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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Comments

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Thanks

Thanks for writing this article. I loved it. I'm glad you mentioned Lilith as well. I'm a huge fan of both Morgan and the legend of Lilith.

I read "I Am Morgan le Fay"

I read "I Am Morgan le Fay" at some point in middle school. It was a great retelling for an 11 year old who probably wasn't quite ready for the tome that is Mists of Avalon, but loved Camelot. It was a "change the point of view" kind of story, that rather than making Morgan the hero, tried to explain her actions by noting, "Um, hey. The king killed her dad and her mother only had eyes for Arthur. Would YOU be a huge fan of the reigning monarchy?" I wish I remembered more about it so that I could throw it out there.

And on a sidenote, while not having TOO much to do with this article, I also loved the Gerald Morris stories, which focused entirely on Gawain and the other knights of the round table and portrayed pretty much all the main characters as ridiculous figures, which whom the minor characters become quickly disenchanted. My favorite, though, was "The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf" which focused on Lady Lynet and her adventures. (The "true" adventure being one straight of La Morte D'Arthur, but Morris insists on turning the minor characters in those tales into the interesting ones.) While she is a "damsel in distress" she is NOT a damsel without brains, and when King Arthur won't help her out she takes matters into her own hands and solves her own problems, even if she does have some preconceived notions of her own that have to be challenged along the way.

a note

Actually, there is no proof of connection between Morgan le Fay and the Morrigan outside of the similarity of the names. While it may be true that the character of Morgan le Fay is based on earlier female deities, Morgan le Fay's evolution from the Morrigan is not "thought" very commonly. If Wikipedia can be called a real source, "Morgan" is a Welsh name that is derived from root words pertaining to the sea, and "Morrigan" is derived from an Irish word meaning "terror" or "greatness."
Here's the info on the Morrigan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morrigan#Arthurian_legend
And here's the info on Morgan le Fay: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgan_Le_Fay

Yes, but that is most likely

Yes, but that is most likely because prior to 1600 it was more common that you would find "Morgan" as a man's name, rather than "Morgain", which has connections to the Arthurian Legends around the time, appearing in some versions as "Morgain la Fee". While there is no evidence that real people actually used the name, there is evidence that the name had connections.

"Morrigan" is the name of the Irish war goddess, who sometimes took the form of a crow, and who appeared as both a beautiful young woman, and as a wizened old crone. I don't find it difficult to believe that somehow this was morphed into the legend as well.

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

Merlin: The Mini Series

There was a mini series in the nineties called 'Merlin' which, while having a mostly British cast, is only really available in the States. It's a retelling of the Arthur story with Merlin as the main character, showing him in a constant battle with Queen Mab, the faerie queen and leader of the 'Old Ways'. It shows Morgana as a pawn in the general scheme of things, and even gives her an intriguing and ultimately tragic story of her own.

The interesting thing about that series is the representation of Mab herself, who is seen as almost too powerful and strong for her own good. She is trying to preserve the old religions, because otherwise she will cease to exist. It holds the opposite view to The Mists of Avalon, as the new, Christian ways are painted as the bright way forward, and Mab's ultimate downfall is the victory for the heroes.

Oh wow! I'd completely

Oh wow! I'd completely forgotten- do you mean the Sam Neil one. There aren't words to described how disappointed and enraged I was by that series- even though I was only about 9 when I watched it. All I remember was how cool and woman-centred the only ways and the old magic seemed and how depressingly predictable it was that Christianity and patriarchy should win (I was a very precocious and cynical child). I actually remember having a massive argument with my younger cousin cause he loved it (and anything to do with Camelot etc.) and couldn't see why I found it so frustrating and why I liked the 'bad guys', or rather girls, so much.

BBC Merlin

When I first began watching the BBC version of Merlin about a month ago, I appreciated Morgana as a character. Although not as strong as Guinevere, Morgana had a certain mischievousness and vulnerability that I found intriguing. I actually wanted her and Merlin to fall in love, since both had to hide their magical ability from the rest of the kingdom.

Yet, in part of Season 2 and most of Season 3, Morgana becomes completely and utterly evil. She has no remorse, and even begins to persecute the citizens of Camelot in a similar way to Uther's treatment of magical people. (Sorry if I spoiled it for anyone!) I actually began to hate her as a character, and I have only ever hated Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter that much. Even Guinevere lost some the strength she had held in the earlier seasons. Besides Morgeuese, these are the only three women with active parts within the story line of the show.

I wanted more from Morgana as a character, having read "I am Morgan Le Fay" and other renditions of Camelot stories. But I was disappointed.