Morgan le Fay: Malignant or Maligned?
Every good story needs conflict. The main character has a goal and things get in the way of him or her accomplishing it. The major thing that gets in the way is the antagonist, the main person or thing that works against the main character. While an antagonist doesn’t have to be villainous, isn’t wonderful for a story to have someone you love to hate? In Arthurian legend, that someone is Morgan le Fay. You know her. The crazy evil witch lady who destroys Arthur and his kingdom. Or was it Mordred who did that? Well, Mordred is her son and she put him up to it. Right? Actually, not necessarily. The thing with legends is that they exist in variants. There are core elements that stay stable but, as the story is told over and over (and over) again, the details change. Take E. B. White’s The Once and Future King, Mary Steward’s The Crystal Cave (and the three sequel novels), and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon for example. All three tell the basic King Arthur and Camelot story but in vastly different ways. Or watch Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and contrast it with the BBC series Merlin. Arthur’s mentor / sorcerer seems almost unrecognizable as the same character (although there are similarities if you look closely enough). Arthurian legend has been around for over 1,000 years and, over the course of that time, Morgan le Fay’s character has changed considerably and mostly not for the good. In fact, she’s developed quite a bad reputation. The question is: does she deserved it?
Who is Morgan le Fay? Most versions of the legend say she is the daughter of Gorlois and Igraine, Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, and the half-sister of Arthur, the illegitimate son of Igraine by Uther Pendragon. The BBC series, Merlin, presents her as the illegitimate daughter of Uther Pendragon and the wife of Gorlois, Vivianne, with whom he had an affair. Morgana (as she is called in this series and in many versions of the legend) is still Arthur’s half-sister but with Uther as the shared parent. In Merlin, she has a half-sister, Morgause, who seems to be a daughter of Vivianne, though this is never made clear. In most versions of the legend where Morgause appears (she doesn’t always) she is a full sister of Morgan and the daughter of Gorlois and Igraine. Sometimes there is a third sister and, on rare occasions, Morgana is the youngest of five daughters. In infrequent cases, she is called Morgan the Bastard, but most texts portray her as a legitimate daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall.
Is she the mother of Mordred? Not originally. In early texts, Morgause seduces her half-brother, Arthur, and the result of that one-night stand is Mordred who, in the end, kills Arthur. In modern texts, the character of Morgause often is absent, but even when she isn’t, her deeds often are transferred to Morgan’s character. Even as far back as 13th and 14th century texts, Morgan begins to be presented as not only an enchantress, but a seductress. Over time, her character begins to be portrayed as predatory, over-sexed, and depraved. This is considerably different than the way early texts characterize her.
In 12th century versions of the legend, she is a beneficent queen and healer. She is one of nine female rulers of the Isle of Apples (later called Avalon). Arthur, after being apparently mortally wounded by Mordred at the Battle of Camlan, is brought by boat to Avalon where Morgan heals him. Many medieval versions of the legend say he still lives there (some say Morgan with him) and will return in the time of Britain’s greatest need. Even many of the later medieval texts which present Morgan as vengeful towards Arthur show her, in the end, bringing Arthur to Avalon for healing.
Most of the medieval versions of the legend portray Morgan as highly educated. In addition to learning about and becoming proficient in both magic and the healing arts, she is an astronomer and an exceptional mathematician. Some add that she has a beautiful voice which implies she is a gifted singer. So as early as the Middle Ages, she’s a Renaissance woman! How then, did she devolve into a vengeful, manipulative, evil witch out to destroy Arthur and his kingdom?
Well, as mentioned in the beginning, there’s nothing like a great villain to make a story riveting. But there may be more to the vilification of Morgan’s character.
Legends only continue to exist if they speak to a culture, if they resonate with its interests and values. At the same time, legends are affected and changed by the cultures in which they exist. Sometimes the culture’s values are superimposed onto the legend.
Scholars believe that Arthurian legend, and the character of Morgan in particular, originated in Celtic culture. The Celts valued strong women. They could be rulers. Queen Maeve was an absolute ruler whose word even could countermand that of her husband. Celtic women could be Druids, the most educated people in their society. Girls could go to warrior training schools along with boys. In fact, one Celtic woman living in what is now Scotland ran such a school. There are a few instances as well of women commanding armies, and they could act as ambassadors. But noble and wealthy women were not the only females in Celtic society with power. Laws protected the rights and independence of all women, allowing them to inherit and own property, conduct business without the consent of their husband, and giving them the right to divorce their husband and to receive back the value of their dowry. Their contemporaries in western civilization did not enjoy this degree of independence.
In the Middle Ages, when the legend moved from oral tradition to written texts, European women definitely did not have the rights and freedoms of the Celtic society which gave birth to the Camelot saga. English and French medieval literature depicts women in one of two ways: as models of virtue and purity who need the protection and guidance of a strong man or as temptresses who lead men into sin and ultimate destruction. This is especially true as the Middle Ages progress and its literature, including romances with courtly love, moves towards becoming morality tales. It’s around this time that Morgan’s character disintegrates. Her character becomes the personification of evil and embodies a cautionary tale of what happens when women become educated and powerful.
It’s interesting to watch, over the course of time and the history of Arthurian legend, that Merlin’s character has a parallel yet inverse journey. As Morgan’s character becomes more and more dangerous and corrupt, Merlin’s becomes less morally ambiguous and more benevolent. There also is a type of full circle dynamic which seems to be happening now with Morgan’s character. In the latter half of the 20th century and especially in the 21st, more and more books are being written which cast Morgan in a more sympathetic light. Some even have made her the protagonist, telling Arthurian legend from her perspective.
Was Morgan le Fay a real person? Some people have suggested historical figures, such as Matilda, the daughter of Henry I of England, as the inspiration for Morgan’s character. At the time of her father’s death in 1135, Matilda was the legitimate heir to his throne but her cousin, Stephen of Blois, through “a rapid coup” grabbed the throne (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Matilda-daughter-of-Henry-I). She waged war against him but ultimately lost. There is little to link Matilda with Morgan, though, except that she was a British royal who fought against a male relative in a war for the English throne. Morgan le Fay is first mentioned by name in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text, Vita Merlini, in 1150 but scholars believe she had been part of the oral tradition of Arthurian legend for long before that, so Matilda, whose fight for the throne had been waged only fifteen years before Geoffrey’s text, is an unlikely candidate as the role model for Morgan’s character.
What is likely is that the character draws inspiration from Celtic folklore and mythology. Some scholars believe she may be based on Welsh water spirits called Morgens, especially since, in some versions of the legend, Morgan is identified as the Lady of the Lake. At any rate, the attachment of le fay to her name indicates she is a supernatural being as le fay translates into “the fairy.” Another school of thought asserts that her character draws inspiration from Irish mythology, possibly from the goddess (later Christianized into a saint) Brigid, who was both a goddess of war and a healer. A stronger case can be made for the Celtic triple goddess, the Morrigan, who was a goddess of war, life, and destiny. She is said to be a triple goddess because she is maiden, mother, and crone. The Morrigan also is said to be three sisters which would explain Morgan often having two sisters. Perhaps the strongest indication of the link between the goddess and the character is that both are shape-shifters and both fly. The Morrigan most frequently appeared as a crow flying over battle fields. Texts simply say that Morgan can fly without necessarily saying she shape-shifted into a bird.
Regardless of her origin, the character of Morgan le Fay came into Arthurian legend a thousand years ago and has refused to leave. And that’s a good thing. After all, what would Arthurian legend be without her?
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