Morgan le Fay
|Matter of Britain character|
Morgan le Fay by Frederick Sandys (1864)
|First appearance||Vita Merlini (as Morgen of Avalon)|
|Created by||Geoffrey of Monmouth|
|Occupation||Enchantress, princess, queen|
|Significant other(s)||Merlin, Accolon, others|
|Relatives||Igraine, Gorlois, Morgause, Elaine of Garlot, King Arthur|
Morgan le Fay / /, alternatively known as Morgan le Faye, Morgen, Morgaine, Morgain, Morgana, Morganna, Morgant, Morgane, Morgne and other names, is a powerful enchantress in the Arthurian legend. Early works featuring Morgan do not elaborate her character beyond her role as a fay or sorceress. She became both more prominent and morally ambivalent in later texts, in particular in cyclical prose works such as the Lancelot-Grail and the Post-Vulgate Cycle, in which she turns into a dangerous enemy of King Arthur and is an unpredictable antihero and antagonist of some tales.
The earliest accounts of Geoffrey of Monmouth in Vita Merlini and Gerald of Wales refer to Morgan in conjunction with the Isle of Apples (Avalon) to which the fatally wounded Arthur was carried off after the Battle of Camlann. To the former, in early chivalric romances by Chrétien de Troyes, she also figures as a great healer. Her character may be partially derived from that of the Welsh figure of Modron and other myths. She is often said to be the daughter of Arthur's mother, Lady Igraine, and her first husband, Gorlois, so that Arthur, the son of Igraine and Uther Pendragon, is her half-brother.
In Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and in many other later versions of the legend, she is unhappily married to King Urien, with whom she has the son Ywain, and her sisters include Morgause. She becomes an apprentice of Merlin and a vindictive adversary of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, with a special hatred for his wife Queen Guinevere. She is also wanton and sexually aggressive, with many lovers including Merlin and Accolon, and an unrequited love for Lancelot. Morgan is an indirect instrument of Arthur's death, though she eventually reconciles with him and retains her original role, serving as one of the magical queens who take him on his final journey to Avalon.
After centuries of being mostly absent in post-medieval European culture, Morgan became very popular in the 20th and 21st century. Her character and role in the modern works varies greatly, but usually she is portrayed as a villainess, often associated with Mordred as either being his mother or in different aspect.
Etymology and origins
The earliest spelling of the name (found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, written c. 1150) is Morgen, which is likely derived from Old Welsh or Old Breton Morgen, meaning "Sea-born" (from Common Brittonic *Mori-genā, the masculine form of which, *Mori-genos, survived in Middle Welsh as Moryen or Morien; a cognate form in Old Irish is Muirgein, the name of a Christian, shape-shifting female saint who was associated with the sea). The name is not to be confused with the Modern Welsh masculine name Morgan (spelled Morcant in the Old Welsh period). As her epithet "le Fay" (from the French la fée, "the fairy") and some traits indicates, the figure of Morgan appears to have been a remnant of supernatural female figures from Celtic mythology, and her main name could be connected to the myths of Morgens (or Morgans), which are Welsh and Breton water-spirits. While later works usually make her specifically human, she retains her magical powers.
Inspiration for her character likely came from earlier Welsh mythology and literature. Additional speculation sometimes connects Morgan with the Irish goddess Morrígan, though there are few similarities between the two beyond the spelling of their names. Morgan has been more substantially linked with the supernatural mother figure of Modron, a figure derived from the continental Dea Matrona and featured with some frequency in medieval Welsh literature. Modron appears in Welsh Triad 70, in which her children by Urien, Owain and Morfydd, are called the "Three Blessed Womb-Burdens of the Island of Britain," and a later folktale preserved in the manuscript known as Peniarth 147 records the story behind these conceptions more fully. Arthurian legend's version of Urien is Morgan le Fay's husband in the continental romances, while Owain mab Urien is the historical figure behind their son Ywain. The historical Urien had a treacherous ally named Morcant Bulc who plotted to assassinate him, similar to how Morgan attempts to kill Urien in the later version of Arthurian myth. Additionally, Modron is called "daughter of Avallach," a Welsh ancestor deity whose name can also be interpreted as a noun meaning "a place of apples"; in fact, in the tale of Owain and Morfydd's conception in Peniarth 147, Modron is called the "daughter of the king of Avallach". This is similar to Avalon, the "Isle of Apples" with which Morgan le Fay has been associated since her earliest appearances.
According to the chronicler Gerald of Wales, Morganis was a noblewoman close relative of King Arthur who carried him to her island of Avalon (identified by him as Glastonbury), where Arthur was buried. Writing about 1216 in De instructione principis, Gerald claimed that "as a result, the credulous Britons and their bards invented the legend that a fantastic sorceress had removed Arthur's body to the Isle of Avalon, so that she might cure his wounds there," for the purpose of creating the possibility of King Arthur's messianic return. Writing in his Latin encyclopedic work Otia Imperialia, around the same time and with similar derision for this belief, Gervase of Tilbury calls that mythical enchantress Morgan the Fairy (Morganda Fatata).
In medieval literature
Morgan first appears by name in Vita Merlini, written by Norman-Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth. Purportedly an account of the wizard Merlin's later adventures, it elaborates some episodes from Geoffrey's more famous earlier work, Historia Regum Britanniae (1136). In Historia, Geoffrey relates how King Arthur, seriously wounded by Mordred at the Battle of Camlann, is taken off to the blessed Isle of Apple Trees (Latin Insula Pomorum), Avalon, to be healed. In Vita Merlini, he describes this island in more detail and names Morgen as the chief of nine magical queen sisters who dwell there, capable of shapeshifting and flying, and using their powers only for good. Her sisters' names are Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton. Morgan retains this role as Arthur's other-worldly healer in much later literature, and Geoffrey might have been inspired by the 1st-century Roman cartographer Pomponius Mela, who described an oracle at the Île de Sein off the coast of Brittany and its nine virgin priestesses believed by the Gauls to have the powers of curing disease and performing various other marvelous magic, such as controlling the sea through incantations, foretelling future, and changing themselves into any animal. In Lanzelet, written by the end of the 12th century by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, the infant Lancelot is spirited away by a water fairy (merfeine in Old High German) and raised in her paradise island country of Meidelant ("Land of Maidens"); his water fairy queen might be related to Geoffrey's Morgen of Avalon.
Prior to the cyclical Old French prose, the appearances of Morgan are few. The 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes mentions her in his first romance Erec and Enide, completed around 1170. In it, a love of Morgan is Guinguemar, the Lord of the Isle of Avalon and a nephew of King Arthur, a derivative of the legendary Breton hero Guingamor. Guingamor's own tale by Marie de France has him in relation to the beautiful magical entity known only as the "fairy mistress", who was later identified by Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal as Dame Tryamour, the daughter of the King of the Celtic Otherworld, and who shares many characteristics with Chrétien's Morgan. It was noted that even Chrétien' earliest mention of Morgan already shows an enmity between her and Queen Guinevere, and although Morgan is represented only in benign role by Chrétien, she resides in a mysterious place known as the Vale Perilous (which some later authors say she has created as a place of punishment for unfaithful knights). She is later mentioned in the same poem when Arthur provides the wounded hero Erec with a healing balm made by his sister Morgan. This episode both affirms her early role as a healer and provides the first mention of Morgan as Arthur's sister; healing is Morgan's chief ability, but Chrétien also hints at her potential to harm. Chrétien again refers to Morgan as a great healer in his later romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, in an episode in which the Lady of Norison restores the maddened hero to his senses with a magical potion provided by Morgan the Wise. While Modron is the mother of Owain mab Urien in Welsh literature, and Morgan would be assigned this role in later French literature, this first continental association between Sir Ywain and Morgan does not imply they are son and mother; she is first mentioned as Ywain's mother in the early 13th-century Breton lai Tyolet.
The Arthurian tale Geraint son of Erbin, based on Chrétien's Erec and Enide, mentions King Arthur's chief physician, Morgan Tud; it is believed that this character, though considered a male in Gereint, may be derived from Morgan le Fay, though this has been a matter of debate among Arthurian scholars since the 19th century (the epithet Tud may be a Welsh or Breton cognate or borrowing of Old Irish tuath, "north, left", "sinister, wicked", also "fairy (fay), elf"). In Layamon's The Chronicle of Britain, written c. 1215, Arthur was taken to Avalon to be healed there by its most beautiful elfen queen named Argante; it is possible her name has been originally Margant(e) before it was changed in manuscript transmission.
In his version of Erec, the 12th-century German knight and poet Hartmann von Aue describes the sorceress Famurgan (Feimurgan, Fairy Murgan) as a deceased mistress of dark magic who has lived her life "in defiance of God" and was capable of raising the dead and turning people to animals at will, commanding wild beasts, evil spirits and dragons, and having the devil in Hell as a trusted companion. Hartmann has Erec healed by Guinevere with a special plaster that Famurgan has given to her brother Arthur before she died and all of her wondrous knowledge was lost with her. In the 13th-century romance Parzival, another German knight-poet Wolfram von Eschenbach inverted her name to create that of Arthur's fairy ancestor named Terdelaschoye de Feimurgan, the wife of Mazadan, where the part "Terdelaschoye" comes from Terre de la Joie, or Land of Joy. A great sorceress Morgaine also appears in the few surviving verses of the poem Merlin written ac. 1200 by French knight-poet Robert de Boron who described her as an illegitimate daughter of Lady Igraine and an unnamed Duke of Tintagel; it was the first known work linking Morgan to Igraine and mentioning her learning sorcery after having been sent away for an education.
A recently discovered moralistic manuscript written in Anglo-Norman French is the only text in medieval Arthurian literature presented as being composed by Morgan herself. This late 12th-century text is purportedly addressed to Morgan's court official and tells of the story of a knight Piers the Fierce (it is likely that the author's motive was to draw a satirical moral from the downfall of the English knight Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall); Morgan (Morgayne) is titled in it as "empress of the wilderness, queen of the damsels, lady of the isles, and governor of the waves of the great sea." She is also mentioned in the Draco Normannicus, a Latin chronicle written by Stephen of Rouen, which contains a fictional letter from King Arthur to Henry II of England, written around the same time for political propaganda purposes, in which 'Arthur' criticizes Henry for invading Brittany and claims that he has been healed of his wounds and made immortal by his "deathless nymph" sister Morgan on Avalon.
Cyclical Old French prose and Le Morte d'Arthur
Morgan's role was greatly expanded in the 13th-century Old French romances of Lancelot-Grail (the Vulgate Cycle) and the subsequent works inspired by it (the Post-Vulgate Cycle) that make her ways and deeds much more sinister than she was presented by Geoffrey and Chrétien, as she becomes an antiheroine in many texts. Morgan is now an ambitious nemesis of Arthur and Guinevere, a malicious and cruel sorceress and temptress, "the most ardent and most lecherous woman in all Britain" causing subversive mischief at the royal courts of both Arthur and Mark of Cornwall and having few positive values. The youngest of the daughters of Igraine and Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, Morgan has at least two elder sisters: Elaine of Garlot and Morgause, the latter of whom is the mother of Arthur's knights Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravain by King Lot of Lothian, and the traitor Sir Mordred by Arthur (in some romances the wife King Lot is called Morcades, a name that R. S. Loomis argued was another variant of Morgan).
The young Morgan is sent to a nun convent after Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, aided by Merlin, kills Gorlois and rapes and marries her mother, who later gives him a son, Arthur (which makes him Morgan's younger half-brother). There, Morgan begins her study of magic arts, mastering seven arts and goes on to specialize in astronomie (astronomy and astrology) and healing. She later continues her studies under Merlin, but is interrupted when Uther betroths her to his ally King Urien of Gore (possibly Rheged). Unhappy with her husband, she takes a string of lovers until she is caught by King Arthur's newly married wife, Queen Guinevere to whom Morgan has served as a lady-in-waiting, with Guiomar (Chrétien's Guinguemar), and Guinevere intervenes to break their relationship to prevent the loss of honor. This incident (introduced in the Prose Merlin and expanded in the Vulgate Lancelot) begins a feud between Guinevere and Morgan, who leaves the court of Camelot to seek out Merlin and greater powers. The pregnant Morgan later gives a birth to Guiomar's son, who is said to grow up to become a great knight but is not named.
Morgan then continues her studies of magic under Merlin, whom she enamours and later scorns, all the while plotting her vengeance against the hated Guinevere and King Arthur. Through magic and mortal means, Morgan tries to undermine virtue, destroy Arthur's rule and achieve Guinevere's downfall whenever she can, most famously in the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin where she arranges (in conspiracy with Sir Damas) for her devoted lover Sir Accolon of Gaul to obtain the enchanted sword Excalibur and use it against Arthur in single combat. Failing in this, Morgan steals Excalibur's protective scabbard (which has been previously confided to Morgan by Arthur himself as he had trusted her most, even more than his wife) from the sleeping Arthur and, pursued by him, throws it into a lake, before escaping by temporarily turning herself and her entourage to stone (the sight of which makes Arthur think they have been already punished by God). This action ultimately causes the death of Arthur, who would otherwise be protected in his final battle. Morgan also attempts to murder her sleeping husband Urien with his own sword, but is stopped in act by their son Ywain (Uwayne), who pardons her when she protests she has been under the devil's power and promises to abandon her wicked ways. Later, Morgan saves Arthur's knight named Manassen (Manessen, Manasses) from a certain death and enables him to kill his captor when she learns Accolon was Manessen's cousin.
Failing to avenge Accolon's death, Morgan retires to her lands in Gore and then to her castle near the stronghold of Tauroc (possibly in North Wales), and Malory mentions Arthur's attempts to conquer at least one of her castles, which was originally his gift to her. She also plots an elaborate ambush in "The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyons", after learning of the death of one of her favourites in a tournament, but Tristan ends up killing or routing thirty of her knights when the ambush ends in a disaster. Her attempts to bring about Arthur's demise after being banished from Camelot by Guinevere in the Suite du Merlin are repeatedly frustrated by the king's new sorcerous advisor Nimue (the Lady of the Lake), such as when Morgan sends Arthur a supposed offering of peace in the form of a rich mantle cloak (Morgan's messenger maiden is made put on the gift first and its curse burns her to cinders); it is possible that this motif was inspired by Greek mythology motifs such as how Medea killed her rival for Jason's affection, or how Deianira sent a poisoned tunic to Hercules. In the aftermath of one of her treacherous schemes, Merlin saves her from Arthur's wrath and enables her to escape.
Morgan uses her skills to foil the Knights of the Round Table, especially Sir Lancelot, whom she alternately tries to seduce and to expose as Guinevere's adulterous lover. Some sources have King Nentres of Garlot as a suitor of young Morgan before marrying her sister Elaine. Her many lovers include Corrant, Gui of Carmelide (Cameliard), Guyanor, Helians of Gomeret, and Kaz of Gomeret, as well as Sir Huneson the Bald (also known as Hemison or Onesun). Huneson is mortally wounded when he attacks Tristan out of his jealously for Morgan's attention and dies after returning to her, and the anguished Morgan buries him in a tomb. In one version, she then takes possession of the lance that was used to kill Huneson, enchants it, and sends it Mark, who years later uses it to slay Tristan. In one of her castles, Tugan in Garlot, Morgan hid a magic book given to her by Merlin and that prophesied the deaths of Arthur and Gawain and who would kill them, but no one could read this passage without dying instantly. In the Prose Tristan, Morgan delivers by Sir Lamorak to Arthur's court a magical drinking horn from which no unfaithful lady can drink without spilling, hoping to reveal the infidelity and disgrace Guinevere. With same intent, she also gives Sir Tristan (Tristam) a shield depicting Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.
Lancelot is Morgan's prime object of sexual desire but he consistently refuses her obsessive advances due to his great love of Guinevere, even as Morgan either courts, drugs, enchants and imprisons the knight on several occasions. One tale has Lancelot captured in Cart Castle (Charyot) by her and two other lustful enchantress, Queen Sebile (Sedile) and the unnamed Queen of Sorestan, each of whom wants to make him her lover, but he refuses to choose and escapes with a help of one of their maidservants, Rocedon. Sebile and Morgan are close companions, working their magic together, but they tend to fall into petty squabbles due to their rivalries and bad tempers, including a conflict between them when they both seduce Lancelot's brother Sir Hector de Maris in the late 13th-century Prophesies de Merlin; a resulting contest between them is won by Nimue with a help from Merlin. Their friendship is further tested when a quarrel over a handsome widower named Berengier (captured by Sebile after Morgan kidnapped his child) ends in a violent attack by Sebile that leaves Morgan half-dead; Morgan swears revenge, but their relationship is later restored as usual. Morgan's other allies in Prophecies include the opponents of chivalry such as Mark and Claudas, and she enlists the help of the latter in her failed attempt to eliminate the Lady of the Lake. Sometimes she is successful, such as when she sends Lucifer in the guise of a dragon against Sir Segurant.
Her realm becomes known as the Val sans Retour (the Vale of No Return). Morgan's fancied good knights besides Lancelot include the rescued-but-abducted young Sir Alexander the Orphan (Alisaunder le Orphelin, a cousin of Tristan and Mark's enemy), whom she promises to heal, but he vows to rather castrate himself than to pleasure her, but promises her to defend the castle of Fair Guard (Belle Garde), where he has been held for a year, and then continues to guard it even when the castle was burnt down. In the Val sans Retour, Lancelot frees the many knights entrapped by Morgan from her power, including Morgan's own son Ywain and her former lover Guiomars who has been turned to stone by her for his unfaithfulness. Morgan captures Lancelot under her spell and keeps him prisoner in the hope Guinevere would go mad or die of sorrow, and otherwise torments the queen, causing her a great distress and making her miserable until the Lady of the Lake gives her a ring of protection from any power of Morgan. On one occasion, she lets the captive Lancelot go to rescue Sir Gawain when he promises to come back, and he keeps his word and does return; she eventually releases him when his health falters and he is near death.
Morgan concentrates on witchcraft to such degree that she goes to live in seclusion in the exile of far-away forests. She learns more spells than any other woman, gains an ability to transform herself into any animal, and people begin to call her Morgan the Goddess. Lancelot has a vision of Hell where Morgan still will be able to control demons even in afterlife as they torture Guinevere. After Mordred spots the images of Lancelot's passionate love for Guinevere that Lancelot painted on her castle's walls while he was imprisoned there, Morgan shows them to Gawain and his brothers, encouraging them to take action in the name of loyalty to their king, but they do not do this. In the Vulgate La Mort le Roi Artu (The Death of King Arthur, also known as just Mort Artu), Morgan vanishes for a long time and stops troubling Arthur, who assumes her to be dead. One day, he wanders into Morgan's remote castle while on a hunting trip, and they instantly reconcile with each other. Morgan welcomes him warmly and the king is overjoyed of their reunion and allows her to return to Camelot, but she refuses and declares her plan to move to the Isle of Avalon to live there with other sorceresses. However, the sight of Lancelot's frescoes and Morgan's confession finally convinces Arthur about the truth to the rumours of the two's secret love affair (about which he has been already warned by his nephew Sir Agravain). This leads to a great conflict between Arthur and Lancelot, which brings down the fellowship of the Round Table. The goddess Fortune, who appears to Arthur to foretell his death towards the end the Vulgate Cycle, is regarded by some as a double for Morgan. At the end of Mort Artu, Morgan is the first among the black-hooded ladies who take the dying Arthur to his final rest in Avalon.
English writer Thomas Malory follows much of that portrayal of Morgan in his seminal 1485 compilation book Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), though he expands her role in some cases. Malory scholar Elizabeth Sklar described her as "an essentially sociopathic personality, respecting no boundaries and acknowledging no rules save those dictated by her own ambitions, envy, and lust." Malory's Morgan too has studied astrology as well as nigremancie (meaning black magic, sometimes mistaken with "necromancy") in the nunnery where she was raised, before being married to Urien as a young teenager. In Malory's version, Morgan is the leader of the four (not three) witch queens who capture Lancelot (the others being the Queen of the Northgales, the Queen of Eastland, and the Queen of the Outer Isles), who also rescues the young Elaine of Corbenic (Galahad's mother) when she is trapped in an enchanted boiling bath by Morgan and the Queen of the Northgales, both envious of Elaine's great beauty (also in Prose Lancelot). Despite all of their prior hostility towards each other and her numerous designs to destroy Arthur, Morgan eventually redeems and ends up being one of the four grieving enchantress queens (the others being Nimue and two of Morgan's allies, the Queen of the Northgales and the Queen of the Wasteland) who arrive in a black boat to transport the wounded king to Avalon. Arthur is last seen in Morgan's lap, with her lament of sorrow referring to him as her "dear brother" (dere brothir).
Other later appearances
Morgan turns up throughout the High and Late Middle Ages in a variety of roles, generally in works related to the cycles of Arthur or Charlemagne. They often feature Morgan as a lover and benefactor of various heroes, sometimes also introducing her additional offspring or alternate siblings, or connecting her closer with the figure of the Lady of the Lake. The Middle English romance Arthour and Merlin, written in 1270, casts Morgan herself in the role of the Lady of the Lake and gives her a brother named Morganor as an illegitimate son of King Urien. The Italian manuscript Tavola ritonda (The Round Table) makes Morgan a daughter of Uther Pendragon and a sister of the Lady of the Lake. The 14th-century Italian romance Pulzella Gaia (Merry Maiden) features the titular and otherwise unnamed beautiful young daughter of Morgan by Hemison. She is kidnapped by the knight Burletta of the Desert (Burletta della Diserta) and rescued by Lancelot, and later defeats Gawain (Galvan) in her giant serpent form before becoming his lover; she and her fairy army save Gawain from the jealous Guinevere (who wants Gawain dead after having been rejected by him) but she gets herself captured in her mother's castle Palaus (as Morgan wants to marry her to Tristan), until Gawain in turn frees her from a cursed dungeon.
In some texts, Avalon is often described as an other-worldy place ruled by Morgan. In the Catalan poem La Faula, Guillem de Torroella claims to have visited the Enchanted Isle and met Arthur who has been brought back to life by Morgan and they both of them are now forever young, sustained by the Holy Grail. In the 15th-century Spanish romance Tirant lo Blanch, the noble Queen Morgan searches the world for her missing brother and finds him as an entranced prisoner in Constantinople; Morgan brings Arthur back to his senses by removing Excalibur from his hands, and after great celebrations they depart together back to Avalon. In the legends of Charlemagne, she is most famous for her association with the Danish legendary hero Ogier the Dane, whom she takes to her mystical island palace in Avalon (where Arthur and Gawain are also still alive) to be her lover for 200 years, and later protects him during his adventures in the mortal world as he defends France from Muslim invasion before his eventual return to Avalon; in some accounts, Ogier begets her two sons, including Marlyn. In the 13th-century chanson de geste of Huon of Bordeaux, she is a protector of the eponymous hero and the mother of the fairy king Oberon by none other than Julius Caesar, while Ogier le Danois calls Oberon a brother of Morgan. In another chanson de geste, La Bataille Loquifer, Morgan and her sister Marsion (Marrion) bring the hero Renoart to Avalon, where Arthur is the king, and Renoart and Morgan's union gives him an illegitimate son named Corbon (Corbans).
Her enchanted realm would be placed elsewhere in the mythological landscape of medieval Europe. Morgan le Fay, or Fata Morgana in Italian, has been in particular associated with Sicily at least since the Norman conquest of southern Italy, and European folklore describes her as living in a magical castle located at or floating over Mount Etna. As such she gave her name to the form of mirage common off the shores of Sicily, the Fata Morgana. References linking Avalon to Sicily can be found in Gervase's Ottia Imperialia (c. 1211) and in Torroella's La Faula, as well as in Breton and Provençal literature, for example in Jaufre (an Occitan language Arthurian romance from c. 1180), and in La Bataille Loquifer (c. 1170). The 13th-century romance Floriant et Florete places Morgan's secret mountain castle of Mongibel (Montgibel, Montegibel; derived from the Arabic name for Etna), where, in the role of a fairy godmother, she spirits away and raises Floriant, the son of a murdered Sicilian king and the hero of the story; Floriant, with the help of her magic ship, eventually reunites with Morgan at her castle when he returns there with his wife Florete. The 15th-century French romance La Chevalier du Papegau (The Knight of the Parrot) gives Morgaine the Fairy of Montgibel (Morgaine, la fée de Montgibel, as she is also known in Floriant et Florete) a sister known as the Lady Without Pride (la Dame sans Orgueil), whom Arthur rescues from the Knight of the Wasteland.
At the end of the 14th-century Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the best known Arthurian tales, it is revealed that the entire Green Knight plot has been instigated by Gawain's aunt, the goddess Morgan (Morgue la Faye), who takes an appearance of an elderly woman (contrasting from the beautiful Lady Bertilak in the role evoking the loathly lady tradition), as a test for Arthur and his knights and to frighten Guinevere to death. Morgan's importance to this particular narrative has been disputed and called a deus ex machina and simply an artistic device to further connect Gawain's episode to the Arthurian legend.
In modern culture
Morgan le Fay has been featured in many works of popular culture, spanning fantasy and historical fiction across various mediums including literature, comics, film, television, and video games. As Elizabeth S. Sklar of Wayne State University noted in 1992: "Currently a cornerstone of the new Arthurian mythos, [she] occupies a secure position in the contemporary Arthurian pantheon, as familiar a figure to modern enthusiasts as Merlin, Lancelot, or King Arthur himself." Additionally, she has become an archetype serving as a source of tropes for many characters in various other modern works, some of them borrowing her name in the modernized English form Morgana.
Prior to her 20th-century resurgence, however, Morgan has been largely absent in post-medieval Arthurian writings, sometimes replaced by inspired characters such as Queen Argante (using Layamon's name for Morgan) in Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590). The relatively few exceptions of an actual Morgan character include William Morris's epic poem The Earthly Paradise (1870) where he retells the story of Morgan (Morgane) and Ogier the Dane; in his satirical novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), Mark Twain cast her as Arthur's antagonistic sister, a deceptively charmful sorceress who is also capable of the most vicious behavior.
Since the early 20th century, most modern works feature Morgan as a sorceress and sometimes a priestess, and usually a half-sister of Arthur and sometimes a femme fatale, but some also have her in other roles, including as a fairy or an otherwise non-human character. Many authors effectively merge Morgan with Morgause (traditionally a sister of Morgan and the mother of both Mordred and Gawain) and combine her with the less savory aspects of the Lady of the Lake (this is further positioning a modern Morgan as a nemesis for Merlin, who has never been truly her foe in the medieval Arthurian lore); such a composite character is then often turned into Mordred's mother or partner.
Modern authors' versions of Morgan have her usually appear in conventionally villainous roles of a witchlike and irreconcilable enemy of Arthur, recurrently in league with Arthur's bastard son Mordred; be it in the time of the legend or still continuing her feud in the modern era, where she also may be just ruthlessly questing for power or even represent motiveless malevolence. Such Morgan is often merely a one-dimensional caricature, examples of which include the portrayals of her in several television films such as Merlin and the Sword (1985) (played by Candice Bergen), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1995) (played by Theresa Russell) and Arthur's Quest (1999) (played by Catherine Oxenberg). Sklar described a modern stereotype of Morgan as "the very embodiment of evil dedicated to the subversion of all forms of governance, express[ing] the fears that inevitably accompany the sort of radical cultural change represented by the social realities and ideological imperatives of escalating female empowerment during this (20th) century...a composite of all the patriarchal nightmare-women of literary tradition: Eve, Circe, Medea and Lady Macbeth compressed into a single, infinitely menacing package," and whose "sexuality exceeds even that of her prototype and serves as the chief vehicle for her manipulation of others." Notable examples of this pattern are two comic book supervillainesses, Morgan le Fay (created by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely in 1955) in the Marvel Universe and Morgaine le Fey (created by Jack Kirby in 1972) in the DC Universe. A modern Morgan is often an antagonist character for Arthur, Merlin and their followers to overcome and save Camelot, Avalon, or even the world; even in Excalibur (1981), John Boorman's film adaptation of Le Morte d'Arthur, the evil Morgana le Fay (played by Helen Mirren) meets her end at the hands of Mordred, her son in the film, instead of accompanying Arthur to Avalon as she did in the source material.
Nevertheless, other modern versions of Morgan's character can be more sympathic or ambiguous, or even present her as in an entirely positive light, and some also feature her as a protagonist of a story. Alan Lupack of the University of Rochester noted in 2007 that a modern Morgan has evolved to become "a woman whose own values and concerns [have] become central in some retellings of the Arthurian story;" in 2012, Fiona Tolhurst of the Florida Gulf Coast University pointed out how "some contemporary novelists sanitize or justify" Morgan's origins as "the oversexed counter-hero in most medieval Arthurian texts." One notable example of this trend is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1983), an influential novel that was later adapted into a television miniseries; other such positions in modern literature, sometimes told in first person from her point of view, include Mary Pope Osborne's series Magic Tree House, Welwyn Wilton Katz's The Third Magic (1988), Fay Sampson's Daughter of Tintagel (1992), Nancy Springer's I Am Morgan le Fay (2001), J. Robert King's Le Morte D'Avalon (2003), and Felicity Pulman's I, Morgana (2014). California State Library consultant Cindy Mediavilla praised two still antagonistic but in her opinion non-stereotypical portrayals of Morgan in the 21st-century television series Merlin (2008) (played by Katie McGrath) and Camelot (2011) (played by Eva Green) "as being among the most fully realized versions of her character in any medium."
Furthermore, since the late 20th century, some feminists have also adopted Morgan as a representation of female power or of a fading form of feminine spirituality supposedly practised by the Celts or earlier peoples. These interpretations draw upon the original portrayal of Morgan as a benevolent figure with extraordinary healing powers. According to Leila K. Norako of the University of Rochester, "in addition to her appearances in literature, television, and film, Morgan le Fay is also frequently mentioned in the context of neo-pagan religious groups. She is alternately worshipped as a goddess, hailed as a symbol of feminine power, and adopted as a spiritual name." This development was attributed to the influence of The Mists of Avalon, a revisionist retelling of the legend from a feminist and pro-pagan perspective. People who have been named or named themselves specifically after Arthurian figure of Morgan include Morgana Le Fay O'Reilly and Elizabeth Le Fey. Norako wrote:
- Like many characters in the Arthurian legends, Morgan le Fay has been consistently transformed and interpreted by authors and artists for nearly a millennium. [S]he is alternately cast as a healer, villain, enchantress, seductress, or some combination thereof, depending on the needs of the work in question. This versatility has no doubt played a part in the continued cultural relevance that this character has enjoyed across the centuries and continues to hold in contemporary culture as well.
Media related to Morgan le Fay at Wikimedia Commons
|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Morgan, the Fay.|
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