Morgan Le Fay.
Morgan Le Fay, Morgana, Morgaine; sorceress, queen, healer, seductress, witch and magician is one of those dimly seen figures from the tales of our past along the border where mythology and history blur around the edges and meld into one another. She is a central character in the Arthurian legends both as a villainess and heroine; possibly one of the most complex and intriguing figures of the whole tale and who metamorphosises to fit the image of every new age that retells her story. She is the witch queen of Avalon, the enchantress of the magic isle, student to the wizard Merlin and protagonist and half s****r to King Arthur of Camelot.
Morgan Le Fay first enters the literary record in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Vita Melini” (Life of Merlin) in 1150 which is a continuation of his first penning of the Arthurian saga in “Historia Regia Britanniae” (History of the Kings of Britain) in the 1130s (c1136). It would seem likely however that she has a far older pedigree. The name is telling. The appellation “Le Fay” is old English derived from Norman French “fee” for fairy so her name literally translates as Morgan the Fairy.
Fairies are Celtic mythical creatures of antiquity and have a number of permutations in Celtic folklore. Essentially the term fairy (or pixie, elf, goblin, leprechaun etc) refers to the wee people or little people and a number of scholars take it to refer to the pre Celtic indigenous peoples who inhabited Britain and North West Europe prior to the Celtic invasions of those lands. These are taken to be a race of dark haired people of small stature who contrasted markedly with the tall fair haired or red haired Celtic people. The Celts probably invaded Britain in around the 8th to 7th centuries BC and essentially supplanted the indigenous people possibly driving them into hiding in the vast tracts of forest that covered the islands in that era. This race of people became figures of folklore among the Celts; practising magic and communing with spirits. The stone circles such as Stonehenge they had built all over the islands became known as fairy rings even while the Celtic Druidic religion usurped them for its own rites. A “fairy” thus became a sort of half mythical being of magical powers connected to a older mystical past. Morgan herself might well be the folk lore remnant of Pagan Celtic legends. Certainly there are similarities in her name and characteristics to ancient Celtic deities and spirits such as Muirgen or Morrigan from Irish mythology, the Welsh Modron or the Morganes of Breton folk lore. Geoffrey of Monmouth might simply have fused this ancient character or collection of characters into Morgan or he was writing from the folk lore legends that had already placed her into the story.
Whether or not there ever was such a person as Morgan is impossible to say with certainty. The legend of King Arthur and all the familiar characters within the story are much later pseudo historical romances that may or may not have some attachment to a verbal historical tradition. The era in which Arthur supposedly reigned in Camelot is the dark era of British history; the blank page in the story of the British Isles. With the collapse of Roman rule and the Celtic Romanic civilisation with the arrival of the Anglo Saxon invasions, history essentially ceased to be written for over two hundred years in Britain. All we have of the era are some archaeological evidence and a smattering of half remembered accounts. There is some possibility that for some time at least there emerged a strong Celtic leader called Arthur who resisted the Saxon invaders and fought them in a number of battles but the hard evidence for such a person is then indeed other than the whisperings of legend.
Whatever the historical truth it is clear that the story we all know of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are pretty much fictitious romances born out of the age of chivalry in the medieval period. They are in fact stories that tell us more about medieval Europe than about the age in which they are purportedly set. Morgan’s character in this collection of stories has changed in a number of ways with each retelling from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s early versions through the old French romances, the retelling of the story in “Le Morte d’ Arthur” by Thomas Malory (an ancestor of mine!) in 1485 and right up to more modern versions of the old story.
In most accounts Morgan is the half s****r of Arthur. She is the daughter of Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon and Igraine the wife of Gorlois who Uther sl**ps with and later, after killing her first husband marries. Morgan has two elder s****rs, Elaine and Morgause. The latter of these is the mother of Mordred who is the eventual cause of Arthur’s downfall. Morgan, according to some accounts, has an unhappy early life being at some point shipped off to a nunnery and later married against her will to King Urien of Gore who is much older than she. She studies magic under Merlin or as a result of her association with the enchanted Isle of Avalon and becomes a great sorceress. Although some accounts convey her sympathetically it is this association with witchcraft and sorcery that, in a highly devoted Christian medieval age, sees her cast in the role of villainess and the person who plots against Arthur and his queen Guinevere. This enduring image of Morgan as a sort of villainous witch queen of an enchanted land is the one which most people still carry of her to this day.
However there is another side to the coin and Morgan is a far more complex character than this simplified view of her. For one thing she is a great healer and it is she who carries the mortally wounded Arthur to the Isle of Avalon to be healed following the climatic battle of Camlann reconciling herself with her b*****r at his downfall. Her protagonist role against the court of Camelot is more complex than simply evil opposition for she tries to reveal to Arthur the adultery of Guinevere with Lancelot and Morgan has more than a few lovers herself. She is a powerful figure, a mover of events and a dominating female character of great sorcery and charisma. It is little wonder then that she gets a good deal of bad press in Christian literature!
There are more positive accounts of her. Interestingly enough she turns up in stories all over Europe for the Arthurian legend became highly popular in the High Middle Ages. She particularly shows up in French stories and, interestingly, in Italy where she, as Fata Morgana, is predominantly associated with the island of Sicily. In fact a sort of mirage commonly seen off the coast of Sicily is known to this day as a Fata Morgana.
In many modern accounts however Morgan seems lumbered with her role as arch villainess and it’s interesting to see in art how often she takes on the aspect of every female demon and witch, complete with horns, bat wings etc straight out of the Gothic revival of the 19th century. In a sense she has become the proto type witch queen of “fairy” stories, forever brewing her demonic potions and hatching her wicked plots in her enchanted castle. Thankfully some accounts take a longer and more balanced view of her and the best modern retelling of the Arthurian saga is probably Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” which I would highly recommend as it places Morgan in a central position in the story and gives a much more sympathetic view of this character.
The gallery I’ve posted therefore tries to show Morgan in many different aspects as depicted in art; as sorceress, villainess, heroine, healer, figure of myth and legend, tragic figure, magician, charismatic and mystical queen and even (heaven help us!) as a comic book action figure. This is as best I can do to portray the full complexity of this multi facetted and fascinating literary character and past readers of my blogs will notice that I’ve tried to show the Lady Morgana in the light of the eras that depict her and to show how powerful female figures sometimes become unfairly demonised. I find Morgan to be a wonderful figure in our rich heritage of story telling and one for whom we should be grateful.