Iconography: Morgan le Fay
One of the world's most enduring literary traditions has to be the Arthurian legend, which gives us the most intriguing figure of Morgan le Fay. Mother, sister, lover, healer, and witch, she’s had to be extremely flexible to fit the changing requirements of Arthurian narratives. She’s been an ally to Arthur, the wicked witch, and she’s presently popular as an object of feminist reclamation. Let’s take a trip with the various incarnations of Morgan le Fay, and discern how such a malleable character has sustained the kind of power she has over imaginations across the centuries.
The origins of Morgan le Fay (or Morgaine, or Morgana) are in dispute, but it's thought that she originates with female Celtic deities like Morrigan and Modron. We don’t encounter her in the Arthurian canon until she is introduced by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Vita Merlini (ca 1150). We meet an inhabitant of the isle of Avalon, the eldest and most comely of her sisters, who can fly, change shape, and has a talent for healing. Indeed, she heals Arthur himself after he is injured in battle. As the canon goes on, her relationship with Arthur evolves, and she becomes his sister. Their enmity begins with the Vulgate Cycle. When the Guinevere figure sabotages an affair Morgan is having, Morgan in turn tries to expose Guinevere’s own affair with Lancelot, or alternatively seduce him herself.
With Sir Thomas Malory’s seminal work Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Morgan has fundamentally changed from the days of Vita Merlini. She’s destructive towards those around her, and she’s just a mortal desperate to hide her age by magical arts. She’s become an idea of womanhood such as you might except to encounter anywhere under patriarchy, really. And we don’t encounter her very much more after that, with the notable exception of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century). It’s not the most bountiful legacy for a character with so much potential.
But then! Morgan was picked up by a number of twentieth century women writers to be rewritten again. She’s become a rather lovely example of one of my favorite parts of feminist practice: Morgan is that woman whose representations have been skewed for the worse by a patriarchal literary tradition, and whose might-have-beens and otherwises are rich grounds for exploration. That’s how I was introduced to her in earnest (well, apart from the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone (1963)), with The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
The Mists of Avalon is most likely the best-loved feminist reinterpretation of Morgan le Fay and the Arthurian story. It’s from the perspectives of female characters, mostly Morgaine herself. As Arthur’s half-sister, and sometime inhabitant of Avalon with the priestesses of a goddess religion, there’s a real effort to rehabilitate Morgaine’s image. It largely succeeds in making her sympathetic, but the novel is as much about setting up a binary opposition between Christianity (as patriarchal, bad) and Morgaine’s own religion (respectful of the divine feminine, good). This could have been a really cool attempt at teasing out present-day concerns and examining religious loss. It’s unfortunately such simplified binarism that it doesn't work at all, right up until the last few pages, where there’s a moment of, dare I say it, redemption. There’s a resultant sacrifice of one kind of feminist religious potential (and flattening of its lead adhering character in Gwenhwyfar) for another, which I thought was pretty sad.
Morgan le Fay pops up everywhere, and she’s most recognized by her ever-changing characterization. Recently, I read Small World (1984) by David Lodge, which features one Fulvia Morgana, an Italian Marxist academic who, regardless, employs a uniformed maid (it’s all about the multiplicity and duplicity of characters) and has a slightly unorthodox sex life (there’s that powerful, magical, promiscuous woman character popping up again!). It’s hardly all about reclamation and joy, though; speak to any fan of the BBC show Merlin about the series 3 treatment of Morgana sometime.
But then, I’m not too sure that the feminist reclamation of characters is always exactly that. Sometimes it’s really about fitting a reviled female character to feminist ideas, which is a fine aim in and of itself, rather than going on the actual material available. There’s not a lot to go on here—the Morgan situation reminds me a bit of that of Lilith in Abrahamic traditions—but it’s interesting to see what has been done with her over the centuries, and how much my understanding of Morgan has been shaped by the developments of just the last few decades.
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