problems predicted by game theory.

Thought experiments have been a relatively new discovery for me. Looking back at high school, I can't ever remember a teacher posing one at my class (even covertly). In nearly six years of studying art history at university, I don't recall exercising this particular style of thinking. It's only as I've moved into the web world - and started catching up on physics on the side - that the term has become familiar to me.

I'm stumped by how this counts as a thought experiment. The princess has only one choice, as I can see it - swallow her pride. Dooming her lover is not a choice. That I found the answer so straightforward concerned me. Had I missed some crucial clue? Do I not know how to "play" thought experiments? So I sent this on to a smart friend, and explained my dilemma. What I just being slow-witted? Or was this story (sorry - thought experiment) mildly misogynistic? Would it have invoked game theory if it had been a prince and his unfortunate lover?

My friend wrote back

I agree. It is confusing to me. I guess the dilemma is supposed to arise from the condition that the woman behind the door is "a woman that the princess deeply hated and believed her lover had flirted with". But that just seems to turn it into an exercise of guessing the intensity of the princess's jealousy and her capacity for vengeance. "Guess the character's psychology" does not make for a particularly compelling story.

Then wrote back again

* and by "does not make for a particularly compelling story", I meant "thought experiment".

In the meantime, in response to "The Lady and the Tiger", I had been drawn to share back one of my one favourite parables - which I now saw could be described as a "thought experiment". It is an Arthurian fable called "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle", a version of the "loathly lady" theme that was popular in medieval England. An earlier version appears as Chaucer's "The wife of Bath's Tale"; I came across the story as a child, reading Roger Lancelyn-Green's retellings of the Arthur stories, and have never forgotten it.

I decided to share "Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle" with the people who had originally sent me "The Lady and the Tiger", and see if I could pose it as a thought experiment myself.

 Arthur, driven as always by his honour, winds up in a situation where he is charged by a mysterious knight to discover what "women truly desire". The knight gives Arthur a year to seek the answer and report back to him - if he does not find the correct answer, he will be killed.  Arthur rides the length and breadth of England, seeking out women and asking them the answer. Some tell him jewels, some youth, some beauty, some wealth. None give him the answer he needs.

One day, near the end of the year-long deadline, Arthur  goes hunting with some of his knights to relieve the pressure. While out riding, he comes upon the ugliest and most unpleasant women - one in front of whom even Arthur's legendary courtesy deserts him.

The loathsome Lady Ragnelle ("she who has never beguiled a man") reassures him she has the answer he needs, but will only give it to him if he agrees to wed her to his favourite Sir Gawain. Arthur is torn, but gallant Gawain  - the flower of the Round Table - forces him to accept the offer. Here's what Lady Ragnelle tells him:

“Sir, you will now know, without digression, what women of all degrees want most,” Dame Ragnell responded.  “Some men say we desire to be beautiful and that we want to consort with diverse strange men; also we love lust in bed and often wish to wed.  Thus men misunderstand women.  Another idea they have is that we want to be seen as young and fresh, not old, and that women can be won through flattery and clever ploys.  In truth, you act foolishly.  The one thing that we desire of men above all else is to have complete sovereignty, so that all is ours.  We use our skill to gain mastery over the most fierce, victorious and manly of knights.  So go on your way and tell this to the knight, who will be angry and curse the one who taught it to you, for his labour is lost.  I assure you that your life is now safe, and remember your promise.”

As the Lady said, Arthur's answer satisfies the knight. Now the wedding must go forward. The Loathsome Lady arrives at Arthur's court, and Gawain burns with shame and unhappiness at her ugliness, her untuneful voice, her horrific table manners, and the ill-concealed mockery of the court. At last, Gawain and the Loathsome Lady retire to their bedchamber, where the Lady requests Gawain that he perform his husbandly duties.

When Gawain screws his courage to the sticking place and turns to embrace her, to his great surprise he finds in his arms not the loathsome lady but a woman whose beauty eclipses that of every lady in Arthur's court. She reveals to him that like the knight who originally challenged Arthur with the riddle, she is under a curse: she must take her loathsome appearance for half of the day, and assume her true shape for the remaining twelve hours. Then she asks Gawain what he would choose for her. Should she shame him before all the court with her ugliness during the day, and save her true appearance for the night they are alone together? Or should she appear in her beautiful guise during the day, but have him endure her loathliness when they are alone?

It is less a thought experiment than a riddle, I suppose, but I'll leave it up to you all to decide what you as Gawain would have chosen; Wikipedia has the conclusion ...

I can remember the thrill I felt as a little girl when I read the conclusion: both the narrative neatness, and the satisfaction of the answer. Now, I realise that the sovereynté that Lady Ragnelle described was a joke at the time, and perhaps still a joke today.

And yet I retain a great fondness for this little tale. I am still pierced by a deep relief for Sir Gawain each time I recall the story - the pleasure in the magically correct outcome. The story of Arthur has always been one of great tragedy for me (a theme we'll return to); this small bright moment studded in his saga has always meant a lot to me.

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