Freud couldn’t answer that question, but this fairy tale, related by Sara Davidson, does:
King Arthur was riding alone in the forest when he was surprised by a strange knight in battle armor. The knight drew his sword to slay the king, but Arthur protested, “I’m not armed, this is against our code of honor.” The knight relented, and made the King promise he would return to the same spot, alone and unarmed, in one year. The King’s life would be spared only if he brought back the answer to this riddle: What do women want, more than anything?
King Arthur rode back to the castle and related what had happened to his nephew, Sir Gawain, the most handsome and chivalrous knight in the kingdom. Sir Gawain said, Don’t worry, I’ll ride in one direction, you’ll ride in the other, and we’ll ask every creature we meet: What do women want?
At the end of the year, Sir Gawain and the King had a book full of answers, but King Arthur knew he did not have the right answer. He was prepared to meet his fate, when he was approached by a hag called Dame Ragnell. She was fat, hairy and covered with warts, had a big nose dripping with snot and gave off a terrible odor. She told the King she alone had the answer and would tell him on one condition: “You give me Sir Gawain as my husband.”
The King refused, he couldn’t commit his nephew to such a fate. But Sir Gawain insisted he would marry the dame, gladly, if it would save the King’s life.
So King Arthur accepted her terms and said, “Now tell me, what do women want more than anything?”
“Sovereignty,” she said.
When the King rode back to meet the knight and told him the answer, his life was spared. But now he had to marry Sir Gawain to Dame Ragnell. After the ceremony, she turned up her hairy snout to be kissed. Sir Gawain could hardly bear to look at her, but shut his eyes and kissed her. And as he did, she was transformed into the most exquisite and sensual woman he’d ever seen. They spent the night making love and as the sun was rising, Dame Ragnell said, “My beauty will not hold, sir, so you must choose. Either have me beautiful by day, when the world can see, or ugly by day and beautiful at night for you alone.”
I pause in the story to ask Billy: What would you choose?
“I don’t know. Both have advantages.”
I ask you, dear readers: what would you choose? To have your partner beautiful for the world or for you alone?
I tell Billy, “Just say what comes to you.”
“Be beautiful when you want to be,” he says.
I’m floored. Sir Gawain had said the same thing, in different words, to Dame Ragnell: “My lady, I leave it up to you.” And when he said that, she became beautiful all the time.
I’ve been telling this story for 30 years, and nobody has ever given that answer. They choose one or the other, but don’t think to leave it up to the woman.