Morgan le Fay: Magic, Mysticism, and Misogyny
In the legends of King Arthur, the character known as Morgan le Fay is quite a well-known one. However, she is also quite misunderstood, especially by modern audiences. When most people think of Morgan le Fay, they think of an evil sorceress who is Hell-bent on destroying Camelot and killing King Arthur. This stereotype is supported by modern depictions of her character. Marvel Comics and DC Comics have both portrayed her as a villainess: she is called Morgan le Fay in the Marvel universe, and Morgaine le Fey in the DC universe, and in both of those settings she fights against the heroes, among them the Justice League and the Avengers. In the BBC’s television series, “Merlin,” she is an evil sorceress called Morgana who plots to destroy Camelot, although here she is more of a sympathetic villain than an outright megalomaniac. Aside from these, there are several more modern examples of Morgan le Fay as an evil witch. This villainous characterization is not based, as one might expect, on literary fact. Instead, it happened gradually over time, her character changing with each new author who wrote about her, to the point where she hardly resembles her original self anymore. The true character of Morgan develops much further than the evil witch stereotype, revealing a positive, even caring, nature as well as possible divine origins.
In order to truly understand Morgan le Fay as a character, it is necessary to examine her evolution. Over the course of the Arthurian legends, Morgan underwent a transition from good to evil. How and when this transition happened, and why exactly it occurred, are questions which could be answered with a thorough examination of the original texts in which Morgan appears. In her first appearance, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, she is a very good character, constructive and helpful, and does not resemble in any way the evil witch of modern media. However, the typical modern image of her is that of a destructive megalomaniac sorceress. Her origins do not hint at evil in the slightest, so the modern image of her must be something which developed over time. An analysis of her role in the Arthurian legends from Geoffrey to Malory may help shed some light on this confusing transition.
The Evolution of Morgan
The first mention of Morgan le Fay in the Arthurian tales, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, paints a very kind picture of her. Here she is called Morgen, and she is a powerful lady of Avalon, which Geoffrey calls “the island of apples” or “the Fortunate Isle.” She is a healer, and a leader, and the mystical isle of apples is alive and fertile under her reign. Geoffrey describes the island thus:
The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more.
This, along with the name, paints “the Fortunate Isle” as a good place, even a paradise of sorts. This is Geoffrey’s picture of the place which will come to be known as Avalon. In the Vita Merlini as well as in another of Geoffrey’s works, the History of the Kings of Britain, this is the place where the knights take Arthur to be healed of his wounds. There is nothing negative about this place whatsoever. In fact, not only is it clearly a positive sanctuary, it is also clearly magical, if people can live there for hundreds of years at a time. It is a bounteous and fertile land, which apparently grants its residents inhumanly long lives. If Morgan is connected to this paradise, then where does the idea of an evil witch come from? Geoffrey does not make any assertions or accusations which could tie her to the dark arts. In fact, this is how he portrays the woman who will eventually be known as the infamous Morgan le Fay, and her connection to this magical place:
There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she will she slips down from the air onto your shores. And men say that she has taught mathematics to her sisters.
By this image, Morgen seems to be a learned woman, who is kind and helpful. She knows magic, but she uses it to heal, not to harm. The detailed description of how fertile the land is shows that she is clearly a capable ruler, and she has not allowed the land to fall to ruin. She is constructive, sharing her knowledge with her sisters, instead of hoarding it and using it for selfish purposes as modern Morgan would be more apt to do. Further evidence of Morgen’s good nature is given later in the Vita:
Thither after the battle of Camlan we took the wounded Arthur, guided by Barinthus to whom the waters and the stars of heaven were well known. With him steering the ship we arrived there with the prince, and Morgen received it with fitting honour, and in her chamber she placed the king on a golden bed and with her own hand she uncovered his honourable wound and gazed at it for a long time. At length she said that health could be restored to him if he stayed with her for a long time and made use of her healing art. Rejoicing, therefore, we entrusted the king to her and returning spread our sails to the favouring winds.
The fact that they chose to take King Arthur to her when he had been mortally wounded at the Battle of Camlan is an enormous testament to her healing prowess. They could have taken him to any number of physicians across Europe, but they thought the best option would be to take him to Morgen in Avalon. Furthermore, she does not try to trick them, curse them, or in any other way attack them while they are there. Geoffrey’s Morgen genuinely wants to heal King Arthur, and she uses her own intellect to devise a way to do so. She is gentle, as is demonstrated by the way she receives him and places him “on a golden bed,” and uncovers his wound “with her own hand.” These little gestures show that she cares about this man, and wants him to live, which in turn goes to show that Geoffrey of Monmouth did not think of Morgan le Fay as an evil character.
Even though Geoffrey’s Morgen is clearly good, there is still much unknown about her origins. Carolyne Larrington, in her book, King Arthur's Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition, points out that this Morgen is “a fully developed and yet mysterious figure” (7). This is an interesting statement, and definitely true: Geoffrey’s Morgen is only present in the story for just one paragraph, but in that paragraph, the reader gets to know a lot about her. Geoffrey discloses her name, her occupation, her domain and the way of life there, even her family dynamics. However, there is still much that he leaves unclear about her. Where did she come from? How did she come to be the ruler of the Fortunate Isle? Is she human, or is she something else more supernatural, perhaps a fairy or even a deity? Geoffrey does not specify the source of her power. Larrington asserts that the Lady of the Lake, another powerful and magical female character in Arthurian literature, is clearly supernatural in origin, (13) and it is definitely true that Geoffrey’s Morgen greatly resembles the Lady of the Lake in the way she acts and where she lives. She and her sisters also resemble the Ancient Greek Muses (Larrington 8) who were positive magical beings, helping others instead of hurting them. What is more, Geoffrey specifies that Morgen is beautiful, even saying that she “excels her sisters in the beauty of her person.” Larrington points out that in the Middle Ages, in literature, physical beauty was a sign of goodness, and ugliness or deformity was a sign of evil (25). Medieval authors had the idea that if a character was good, it would show through and they would be physically beautiful. Similarly, if they were ugly, that was caused because of contact with demons or even the Devil, and it was meant to show their evil nature to the world. The fact that Geoffrey specifies Morgen’s beauty just serves as even more proof that she is not an evil sorceress or temptress here. She has no ulterior motives; she is simply a powerful healer with good intentions who uses her power to heal the dying king.
It isn’t until the Arthurian Romances of Chretien de Troyes that Morgan le Fay becomes King Arthur’s sister, and here she is still a healer, not a witch. Just as in Geoffrey, in Chretien she is mentioned only a handful of times, but by those few mentions it is clear that she is not an antagonistic figure. In Erec and Enide, her healing powers help Erec when he is wounded: “The King draws a deep sigh at the sight of [Erec’s wounds] and has a plaster brought which Morgan, his sister, had made. This plaster, which Morgan had given to Arthur, was of such sovereign virtue that no wound, whether on a nerve or joint, provided it were treated with the plaster once a day, could fail to be completely cured and healed within a week,” (55). Clearly, she is still a beneficent character here. The fact that she made a healing salve for Arthur to use however he saw fit shows that she does not hold any grudges against him. In fact, in this tale, Morgan does not have any reason to distrust or dislike Arthur at all. She is his sister, and the significance of that goes far beyond simple friendship. In her book, Larrington explains that blood ties, the bonds of kinship, were very important bonds in medieval times (31), as well as saying that “when Morgan becomes Arthur’s sister, or half-sister, the course of literary history changes,” (29). These are both true statements. When Chretien placed Morgan as King Arthur’s sister, he drastically changed her social status from what it was in the Vita Merlini. There she was an important woman, the leader of a magical and well-renowned island, and possibly divine, but in the Romances she is a mortal noblewoman, recognized by other nobles of Europe as a human being, not as a legend. While she is no longer the independent leader of a flourishing kingdom, she is still a renowned and respected figure. She has a place at the court of Camelot, and therefore a place in Arthurian society, and an important one at that. She is human, and a part of the human world, but she still retains her immense knowledge of the healing arts that she had in Geoffrey’s tale. Furthermore, she also still has a tie to Avalon. When Chretien lists Erec and Enide’s wedding guests, he mentions that “Graislemier of Fine Posterne brought twenty companions, and had with him his brother Guigomar, lord of the isle of Avalon. Of the latter we have heard it said that he was a friend of Morgan the Fay, and such he was in very truth,” (26). This does not go into details about how intimate their friendship is, but the fact that in later stories she has a lover called Guiomar suggests that this was probably an intimate relationship. Additionally, even though her tie to Avalon is now indirect, and she must be connected to a man in order to have a claim to it, she is still recognizable as the Morgen mentioned in Geoffrey. She still has potent healing powers and a tie to the mystical island of apples, and she is still benevolent, healing because she genuinely cares and not because she gets anything out of it.
The Vulgate Cycle details several stories of Morgan le Fay, mostly portraying her in a more negative way. This negativity seems to originate in book 40 of the Story of Merlin, with the story of Morgan’s love of Guiomar (Lacy vol. 1, 354-355). In this story, Morgan is King Arthur’s sister, who lives at Camelot and knows a bit about magic because she studied with Merlin. The text describes her as “a young lady, very cheerful and merry, but her face was somber; she had a rounded build, not too thin and not too plump. She was quite clever and comely in body and features; she stood straight and was wonderfully pleasing and a good singer. But she was the most lustful woman in all Great Britain and the lewdest,” (354). This description, while still being slightly positive at parts, is also somewhat critical of her character as well. A cheerful and merry young lady who is pleasing and a good singer is certainly not a negative character, but, while she does still possess these good traits, the text also takes care to mention that she was lustful, which is certainly not a good trait, especially not in a woman in medieval times. And in this text, Morgan was not only lustful, she was lustful towards Guiomar, who may be a reference to Chretien’s Guigomar, lord of Avalon. In this version of the story, Guiomar is Queen Guinevere’s nephew. When Guinevere found out about this affair, she separated the two lovers, eliciting an extremely hateful, vengeful reaction from Morgan (354-355) which continues through until the end of the tales. Everything antagonistic that Morgan does beyond this point, especially within the Vulgate Cycle, can be tied back to this moment. It isn’t until these tales that she becomes negative at all, and here she is negative because she lost someone close to her. Her actions later in the Vulgate Cycle are vengeful actions, not just random acts of violence. Clearly, by the time the Vulgate Cycle was written, Morgan had already begun to shift in character from healer to witch, but she was somewhere in between those two images: capable of anger and hate, driven by vengeance, but also capable of love, and still accepted in the inner social circles of Arthurian society.
Although it is not until the Vulgate Cycle that she is portrayed as outwardly evil, Morgan’s decline actually starts with the works of Chretien de Troyes. In Geoffrey, she was independent and powerful, but in Chretien all the power she still possesses is tied to either her brother or her lover. She is no longer an independent woman. This is only her second appearance in the Arthurian legends, and already her character has been changed by the misogyny of the medieval world. In fact, given her character in these texts so far, the largest reason for Morgan’s decline in goodness is most likely a misogynistic one. Thelma Fenster writes in Arthurian Women: A Casebook that “while the hero proper transcends and yet respects the norms of the patriarchy, the counter-hero violates them in some way. For the male Arthurian counter-hero, such violation usually entails wrongful force; for the female, usually powers of magic,” (61). This statement explains a lot about the reasons behind Morgan’s decline. Since her first appearance in the Arthurian literature, she has wielded powers of magic. Medieval authors who read the earlier stories would have seen that detail and thought it automatically made her a malicious character, ignoring the fact that she does not do anyone any harm in her first several appearances. These authors already thought that no female character could ever be as strong as a male character without using some kind of supernatural or demonic force (Fenster 68) and of course, when a woman does use this kind of force, this automatically makes her a counter-hero. Maureen Fries argues that she is a counter-hero even in the Vita Merlini (2), and points out that Morgan’s decline “coincides with the virulent growth of women-hatred in both religious and lay society,” (4), which proves that the strongly misogynistic views of medieval male authors had a significant effect on her later characterization. Fenster also points out that the female counter-hero in Arthurian literature is never a maiden (68), which goes along with Morgan’s recent characterization as a “lustful” woman. Clearly then, her use of magic and her sexual freedom set her apart from the other female characters in Arthurian literature, and cause medieval authors to portray her in a negative way.
Many of Morgan’s supposedly malicious actions could be portrayed as less evil when examined with a modern feminist eye. One of these is the Valley of No Return episode. In the Vulgate Cycle, after leaving Camelot, Morgan places an enchantment on a valley somewhere in the woods of Britain so that no knight who enters it, if he has ever been unfaithful to his lady, can ever leave (Lacy 305). The Valley is described thus:
The valley was broad and deep and surrounded on all sides by broad, high hills. It was covered with thick green grass, and right in the middle, a lovely, clear spring welled up; the metaled highway ran straight from one end of the valley to the way out at the other. The day when the duke rode down into the valley, there were as many as two hundred fifty three knights imprisoned there. The valley was enclosed and sealed in an extraordinary way, in that the walls were as sheer as air. As soon as a knight would come along, he would be let in without a challenge; but as soon as he was inside, he was powerless to turn back and could not even find the spot where he had entered…. There were many knights who were very much at ease there, and there were also those who suffered greatly. Whoever could bring his lover in with him, kept her, or kept his squire if he had one. Still, there had already been many deaths, some the outcome of great sorrow, some from long imprisonment, some from another affliction. The ladies in the valley, to be freed, did not need to wait for one of their kind to come along who had never been unfaithful in love; indeed, they stayed as long as they liked and could go away at will…. The prison was much more pleasant than generally thought, for there was no lack of food and drink, and there were outdoor sports and backgammon and chess; there were dances and carols all day long and the delights of fiddles and harps and other instruments. (305-306).
This description is puzzling, because it is so contradictory. On the one hand, there is a lovely spring and enjoyable company and activities, and, as stated, many knights were “very much at ease there.” On the other hand, the knights are clearly imprisoned there, and they know it. The passage states that they were “powerless to turn back,” and there had “been many deaths.” These opposing images make the Valley intriguing. Is it a positive place, or a negative one? At first, upon reading that it is a prison, it is generally assumed that it would be an unpleasant place. However, knights can live there in comfort and spend time with their ladies, and as the passage describes, there is no lack of entertainment. In fact, many of them actually enjoy it there. Morgan provides everything they need to live, and it is an easy, relaxed life, a life of comfort. In fact, as Larrington says, “Morgan’s knowledge of magic allows her to emerge in some narratives as articulating the desires and frustrations of courtly ladies which they cannot express for themselves, coercing men into acting in ways that appear contrary to chivalric norms and that are often detrimental to their quest for honor,” (51) and although Morgan can be very vengeful and her punishments to false lovers can be especially cruel, it is not entirely a bad situation (Larrington 53-54). Overall, the Valley comes across as a positive place. Through her magic, Morgan creates a safe place where lovers can live together and not have to worry about being separated by war or anything else. The fact that many of the knights as well as the ladies enjoyed themselves in the Valley also shows that it was not an entirely negative place at all. Furthermore, the fact that she is vengeful against false lovers especially suggests that she is speaking out for the other women in the tales, a character trait which would be admirable in modern society. All this evidence suggests that it is the misogyny of medieval male authors which paints Morgan as a more maleficent character therefore, and not any actions of Morgan herself.
After leaving behind the Valley of No Return, Morgan retreats to a castle in the woods, and it is here where she performs most of her infamous acts of war against the Round Table knights. Most of these are abductions of Sir Lancelot. In the Lancelot section of the Vulgate Cycle, she kidnaps him several times over the course of a few years, always using magic to trick or imprison him (Lacy 307-328). Lancelot seems to be her favorite target because of his connection to Guinevere. On page 311, Lacy explains that it was Lancelot who “liberated” the knights from the Valley of False Lovers, and that Morgan correctly guessed that he was in love with Queen Guinevere. Since Guinevere is the one who separated her from Guiomar, Morgan decided to attack Guinevere by attacking Lancelot. She tries sorcery, trickery, and simple persuasion in her attempts to reveal Lancelot and Guinevere’s love to King Arthur. One of these many attempts is described in volume 5 of the Vulgate Cycle, in the chapter “Gawain and His Brothers in Morgan’s House,” (Lacy 191-192). In this story, Sir Gawain, Sir Gaherit, and Sir Mordred stumble upon a room in Morgan’s house where Lancelot was once kept prisoner. While he was there, Lancelot painted his life story on the walls of the cell, including the tale of his love for Guinevere. Morgan explains the entire story to them, and also explains that “I’ve hated [Sir Lancelot] mortally since I knew it, and I’ll hate him as long as I live, for he couldn’t cause me greater grief than by bringing shame on such a noble man as my brother and by loving his wife and lying with her,” (192). Throughout the Vulgate cycle, there is no knight she kidnaps as often as she kidnaps Lancelot, and all of this is in an effort to reveal his love affair. Therefore, even her most infamous acts tie back to her hatred of the queen, and most of her antagonism of Camelot occurs because of this loathing.
There is one incident in which her hatred seems to be directed more at King Arthur himself than at Guinevere: the battle between Arthur and Accolon. This battle is described in Sir Thomas Malory’s le Morte d’Arthur in great detail (58-66). Morgan steals Excalibur and gives it to her lover, Accolon, and convinces him to fight in a battle to the death against a knight whose death would put Accolon on the throne. This knight was King Arthur, but Accolon did not know this at the time of the battle. They fought, King Arthur was victorious, and right before his death Accolon explained the whole plot to the king in great detail. Arthur’s response, after learning of his sister’s treachery, was to swear vengeance on Morgan le Fay (62), and to send Accolon’s body to her. “By Arthur’s command his corpse was conveyed to Camelot on a horse litter, and taken into the presence of Morgan le Fay, to whom the bearers delivered this message: ‘Herewith is a gift from King Arthur to his sister. He informs her that he has recovered Excalibur and its sheath and is aware that she stole it from him,” (Malory 63). This incident is the most vengeful we have seen Morgan act against Arthur directly, but it is also the most vengeful we have seen Arthur act against Morgan. Maureen Fries lists several accounts of treason Morgan commits in this particular story (12), and these are made all the worse by the fact that she is the sister of the king. Betrayal of an oath in medieval times, especially against your own kin, was one of the worst crimes a person could commit. Clearly, Morgan’s character takes a severe and shocking turn toward evil in this tale, one which makes no sense given the previous mentions of her. This is most likely because by the time Malory wrote le Morte d’Arthur, the most prevalent image of Morgan le Fay was that of an evil sorceress, and the image of the benevolent healer had largely been forgotten.
Despite Morgan’s villainy in the battle of Arthur and Accolon, Malory portrays her fairly well in later stories, and she becomes a slightly more sympathetic character once more. For example, after Arthur’s mortal wounding at the Battle of Camlan, Morgan arrives in a small boat full of ladies and ferries him to Avalon for healing, placing his head on her lap and saying “My dear brother, you have stayed too long: I fear that the wound on your head is already cold,” (Malory 524). In the Vulgate Cycle, it is Morgan who heals him at the end as well: “the bark landed near King Arthur, and the ladies emerged and went to the king. Among them was Morgan the Enchantress, King Arthur’s sister, who went to the king with all the ladies she led and entreated him to come on board the bark,” (Lacy vol. 5, 306). This kindness contrasts with her treachery and deceit of earlier chapters, and shows that even after all the antagonism and villainy, she is still willing to heal her brother when he needs her help. The fact that she returns once more to the good healer and leader of Avalon that she was in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini suggests that she is not an entirely evil character at all, but is instead a helpful one once more. As Larrington says, “though she will later be forced to retreat into the castles she holds in the vast forests of the Arthurian realm, Morgan’s bond with Arthur is never undone and she always presides over his passing from this world,” (29). Larrington also points out on page 30 that medieval brother-sister relationships were based on loyalty and protection, but that there is also an element of sibling rivalry. This is very true: there is always at least some sibling rivalry between any siblings. This could explain Morgan’s antagonism toward Arthur, and his toward her, especially when the Battle of Camlan scene is taken into effect. It is certainly true that Morgan attacks Arthur in several ways throughout the stories, but it is also true that in multiple versions she is the one who appears at the end to take him to Avalon. What is more, she seems to have a good relationship with him when she is not attacking him. Arthur is not the one she hates the most at Camelot. Here, then, is further proof that Morgan le Fay is not a malicious character, despite what some writers may have thought. Even in tales where she is the villain, she is still capable of love, and still willing to heal her brother Arthur after all is said and done.
Morgan and Guinevere
Most of Morgan’s villainy stems from her hatred of Queen Guinevere, and the desire to bring shame to Camelot which that hatred causes. However, it is very likely that there is a more specific cause, one particular event, which sparked Morgan’s hate. The relationship between Arthur’s sister and his Queen was strained from the very beginning, but, as with all strained relationships, some event must occur in order to create that “last straw.” In the case of the Arthurian tales, this is most likely Guinevere’s antagonism of Morgan due to her love affair with Guiomar, sometimes spelled “Guyamor.” The details of this event are explained in the Vulgate Cycle: “That day, then, the queen caught them in the act; there was no hiding it. She came to Guyamor and said that he was as good as dead if the king learned of the affair, and with pleas and threats she succeeded in making him give up the young woman. In fact, he did so easily, since he was hardly so in love with her that he could not get by without her,” (Lacy vol. 2, 311). This is the moment when Guinevere acts the most antagonistic towards Morgan. What is more, the reader does not get much insight into Guinevere’s motives in this instance. Lacy explains that the queen “would gladly have kept Morgan chaste lest the king be shamed, and Guyamor as well lest the king punish him, for he would have hated him for such behavior, had he learned of it,” (311) but this excerpt hardly explains anything. Morgan is not married at this point in the tale, so her affair with Guyamor is not an adulterous one. Furthermore, no explanation is given for why Guinevere thought King Arthur would have hated Guiomar if he had learned of their love. Since Morgan is the King’s sister in this version of the story, we can assume that her premarital sex with one of Arthur’s knights could be the source of the shame Guinevere was afraid of, but this isn’t specified. We can also assume that the strong blood ties and family bonds present in medieval society (Larrington 31) would have made a union between King Arthur’s sister and Queen Guinevere’s nephew, as Guyamor is in this version of the tale, a social taboo. However, this is all speculation. The fact remains that Guinevere pleaded with and even threatened her nephew, Sir Guyamor, until he agreed to break up with Morgan le Fay, and it was this act that caused Morgan to hate the queen for the rest of her life.
This hatred of Queen Guinevere directly results in most of Morgan’s acts of antagonism against the Round Table Knights, Lancelot in particular. In fact, Lancelot is the one of King Arthur’s knights who is captured most frequently by Morgan le Fay, and all of these kidnappings occur after the incident at the Valley of No Return. It was during this incident that she correctly guessed he was having an affair with the queen (Lacy vol. 2, 311). Due to her pre-existing hatred of Queen Guinevere, Morgan decided to antagonize Lancelot as a way of attacking the queen from afar. After this point in the tales, she captures him countless times, usually through magic and trickery, and uses many different methods to get him to confess his love. This occurs in more than just the Vulgate Cycle; in le Morte d’Arthur, “the Tale of Sir Launcelot”, Morgan casts a sleeping spell on Guinevere’s lover when she finds him in the forest, and imprisons him in her castle (Malory 108). Malory even insinuates that Morgan does this purely to spite Guinevere by adding this detail: “Sir Launcelot, I know that Queen Gwynevere loves you, and you her. But now you are my prisoner, and you will have to choose: either to take one of us for your paramour or to die miserably in this cell,” (109). By specifying that she knows about his love for the queen, and by listing that before she says anything else, Morgan is hinting that this is her main reason for capturing Launcelot: his love for Queen Guinevere.
“The Tale of Sir Launcelot” is not the only book in which Morgan captures a Round Table Knight, nor is Sir Launcelot the only knight she ever captures. In “the Book of Sir Tristram of Lyonesse” in Malory’s le Morte d’Arthur, she targets Sir Tristram as well, with an ambush of thirty knights waiting to kill him (229). However, despite this fact, Morgan is characterized as a more reasonable woman in this story, easier to deal with than in the previous stories. For example, later in this tale, when Sir Tristram asks for shelter at Morgan’s castle, not knowing whose castle it is, she captures him and tells him “Sir, tell me your name and I will release you,” (247). He tells her the truth: that he is Sir Tristram of Lyonesse, and even though he is one of the knights she was targeting, she keeps her word and releases him. This action shows her to be reasonable rather than blinded by vengeance. And in fact, she proves herself to be very crafty, and devises a way to reveal Guinevere and Lancelot’s love to the world while still keeping her word to Sir Tristram. To do this, she gives Tristram a specific shield to bear at an upcoming tournament: “the device showed three figures: a king and a queen, and, above them, standing with one foot on the head of each, a knight,” (247). Needless to say, the king and queen represent Arthur and Guinevere, and the knight is Sir Lancelot. The image on the shield is meant to expose Lancelot and Guinevere’s love to the court at Camelot. In this way, Morgan can still achieve her goal, and she does not have to break her word. Furthermore, she heals Sir Alexander later in the tale as well (Malory 286), showing that she is not completely a malicious character in this story. When she targets Sir Lancelot, she is driven mostly by vengeance and her hatred of Guinevere, but when she targets other knights, although she is still motivated by vengeance and hatred, they do not cloud her judgment or cause her to do anything rash. Here, even though she is portrayed negatively, she is less of an evil sorceress and more of a villain who can still be reasoned with, and who still has a moral compass and somewhat of a concept of honor.
Another instance of Morgan acting helpful toward Round Table knights, where she has previously been targeting and antagonizing them, occurs in the Vulgate Cycle, volume 5. Sir Gawain, Sir Gaherit, and Sir Mordred are fighting in the woods, and they are wounded. Morgan shelters them in her castle and heals the three of them (Lacy 191). While exploring her castle one day, Sir Mordred discovers a room in which Sir Lancelot had been kept prisoner sometime previously. As mentioned before, Lancelot had decorated the walls of this room while he had been imprisoned there, and anyone who could understand what the pictures meant would easily be able to decipher that Lancelot was having an affair with Queen Guinevere. Morgan uses this room to attempt to prove Lancelot and Guinevere’s guilt to the other knights. After she explains the meaning behind the images, she tells Sir Gawain and his brothers, “when you arrive at court, you’ll have to tell all your adventures, and there you’ll tell everything you saw and heard in this room,” (192). By making Gawain, Gaherit, and Mordred promise to tell the court at Camelot the story they had learned, Morgan could assure herself that Arthur would finally learn of the affair between one of his most beloved knights and his queen. In these tales, it seems as though Morgan’s overarching goal throughout the entire story is to reveal the love affair to the king, which is not necessarily an evil goal. It certainly has catastrophic consequences, but that is more Lancelot’s fault than Morgan’s. Morgan’s design is just to inform her brother of an injustice which is occurring in his household; an injustice she cares passionately about because it involves the woman who wronged her many years before.
One of Morgan’s most well-known acts of vengeance against Guinevere is the tale told in the epic poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Although Morgan is not mentioned in the poem until the very end, the poet reveals at the end that Morgan is behind the entire thing (Tolkien 94-95). She enchanted Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert and sent him to Camelot for the purpose of causing uproar in the court and scaring the queen. Once this is revealed, several points become clearer than before: namely, all the unexplainable supernatural occurrences which happen throughout the poem. First and foremost, the Green Knight is described as:
The mightiest on middle-earth in measure of height,
From his gorge to his girdle so great and so square,
And his loins and his limbs so long and so huge,
That half a troll on Earth I trow he was. (Tolkien 23).
This description makes it clear that he is a giant, much larger than a human man should be expected to be. The reason for his enormous size is not explained until the reader understands that Morgan le Fay is involved. Furthermore, aside from the Green Knight himself, there are several phenomena which cannot be fully explained with science, and therefore must be explained with magic. For example, on page 42 in Tolkien’s translation of the poem, Sir Gawain comes upon a castle, which seems to appear in the middle of the woods, right as he was praying for shelter. In fact, this castle “shimmered and shone through the shining oaks,” (42) a phenomenon which is very supernatural indeed. This too, just like the Green Knight’s unusual size and coloring, is a strange detail which is not fully explained. Only after Morgan’s influence is revealed do the occurrences make sense. It is assumed that the readers already know the character of Morgan le Fay, and therefore know that she is a sorceress capable of enormous magical feats. Clearly, Morgan is important to the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, even though she is only mentioned by name a few times, and only at the end of the poem. None of the previous plot points would be possible without her magic. What is more, Morgan designed the whole plot and put forth so much effort in making it happen, all in yet another attempt to shame Camelot and make Guinevere uncomfortable. Her hatred of the queen goes beyond just attacks on Lancelot and Arthur, it includes the entirety of Arthur’s court as well, and it seems there is no extent to which she is not willing to go to get her vengeance.
Although Morgan is not mentioned by name until the end of the poem, she does appear earlier in the story, when Gawain first arrives at Sir Bertilak’s castle. The physical description of her in this section, contrasted with that of Lady Bertilak, provides a very vivid image:
She was fairer in face, in her flesh and her skin
Her proportions, her complexion, and her port than all others
And more lovely than Guinevere to Gawain she looked….
Leading her by the hand another lady was there
Who was older than she, indeed ancient she seemed,
And held in high honor by all men about her.
But unlike in their looks those ladies appeared,
For if the younger was youthful, yellow was the elder;
With rose-hue the one face was richly mantled,
Rough wrinkled cheeks rolled on the other… (Tolkien 48).
The first woman mentioned is Lady Bertilak, who, as seen by the description, is young and beautiful. Morgan is the second woman, the old crone. At first, the comparison looks like a very unflattering one for Morgan, as she is much older and more hobbled than the young Lady Bertilak, but the poet also includes the line “And held in high honor by all men about her.” This line is clearly a positive statement about the old woman. The reader doesn’t know who she is yet, and although she is old and ugly, she is held in high honor, which indicates that there must be something honorable about her. The men around her admired her for some reason, which was most likely her incredible magical prowess. This detail proves that there are some characters within Arthurian literature who do not fear Morgan and her magic.
In the description of Lady Bertilak right before the description of Morgan, the poet also includes the line “And more lovely than Guinevere to Gawain she looked,” (Tolkien 48). This comparison is very important given the conflict between Guinevere and Morgan which is established in the other tales. Although Lady Bertilak does not have any relation to Guinevere, nor is she involved in the feud between Morgan and the queen, she is the woman who is contrasted with Morgan in this particular scene. The fact that this woman seems “more lovely than Guinevere” to Sir Gawain is significant then, because it further emphasizes the degrees of separation between her and Morgan. The poet uses the contrasting descriptions of these two ladies to emphasize their differences, and point out how opposite they are. Furthermore, Lady Bertilak is the one Gawain notices first and spends the most time thinking about, but it is Morgan who is the truly powerful one in the poem, and it is Morgan who the poet is talking about when he writes that all men around her honored her. This contrast not only mirrors the contrast between Morgan and Guinevere, but it proves that, contrary to popular belief at the time, beauty is not everything. Morgan is not beautiful, and yet she is the most powerful of all the female characters in this poem.
It is clear that Morgan uses a lot of magic in this poem, and, as discussed before, female magic users in medieval literature tend to be characterized as evil sorceresses more often than not. However, is Morgan really a villain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Denver Ewing Baughan writes, “It would be hard to find in all of English literature a character so obviously the moving cause of an entire plot and at the same time so misunderstood and neglected as Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” (241), a statement which is clearly true given that her typical characterization is that of a villain, even when she does not act particularly evil. Additionally, Thelma Fenster calls her “the agent of Gawain’s testing,” (78), an assertion which suggests that she has a more constructive, guiding role rather than a destructive one. None of the characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are demonic in origin either, as can be shown by the fact that they attend mass (Tracy 38). So the characters observe Christian religious practices, but they also either use magic themselves or are willing to allow others in their presence to use magic. These facts suggest that, at least from the points of view of Sir Bertilak and his court, magic is not a demonic force at all, but it is instead a force which can be used for constructive, positive goals. Furthermore, in the Green Chapel Sir Bertilak explains how Morgan allegedly got her magical knowledge:
Bertilak de Hautdesert hereabouts I am called,
Who thus have been enchanted and changed in my hue
By the might of Morgan le Fay that in my mansion dwelleth,
And by cunning of lore and crafts well learned.
The magic arts of Merlin she many hath mastered;
For deeply in dear love she dealt on a time
With that accomplished clerk, as at Camelot runs the fame;
And Morgan the Goddess
Is therefore now her name. (Tolkien 94-95).
In this passage, he explains that Morgan learned about magic from Merlin, a character who clearly has extensive knowledge about the magical arts, but who is also generally considered to be a good character. Merlin is not a villain, and if he is the one who taught Morgan how to use magic, then her magic should not be considered evil in origin. When the fact that this whole endeavor is another of her attacks on Guinevere is taken into account, it begs the question: who is the real villain here? Morgan learned her magic from an honorable tutor, well-respected in Camelot. Guinevere lied to her husband and threatened her kinsman Sir Guiomar, forcing him to break up with Morgan. Morgan left the court, surrounded herself with people who appreciate her and her gifts, and plotted revenge on the queen. Furthermore, is Morgan is truly the “agent of Gawain’s testing” as Fenster suggests she is, she is actually helping the court of Camelot by teaching Gawain a lesson and thereby making him into a better knight. She is certainly very kind to him in this tale, letting him go back to Camelot when she could easily have killed him many times. In this poem, then, she manages to attack Guinevere while still being constructive and helpful to Camelot, and she does not attack Camelot’s knight when she had him in her grasp. This circumstance suggests that the main problem Morgan has with Camelot is Guinevere, not Arthur or any of the knights. She is not a villain, she is simply a woman who has been misunderstood by medieval male authors and wronged by her society.
The Supernatural and the Divine
Celtic mythology is rich with fairy lore, and throughout all of the Celtic countries, there are stories of fairies, or Fey, inhabiting the hills even to this day. Although some of the accounts differ, overall they are alike enough that it is easy to believe they are all talking about the same group of beings. In fact, in his book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, W. Y. Evans Wentz discusses the traits of some of these Celtic fairy races. For example, on pages 200-201 he writes about a race of Fey called the Morgans, who may very well be part of the origin of Morgan le Fay. The Morgans “seemed like anthropomorphosed survivals of ancient sea-divinities,” and were said to have been pagan temptresses who lure Christian men to their deaths, although these could be later rumors rather than mythological fact. The Morgans have demonic origins (201-202) when written about by Christian scribes, but they are a race of fairy nonetheless. The idea of water-related supernatural beings being malevolent is also expressed by an eyewitness Wentz interviewed: “Certain kinds of the shining beings, whom I call wood beings, have never affected me with any evil influences I could recognize. But the water beings, also of the shining tribes, I always dread, because I felt whenever I came into contact with them a great drowsiness of mind and, I often thought, an actual drawing away of vitality,” (63). This idea of the water-related beings as a negative force is interesting when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini is taken into account. In that tale, Morgen is a positive force, a healer, and it is only later, when she leaves the lake and goes to the woods in the Vulgate Cycle, that she becomes viewed as a force of evil. However, Wentz talks about supernatural beings called Morgans who live in the water, but they are evil, and it is the wood beings that are good. This could suggest that Morgan’s character was based on the Fey and the later medieval authors who wrote about her got a few facts mixed up, or it could suggest that Morgan is purely a human character who simply has a few similarities to some of the Celtic fairy races. However, the evidence that she is connected somehow to the Fey is overwhelming, which makes any other explanation highly improbable.
Aside from these watery Morgans, Wentz’s account talks about another race of fairy: the Sidhe. He mentions on pages 27-28 as well as 284-285 that the Sidhe originated from the Tuatha de Danaan. Wentz refers to the Tuatha de Danaan as the People of the Goddess Dana, and Proinsias MacCana writes that they had returned to Ireland having “become skilled in the arts of druidry and magic during their sojourn in the northern islands of the world,” (58). It is of the Sidhe that the Wentz’s eyewitness spoke, calling them the “shining tribes,” so clearly these beings can be either good or bad. Furthermore, they too have a tie to Arthurian literature: “Death is the passport to the world of the Sidhe, a world where there is eternal youth and never-ending joy, as we shall learn when we study it as the Celtic Otherworld,” (Wentz 285). The Otherworld is also said to be underground, and bodies of water act as a “transitional zone” between the Otherworld and the world of the living (Price 53). This Celtic Otherworld bears a striking similarity to Avalon: it is a world of youth and joy, and Avalon as described by Geoffrey is a place of healing and prosperity. This is not only a connection to Arthurian myth, but a positive one. The world of the Sidhe, just like Avalon, looks like a paradise, not a torment. So are these beings malicious at all, or are they beneficent? They are the People of the Goddess Dana, which does not suggest that they are evil, and their dwelling place is a fruitful Otherworld of never-ending joy. This evidence seems to suggest that they are good creatures, which have perhaps been portrayed as evil by later authors in the same way that Morgan was. Wentz asserts that “the hold of the Tuatha de Danaan on the Irish mind and spirit was so strong that even Christian transcribers of texts could not deny their existence as a non-human race of intelligent beings inhabiting Ireland, even though they frequently misrepresented them by placing them on the level of evil demons” (286). Clearly then, they are not originally an evil race, and clearly no character who is connected to them is an evil character. It is the misrepresentation of the magical and the feminine which makes Morgan into a villain, and not any characteristics of Morgan herself.
In addition to the diverse kinds of fairies, Celtic mythology also tells about many different and powerful deities. The Celtic triple goddess is one of the most powerful deities of the ancient world, and has had much influence on the literature of that time. According to Marija Gimbutas, this may be due to the fact that Celtic society felt differently about women than most other ancient societies. In her book, Civilization of the Goddess, she points out that “woman’s ability to give birth and nourish children from her body was deemed sacred, and revered as the ultimate metaphor for the Divine Creator,” (223). Bill Price also asserts that “the position of woman in Iron Age Britain and Ireland appears to have been much more prominent than in the classical world,” (45). There are certainly many historical examples of this. Price, Gimbutas, and MacCana all mention the Irish Queen Boudicca, who took up arms and defended her country from the Romans. The presence of such strong women in Celtic society would explain why the Celtic goddess figure is so powerful, but what kind of goddess is she? She seems to encompass several very different aspects of life. According to Gimbutas, the use of images of female body parts along with other symbols of life, such as water, on ancient vases shows that the Celtic goddess is a “Nourisher, who maintained and brought good fortune,” (234). However, the Goddess does not always nourish; sometimes she brings destruction and chaos. Gimbutas explains that “in the religion of Old Europe, death and regeneration are expressed as two independent contiguous aspects of one deity…. The Great Goddess of the Stone Age embodies both simultaneously, representing the unbroken continuity of the one ever-repeating cycle that underlies all manifestations,” (243). Erich Neumann also states that “she has three forms: the good, the terrible, and the good-bad mother…. The third form is that of the Great Mother who is good-bad and makes possible a union of positive and negative attributes,” (21). Clearly then, this goddess figure can embody both creative and destructive forces, and is not a purely malicious or demonic figure at all.
The reason why characters connected to the ancient religion are often portrayed as evil in medieval literature ties back to the European Inquisition. “In spite of extreme attempts to eradicate her during historic times, especially by the European Inquisition of the Middle Ages in which virtually every woman of wisdom and influence was burned, her importance in life and storytelling did not disappear. The Goddess of Death and Regeneration was demonized and degraded into the familiar and highly publicized image of the witch,” (Gimbutas 244). After the Norman Invasion of the British Isles, and after Christianity became the major religion of the land, anyone who still practiced magical arts was considered unholy, and the gods they worshiped were called evil demons. This is one of the main reasons why sorceresses in medieval literature are thought of as evil: they were women who wielded power, and they practiced magic, which tied them to the ancient religion and damned them in the eyes of the Church. In fact, Christian scribes in the British Isles edited or omitted the pagan aspects of traditional folklore (Price 23). They retold the same stories people knew, but the gods became demons and their devotees became evil witches or warlocks. The feminine was negatively demonized in contrast to the masculine (Neumann 50), and Christian values and the ideals of the new patriarchal structure were emphasized above all others. The fact about the Goddess is that she is a divine force, indeed capable of destruction, but also in charge of life. Proinsias MacCana points out that “the Irish, and indeed the Celtic, goddess is primarily concerned with the prosperity of the land: its fertility, its animal life, and (when it is conceived as a political unit) its security against external forces,” (94), which just proves that she is above all a positive figure, and one capable of a great power.
There is ample evidence to suggest that Morgan has supernatural origins, the most obvious of which being the Celtic fairy world. The most obvious evidence of this is her name: Morgan le Fay, or Morgan of the Fairies. As Lucy Allen Paton points out in her book, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance, “the typical attributes of a fey are assigned to Morgain [Morgan]. We may safely say that she is the most important fey portrayed in the romances, and that she is essentially the Fairy Queen of Arthurian legend,” (8). This is indeed a safe assertion: Morgan displays many of the defining characteristics of the Fey throughout the Arthurian tales. Roger Loomis says that Celtic fairies have a tendency to kidnap humans (186-187), which is certainly true of Morgan. As previously addressed, she kidnaps and imprisons Sir Lancelot several times over the course of the Vulgate Cycle alone. She also possesses great magic of many different varieties: the healing power she demonstrates in the Vita Merlini as well as in the Arthurian Romances and le Morte d’Arthur, spells of imprisonment such as those she casts around the Valley of No Return in the Vulgate Cycle, the sleep spells she casts on Sir Lancelot in le Morte d’Arthur, and the shape-changing power she shows in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when she turns Sir Bertilak into a green giant. The Vita Merlini also mentions that she can change her shape. Furthermore, Morgan can sometimes be identified with the Lady of the Lake; in fact, in Geoffrey’s Vita, she is definitely the chief lady in charge of the isle of Avalon. The Lady is undeniably a fairy character, queen of Avalon, and a significant supernatural figure in the Celtic Otherworld. Both Morgan and the Lady are associated with the water as well, and in Welsh folktales and in Breton lais, the water fay has a dual nature as either beautiful and kind or “a hideous and fearsome hag,” (Loomis 197), which also helps to explain the duality of Morgan’s characterization in the legends. All of these parallels simply help to illuminate the similarities between Morgan le Fay and the Celtic fairy race of the same name. Based on this evidence, she is either a fairy herself, or she has incredibly strong ties with them.
Another possibility which would explain her ties to the fairy world and her magical abilities is the idea that Morgan is a human who has access to magic because she has studied it. As Wentz writes, “the evidence from each Celtic country shows very clearly that magic and witchcraft are inseparably blended in the fairy-faith, and that human beings, i.e. “charmers”… and other magicians and sorceresses are often enabled through the aid of fairies to perform the same magical arts as fairies,” (Wentz 253). Here she does not necessarily need to be a fairy herself, but she can communicate with them and wield their power through witchcraft. This would explain the elements of the Arthurian myths which insinuate that she is human, such as the fact that she is the sister of King Arthur in the later versions of the legends. It wouldn’t make sense for Arthur’s sister to be a Fey, but for her to be a sorceress who wields the power of the Fey is more believable. Furthermore, magic and witchcraft can be used for either good or evil, and Morgan uses it to help the Knights of the Round Table during her time at the court, as well as to hurt them when she is out for vengeance. “Morgan is not only an angry woman, but an angry woman in command of one of the most powerful weapons known to the medieval mind,” (Baughan 246). Whether she is a Fey or simply a human sorceress, she is definitely powerful, and she definitely wields an ancient magic, one based more in Celtic paganism than in Christian lore.
Just as there is ample evidence tying Morgan to the Celtic fairy world, there is also ample evidence that she has divine origins, especially tied to the Irish battle-goddess, the Morrigan. She is one of the Celtic goddesses who embodies female power, and she always takes a strong role in the myths she appears in. As MacCana states regarding the Celtic goddesses, “above all there is a formidable group who have special claim on the title of goddess of war. Though often appearing singly these are normally conceived of as a trio. They generally comprise the Morrighan [Morrigan],” (86). Whenever she appears, in any form, she is a crucial character in the story. One of the well-known works of medieval literature in which the Morrigan appears is the Tain bo Cuailnge, otherwise known as the Cattle Raid of Cooley. In the Tain bo Cuailnge, the Morrigan interacts with the hero, Cuchulainn, on a few different occasions, often with a prophecy:
As the army crossed the plain, the Morrigan – the Nightmare Queen – came in the form of a bird and settled on a standing-stone in Temair Cuailnge, and chanted these words to the Brown Bull: restless does the Dark Bull know death-dealing slaughter, secret that the raven wrings from writhing soldiers, as the Dark One grazes on the dark green grasses, waving meadows blossoming with necks and flowers, lowing cattle of the Badb, the groans of battle, armies ground to dust, the raven struts on corpses, war-clouds raging over Cuailnge day and night, kith and kin lie down to join the tribes of dead (Carson 57).
This passage shows that the Morrigan has the gift of prophecy, and, while it is certainly ominous, it is not necessarily threatening. In this scene, the Morrigan is warning the Brown Bull of what could possibly occur. She is not saying that she will be the cause of it, she is simply saying that it will happen. Furthermore, her relationship with the hero Cuchulainn is complex: “The Morrigan is at times Cuchulainn’s watchful protectress; at others she is his enemy, seeking to destroy him,” (Loomis 197). She is certainly antagonistic toward him in the chapter entitled “They Find the Bull.” In this chapter, she comes to Cuchulainn in the form of a woman and offers herself to him. When he turns her down, she gets angry and threatens him (Carson 92). Later in the chapter, she attacks him in the form of an eel, followed by that of a she-wolf, followed by a hornless red heifer (94). This section demonstrates the Morrigan’s ability to change her shape, and it also demonstrates her vengeance against men who anger her. The previous passage demonstrated her shape-changing magic as well by explaining that she appeared in the form of a raven. As stated previously, Morgan le Fay also possesses shape-shifting abilities in some of the Arthurian legends, dating back to Geoffrey’s Vita, and her tendency to display both positive and negative traits is well-known. Furthermore, MacCana further explains the role of the Morrigan in his book, Celtic Mythology, by saying that “normally these war-goddesses do not themselves engage in armed conflict: their weapons are the magic they command and the very terror which they inspire by their dread presence,” (86). And aside from that, Morgan usually shows herself to knights along with two other un-named queens, also enchantresses or fey, similar to how the Morrigan is a triple goddess and reveals herself to heroes (Loomis 193). This shows even more similarities between Morgan le Fay and the Irish Morrigan. These parallels are evidence as to Morgan’s possible origins in Celtic mythology.
Morgan also closely resembles a goddess figure in the epic poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There is certainly a lot of pagan imagery in this work, first and foremost being the display of the pentacle on Gawain’s shield. The poem explains how the pentacle is a Christian symbol (Tolkien 38-39) but it is possible that it could represent both Christianity and Celtic paganism. Larissa Tracy, in her article “A Knight of God or the Goddess? Rethinking Religious Syncretism in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”,” writes: “Intertwined with the residual elements of Celtic paganism, in which there are many figures of feminine divinity, the pentacle may have become a symbol of the pagan goddess, who occasionally appears in medieval literature as Morgan le Fay,” (35). Just as the pentacle can represent the divinity of God, it can also represent the divinity of the Celtic Mother. Both of these are strong divine ties, and neither of them are negative. The Christian God is just as likely to assist Sir Gawain on his quest as the Celtic Goddess is. And there are many elements in this story to suggest that this Goddess is personified in Morgan le Fay. Morgan is introduced on page 48 in Tolkien’s translation, and it is then that the reader gets a physical description of her: she is an old woman, ancient and decrepit. However, “as an old woman, Morgan takes the place of the crone, one of the manifestations of the Irish goddess Morrigan,” (Tracy 41). In Celtic mythology, the triple goddess figure takes the forms of the maiden, the mother, and the crone, the last of which being the wisest of the three. Morgan certainly shows her wisdom here through craft and cunning, designing and then carrying out her latest plot against Camelot. However, she is not malicious toward Gawain personally. As discussed before, the castle appears in the forest just as he was praying for shelter (Tolkien 42), and, while she could easily have killed Sir Gawain at the end of the poem, she allows him to leave unharmed (Tolkien 94-95). As Tracy explains, “Morgan, as a goddess, is ultimately responsible for the challenge and the quest,” (41), which makes sense in this regard. After all, Morgan is the one who set up the entire plot of the poem, and it is her magic which allows each detail to occur. Furthermore, Sir Gawain learns a valuable lesson over the course of this poem, and returns to Camelot a better man than when he left. This further suggests that Morgan’s influence here is not malicious, but constructive. The pentacle, the Green Knight, and Morgan are “magical, but not malevolent motifs, products of a society that embraced elements of a pagan past and reinterpreted them along its own religious lines…. The pagan supernatural elements in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight coexist with Christianity,” (Tracy 38). Clearly, “Morgan the Goddess” (Tolkien 95) is the driving force behind this poem, and a helpful agent to Gawain in the same way that the Morrigan is often a helpful agent to Cuchulainn. Here she has divine origins, but, like her supposed fairy origins, they do not make her evil, they simply make her a very powerful and independent woman who is capable of both creation and destruction.
It is possible that the character of Morgan le Fay descends from both the Celtic fairies and the Celtic goddesses. Roger Loomis explains that “the fays of medieval romance and of modern European folklore are descended from the goddesses of pre-Christian era,” (200). Therefore, it is conceivable that Morgan could have elements of both. Paton adds to this by saying: “we will suppose that the Irish battle-goddess, the Morrigan, became in the conception of the Celtic people more and more a fay; when traditions about her reached Wales, where the meaning of her name was felt and her traits recognized as in a large measure those of a fay, she was regarded as the great fairy queen,” (162-163). So Morgan le Fay originated as the Morrigan of Irish mythology, and as her story was passed down orally to different people of different nations, her character changed from that of a powerful goddess to that of a still very powerful supernatural being. It is most likely that she was still regarded as more of a fairy than a human by the time Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about her, as she is a mystical healer and protectress of Avalon, and still very fairylike in that work. Then Chretien de Troyes humanized her and greatly lessened her power, beginning her descent from good to evil. Over time, other authors adopted her character, humanized her more and more, and eventually demonized her as well, and thus she became the evil witch most audiences know today.
The character of Morgan le Fay is an intriguing and highly disputed one. Although she is certainly well-known among modern audiences, she is incredibly misunderstood by them. Most modern genres portray her as a villain, and now she is generally assumed to be an evil sorceress. However, readers of the original Arthurian myths know that this is not the true Morgan le Fay. Examine the chronology of the original tales, and it is clear that her character began as a positive force, a healer and a leader, and was then demonized and darkened over the course of several years and several different interpretations. The main reason for this decline is a misogynistic one: medieval male authors saw a female character who wielded a lot of power and decided to portray her as a force of evil instead of good. However, even in the later stories where she is made out to be a villain, Morgan le Fay is a sympathetic character. Her actions are fueled by a desire for revenge against Guinevere, and no matter how many times she attacks Camelot, she always returns at the end of the tales to heal Arthur and ferry him to Avalon, suggesting that she really does care about her brother after all. Furthermore, Morgan’s character does not derive from demons, but rather from a goddess: Ireland’s Morrigan. Over time, tales of her spread across several lands and were altered with each telling. The goddess became a fairy, and the fairy became a sorceress. Later, the good sorceress would become an evil witch, developing the healer into the villainous character who is so well-known today.
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