Morgan le Fay
|Matter of Britain character|
Morgan le Fay by Frederick Sandys (1864)
"Here she stands in front of a loom on which she has woven an enchanted robe, designed to consume the body of King Arthur by fire. Her appearance with her loose hair, abandoned gestures and draped lepoard skin suggests a dangerous and bestial female sexuality, the green robe that Morgan is depticted wearing is actually a kimono."
|First appearance||Vita Merlini (as Morgen of Avalon)|
|Created by||Geoffrey of Monmouth|
|Occupation||Enchantress, princess, queen|
|Significant other(s)||Merlin, Accolon, Lancelot, Sebile, Hemison, others|
Uther Pendragon (stepfather)
Morgause, Elaine of Garlot (sisters)
King Arthur (half-brother)
Morgan le Fay /
The earliest account of Geoffrey of Monmouth in Vita Merlini refers to Morgan in conjunction with the Isle of Apples (Avalon) to which the fatally wounded Arthur was carried off after the Battle of Camlann. There, and in the early chivalric romances by Chrétien de Troyes and others, she figures as a great healer, being only gradually associated with Arthur as his supernatural sister; in the following versions from the French prose and the works inspired by them, among them Thomas Malory's famed Le Morte d'Arthur, she is usually established as the daughter of Arthur's mother, Igraine, and her first husband, Gorlois, so that Arthur, the son of Igraine and Uther, is her half-brother. Morgan is now unhappily married to Urien, with whom she has the son Ywain, and her sisters include Morgause, she herself becomes an apprentice of Merlin and a vindictive adversary of some of the knights of the Round Table, with a special hatred for Arthur's wife, Guinevere. In this tradition, Morgan is also sexually aggressive, taking numerous lovers that can include Merlin and Accolon, with an unrequited love for Lancelot; in some variants of it, including the popular retelling by Malory, Morgan is the greatest enemy of Arthur himself, scheming to usurp his throne and and even an indirect instrument of his death, although she eventually reconciles with her brother and retains her original role of serving as one of the magical queens who take him on his final journey to Avalon. Many other medieval works feature continuations of her tale after this point, as she becomes an immortal queen of Avalon even within otherwise non-Arthurian stories, sometimes alongside the still alive Arthur.
After centuries of being mostly absent from the post-medieval culture, Morgan has become very prominent in the 20th and 21st century. Her manifestations and the roles given to her by modern authors vary greatly, but typically she is being portrayed as a villainess associated with Mordred.
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, shapeshifting 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" (invented by Thomas Malory from the earlier 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 many later works make her specifically human, she retains her magical powers, and sometimes also her otherworldly if not just divine attributes, in fact still being referred to as either a fairy or outright a goddess (dea, déesse, gotinne) by various medieval authors.
Inspiration for her character likely came from earlier Welsh mythology and literature. Speculation sometimes (beginning with Lucy Allen Paton in 1904) connects Morgan with the Irish shape-shifting goddess of strife known as the Morrígan ("great queen"). She has been more substantially linked with the supernatural mother Modron, a figure derived from the continental mother goddess 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 marvelous "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 enabling 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). Morgan retains this role as Arthur's otherworldly healer in much of later tradition.
In medieval literature
Morgan first appears by name in Vita Merlini, written by Norman-Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth. Purportedly an account of the life of Merlin, 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; Avalon is also mentioned as the place where Arthur's sword Excalibur has be was forged. (His Arthur does have a sister, whose name here is Anna, but possibility of her being a predecessor to Morgan is unknown.) In Vita Merlini, Geoffrey 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. Morgen is also said to a learned mathematician and having taught astronomy to her sisters, whose names are Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton. In creating this Virgin Mary type character, and her sisters, 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 continental Celtic 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. The possible inspirations by elements of the classical Greek mythology figures of Medea (especially) and Circe have been also suggested. Geoffrey's description of Morgen is in fact very similar to this of Medea in Benoît de Sainte-Maure's epic poem Roman de Troie (c. 1155-1160), a story of the ancient Trojan War in which Morgan herself makes an unexplained appearance in this second known text featuring her. Already as Morgan la Fay (Morgain la Fée), there she loves Hector and gifts him a wonderful horse but then pursues him with hate after he rejects her, the abrupt way which she is used suggests Benoît did except his aristocratic audience to have been familiar with her character.
In the romance poem 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. In Layamon's Middle English poem The Chronicle of Britain (c. 1215), Arthur was taken to Avalon by two women to be healed there by its most beautiful elfen (aluen) queen named Argante or Argane; it is possible her name has been originally Margan(te) before it was changed in manuscript transmission.
The 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes already 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 would 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 Middle Welsh 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 his version of Erec, the 12th-century German knight and poet Hartmann von Aue describes Arthur's deceased sister, the great sorceress Famurgan (Feimurgan, Fairy Murgan), whom he based on Morgen of Avalon with a Christian bias, as a mistress of dark magic and healing arts who lived her life "in defiance of God" and had the devil in Hell as a trusted companion. Erec is healed by Guinevere with a special plaster that the fairy had given to Arthur before she died and all of her wondrous knowledge was then lost with her, and which included being capable of flying, raising the dead, turning people to animals at will, and commanding monsters (wild beasts, evil spirits, dragons); 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.
Cyclical Old French prose and Le Morte d'Arthur
Morgan's role was greatly expanded by the unknown authors (possibly members of the Cisterian religious order, which would explain their demonization of paganic motifs and fear of sexuality) of the 13th-century Old French romances of Lancelot-Grail" (the Vulgate Cycle) and especially its subsequent rewrites (the Post-Vulgate Cycle) that integrates her fully into the Arthurian world. They also makes Morgan's ways and deeds much more sinister than she was presented by Geoffrey and Chrétien, as she undergoes a series of transformations and becomes a chaotic antiheroine in many texts. Beginning as an erratic ally of Arthur and a notorious temptress opposed to his wife and some of his knights (especially Lancelot) in the original stories of the Vulgate Cycle, Morgan's figure eventually often turns into this of an ambitious and depraved nemesis of Arthur himself in the Post-Vulgate, she is now a a malicious and cruel sorceress, the source of many intrigues at the royal court of Arthur and elsewhere, in some works also subversively working to take over Arthur's throne through her mostly harmful magic (most of the time, Morgan's magic arts correspond with these of Merlin's and the Lady of the Lake's, such as shapeshifting, illusion, and sleeping spells) and scheming, including manipulating men.
Morgan first appears in the few surviving verses of the Old French poem Merlin, which later served as the original source for the Vulgate Cycle and consequently also the Post-Vulgate Cycle, it was written c. 1200 by French knight-poet Robert de Boron, who described her as an illegitimate daughter of Lady Igraine (with an unnamed Duke of Tintagel in a continuation of Merlin in the Vulgate Lancelot), adopted by King Neutres of Garlot. Merlin is the first known work linking Morgan to Igraine and mentioning her learning sorcery after having been sent away for an education. In the later evolution of this narrative in Post-Vulgate, Morgan is as the youngest of the daughters of Igraine and Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall; in the poem's prose and its continuations, she has at least two elder sisters (various manuscripts list up to five daughters and some do not mention Morgan being a bastard child): 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 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). At a young age, Morgan is sent to a nun convent after Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, aided by the half-demon 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 masters the seven arts, and begins her study of magic, going on to specialize in astronomie (astronomy and astrology) and healing. The late addition known as Vulgate Suite du Merlin, besides describing Morgan's unmatched beauty and amazing voice, presents more of her skills, including being "the best worker with her hands that anyone knew about in any land," highly eloquent and "the cleverest of all." Its narrator further elaborates on her character, being infamous as "the most ardent and most lecherous woman in all Britain," "inspired with sensuality and the devil," that "as long as she was in her right mind, she was more courteous than any, but when she was angry with anyone, there was no need in trying to reconcile them."
Eventually, Uther (or Arthur himself in the Post-Vulgate) betroths her to his ally, King Urien of Gore (possibly Rheged). Now a queen but unhappy with her husband, Morgan is caught in an affair with her lover Guiomar (a version of Chrétien's Guinguemar) by the High King Arthur's newly married wife, Queen Guinevere to whom Morgan has served as a lady-in-waiting. Guinevere intervenes to break their relationship to prevent the loss of honor (and possibly really because of Guinevere's perception of Morgan, with her kinship and close relationship with Arthur, as a rival in political power), this incident, introduced in the Prose Merlin and expanded in the Vulgate Lancelot and the Suite du Merlin, begins a lifelong feud between Guinevere and Morgan, who leaves the court of Camelot with all her wealth to seek out Merlin and greater powers. The pregnant Morgan later gives a birth to Guiomar's son, who is not named in the story but is said to later grow up to become a great knight. Morgan then either undertakes or continues her studies of dark magic under Merlin, whom she enamours, the details of which vary widely depending on the story; in the Prose Merlin, for instance, it is Morgan who finds Merlin, whom she "loves passionately". In Le Livre d'Artus, it is actually Merlin who goes to live with Morgan and her two ladies for a long time; in the Suite du Merlini, Morgan had been tutored by Merlin even before meeting Guiomar, and later she returns to learn more. In the Post-Vulgate Suite (the Huth Merlin) after he teaches her so much she becomes "the wisest woman in the world", Morgan scorns and drives Merlin away by threatening to torture and kill him if he would not leave her alone, which causes him a great sorrow. In Lancelot, Morgan learns all her magic only from Merlin (and not in the nunnery), she then takes an unnamed knight as her new companion, until she discovers his affair with another woman, which leads to the creation of her magical domain known as the Val sans Retour (the Vale of No Return), serving as an enchanted prison for false lovers. In any case, having finished her studies under Merlin, Morgan begins scheming her vengeance as she tries to undermine virtue and achieve Guinevere's downfall whenever she can.
In the Post-Vulgate, where Morgan's explicitly evil nature is stated and accented, she also works to destroy Arthur's rule and end his life, but the reasons for her initial hatred of him are never fully explained other than just an extreme antipathy towards the perfect goodness which he symbolises, the most famous and important of the latter acts is introduced in the Post-Vulgate Suite, where she arranges for her devoted lover Accolon to obtain the enchanted sword Excalibur as well as its protective scabbard, which has been previously confided to Morgan by Arthur himself as he had trusted her most (even more than his wife), replacing the real ones with fakes. In a conspiracy with the evil lord Damas, Morgan plans for Accolon to use Arthur's own magic items against him in single combat, so she and her beloved Accolon would become the rulers. Confident of her coming victory, Morgan also attempts to murder her sleeping husband Urien with his own sword, but in this act she 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, after Arthur nevertheless mortally defeats Accolon in a duel, her former mentor Merlin, still having his feelings for her, saves her from Arthur's wrath by enabling her to escape. To avenge Accolon's death, which caused her a great sorrow, Morgan sneaks to again steal the scabbard from the sleeping king. Pursued by Arthur for her betrayal, Morgan throws the scabbard into a lake, before 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 by the scabbard's magic in his final battle.) On her way, 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. Now banished from Camelot, Morgan retires to her lands in Gore and then to her castle near the stronghold of Tauroc (possibly in North Wales), her treacherous attempts to bring about Arthur's demise in the Suite are repeatedly frustrated by the king's new sorcerous advisor Ninianne (the Lady of the Lake). Such as the case when Morgan sends Arthur a supposed offering of peace in the form of a rich mantle cloak; as a punishment for Morgan, Morgan's messenger, "the lady of the Enchanted Isle" who was her favourite maiden, is made put on the cursed gift and its burns her to cinders. (It is possible that this motif was inspired by classical motifs such as how Medea killed her rival for Jason's affection or how Deianira sent a poisoned tunic to Hercules.) In one of her castles, Tugan in Garlot, Morgan has hidden a magic book given to her by Merlin, which actually prophesied the deaths of Arthur and Gawain and who would kill them, but no one can read this passage without dying instantly.
Morgan also uses her skills to foil various of Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, especially the greatest of them all, Lancelot, whom she alternately tries to seduce and to expose as Guinevere's adulterous lover, her magic aside, Lancelot is always disempowered in his dealings with Morgan as he could never hurt a woman or fight a kinsman of his king, which allows the writers to make her a perfect foil for him. Morgan is emphasized as promiscuous, even more than her sister Morgause, as she is "so lustful and wanton that a looser woman could not have been found." Her many lovers include Huneson the Bald (Hemison, Onesun), who becomes mortally wounded when he attacks Tristan (Tristam) out of his jealously for Morgan's attention; he soon dies after returning to her, and the anguished Morgan buries him in a grand tomb. In one version, she then takes possession of the lance that was used to kill Huneson, enchants it, and sends it to King Mark of Cornwall, her possible lover who years later uses it to slay Tristan; in the Prose Tristan, wherein Morgan presents herself as Arthur's full sister, she delivers by 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, but it is Iseult whose adultery is disclosed instead. With same intent, she also gives Tristan an enchanted 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 (three times in the Vulgate Lancelot), their relationship (as well as interactions between her and Arthur) may evoke that of the goddess Morrígan and the Celtic hero Cú Chulainn. One part of Lancelot has him captured in Cart Castle (Charyot) by her and two other lascivious 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. The three enchantresses "knew so much about magic, they enjoyed one another's company and always rode together and ate and drank together." Sebile and Morgan are particularly 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 Hector de Maris in the late 13th-century Prophéties 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 in her schemes, such as when she sends Lucifer in the guise of a dragon against Segurant.
Morgan's fancied good knights include, besides Lancelot whom she at once greatly loves and hates with the same intensity, the rescued-but-abducted young Alexander the Orphan (Alisaunder le Orphelin, a cousin of Tristan and Mark's enemy from the much later addition to the Prose Tristan as well as Prophéties de Merlin), whom she promises to heal, but he vows to rather castrate himself than to pleasure her. He, however, promises to defend her castle of Fair Guard (Belle Garde), where he has been held, for a year and a day, and then dutifully continues to guard it even after the castle gets burned down; this eventually leads to his death. In the Val sans Retour, Lancelot frees the 250 unfaithful 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 infidelity. Morgan captures Lancelot under her spell using a magic ring and keeps him prisoner in the hope Guinevere would then go mad or die of sorrow, she also otherwise torments Guinevere, 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 Gawain when he promises to come back (but also keeping him the company of "the most beautiful of her maidens" to do "whatever she could to entice him"), and he keeps his word and does return; she eventually releases him altogether after over a year, when his health falters and he is near death. It is said that 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. In the Post-Vulgate version of Queste del Saint Graal, Lancelot has a vision of Hell where Morgan still will be able to control demons even in afterlife as they torture Guinevere. Later, after she hosts her nephews Gawain, Mordred and Gaheriet to heal them, 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 altogether ceases troubling Arthur, who assumes her to be dead, but one day, he wanders into Morgan's remote castle while on a hunting trip, and they meet and instantly reconcile with each other. Morgan welcomes him warmly and the king, overjoyed of their reunion, allows her to return to Camelot, but she refuses and declares her plan to move to the Isle of Avalon, "where the women live who know all the world's magic," to live there with other sorceresses. However, a disaster strikes when 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 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; in Mort Artu, Morgan is the first among the black-hooded ladies who take the dying Arthur to his final rest and possible revival in Avalon. The latter part of the Post-Vulgate versions of Queste and Mort both revert to Morgan's friendly and helpful attitude toward Arthur from the Vulgate Cycle, even as she makes no mention of Avalon or her intentions when taking him away. Arthur steps into her boat after Camlann but himself assures he is not going to return; his grave is later said to be found mysteriously empty but for his helmet. A 14th-century Middle English version of Mort Artu known as the Stanzaic Morte Arthur makes Morgan an unquestionably good sister of Arthur, concerned only about his honor in regard to the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere. Entering her boat (she is not named in the scene, but addresses him as her brother), Arthur believes he is going to be healed, yet his tomb is later discovered by Bedivere.
Middle English writer Thomas Malory follows much of these portrayals of Morgan in his late-14th-century seminal work of the selective compilation book Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), though he reduces her in role and detail of characterisation, in particular either removing or limiting her traditions of healing and prophecy, and making her more consistently and inherently evil just as he makes Merlin more good. He also diminishes Morgan's conflict with Guinevere, as there is no motif of Guiomar and Accolon (there Sir Accolon of Gaul) is her first named lover, but does not clarify Morgan's motivations for her antagonistic behaviour against Arthur. Malory scholar Elizabeth Sklar described Morgan's character here as "an essentially sociopathic personality, respecting no boundaries and acknowledging no rules save those dictated by her own ambitions, envy, and lust." Up until the war between Arthur and Lancelot and the rebellion of Mordred, it is Morgan who remains the main and constant source of direct and indirect threat to the realm; in Malory's backstory, she has studied astrology as well as nigremancie (which might actually mean black magic in general rather than "necromancy") in the nunnery where she was raised, before being married to Urien as a young teenager, but not also from Merlin. Her powers seem to be inspired by fairy magic of Celtic folklore rather then by medieval Christian demonology. Malory mentions Arthur's attempts to conquer at least one of her castles, which originally has been his own gift to her, and which he could not retake (apparently due to magical defenses), 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. Morgan is widely feared and hated, so much that "many knights wished her burnt." She is now 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). In an episode that too had been first introduced by the anonymous writer of the earlier Prose Lancelot, Lancelot later rescues Elaine of Corbenic from being trapped in an enchanted boiling bath by Morgan and the Queen of the Northgales, both envious of Elaine's great beauty (echoing Circe's treatment of Scylla). As noted by Mary Lynn Saul: "Curiously, in spite of all her powers, Morgan is rarely successful in any of her plots. Nevertheless, she remains a medieval symbol of the potential danger of uncontrolled female power." However, despite all of their prior hostility towards each other and her numerous designs directed against Arthur personally (and his own promise to get a terrible revenge on her as long as he lives), Malory's Morgan still redeems and is 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 in the end. Unlike in the French and earlier stories that Le Morte d'Arthur is based on, and where Morgan and Arthur would either first make peace or would have just never fight to begin with, here her change of attitude towards him is sudden and and unexplained. Arthur is last seen in Morgan's lap, with her lament of sorrow referring to him as her "dear brother" (dere brothir), as they disappear from the work's entire narrative together.
Morgan turns up throughout the High and Late Middle Ages in a variety of roles, generally in works related to the cycles of Arthur (the Matter of Britain) or Charlemagne (the Matter of France). They often feature Morgan as a lover and benefactor (and sometimes opponent, especially when being turned down) 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 around 1270, casts a villainous 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. In the Old French Claris et Laris (also c. 1270), its Morgane la Faye (Morgana in the modern English translation) is a now fully supernatural being who was a former sister of Arthur as well as a former pupil of the Lady of Lake, Viviane (Viviana). Still ever lascivious and sexual, Morgan now lives in a splendid enchanted castle in the wilderness (identified as Brocéliande in a later manuscript) with a twelve other beautiful fairy ladies, including the sorceress Madoine (Madoina). There, they lure and ensnare many hundreds of young and attractive knights, who then spend the rest of their lives in the palace. The Italian manuscript Tavola ritonda (The Round Table) makes Morgan a sister to the Lady of the Lake, in addition to Arthur; it is based on the French romances but here Morgan is a prophetic figure whose main role is to ensure the fulfillment of fate. 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 then save Gawain from the jealous Guinevere, who wants Gawain dead after having been spurned by him. She then herself gets imprisoned 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 otherworldly 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. In Ogier le Danois, Morgan (Morgue la Fée) lives in her palace in Avalon together with Arthur and Oberon, who both seem to her brothers; in another chanson de geste, La Bataille Loquifer from the early 13th century, 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). In the 14th-century crusade fantasy Le Bâtard de Bouillon, the island kingdom of Arthur and his fairy sister Morgan (fée Morgue) is hidden by a cloud in the Red Sea, the fairy queen Lady Morgan (Dame Morgue, Morgue li fee) also stars in Adam de la Halle's late-13th-century farce Jeu de la feuillée, in which she visits a contemporary Arras.
Morgan le Fay, or Fata Morgana in Italian, has been in particular associated with Sicily as a location of her enchanted realm in the mythological landscape of medieval Europe at least since the Norman conquest of southern Italy, and local 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), an ambiguous trickster 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, but some regard her to in fact a central character. Opinions are also divided regarding Morgan's intentions and does she succeed or fail, the story's shapeshifting and enigmatic Morgan might be, or might be not, also Lady Bertilak herself.
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 12th-century (c. 1167-1169) 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 fay sister Morgan on Avalon. Notably, it is the first known text that made Morgan a sister to Arthur, as she is in the works of Chrétien and many others after him.
In modern culture
Morgan le Fay has become ubiquitous in Arthurian 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 other modern works, some of them borrowing her name in the modernized English form Morgana, as in the case of other modern Arthuriana, Le Morte d'Arthur is the dominant source today.
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), retelling the story of Morgan (Morgane) and Ogier the Dane; in his popular and often-adapted satirical novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), Mark Twain cast Morgan le Fay as a deceptively charmful representative of feudal corruption, who is also capable of the most vicious behavior and flirts with the time-travelling protagonist Hank Morgan, her namesake and essentially similar character (one film adaptation, A Knight in Camelot, stars Whoopi Goldberg as the female protagonist Vivien Morgan who is the only Morgan character in this version, sharing her first name also with one of the names of the Lady of the Lake; Kim Iverson Headlee also wrote the book's continuation novel from Morgan le Fay's own perspective, King Arthur's Sister in Washington's Court).
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 Mordred from an inestous union with their brother Arthur) 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. An early instance of such simplifications used to "streamline the plot" was Henry Irving's 1895 stage production King Arthur originally written by W. G. Wills.
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 devoid of nuances as a merely 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 the entire 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 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;" Fiona Tolhurst 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). 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." Some modern authors, especially women, are also particularly interested in the theme of a love-hate relationship between Morgan and Arthur, as studied by Raymond H.Thompson.
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, "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.
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|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Morgan, the Fay.|
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Morgan le Fay.|
- Morgan le Fay at The Camelot Project