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Fata Morgana Series


Morgan le Fay: Mother Goddess

She said to the King, Oh my brother,

This happy dwelling is not always given to me;

And, as a wise fairy who wishes her learning to grow,

I cannot always be in one place:

Here and there, across the wide earth,

I always go in search of a new hill

Where I can hide from the foolish crowd

And seek that which reaches the pinnacle of knowledge.

– Morgan le Fay, La Caccia (“The Hunt”, 1591), Erasmo di Valvasone

Powerful sorceress. Wicked witch. Benevolent enchantress. Evil crone. Immortal goddess. Demonic villain. Feminist icon. Fairy Queen. Princess, healer, wise woman, mother, sister, lover, enemy. Morgan le Fay is and has been all things to all people, an eternal shapeshifter who has captured the imagination in every form of art throughout the centuries. Loved and hated, admired and feared, she is a character whose origins reach far back into the mists of time, her very name inspiring awe and terror in equal measure.

The multi-faceted, ambiguous goddess has her origins in myth far earlier than Arthurian legend. Both the Greco-Roman and Celtic traditions are replete with goddesses and nymphs whose characters and actions are seemingly contradictory. Morgan, whose name means ‘Sea-Born’, shares many characteristics with water goddesses such as the Roman Sulis, the goddess of the thermal springs at Bath, England. As a goddess, Sulis had the power both to harm and to cure, to nourish and to punish. Morgan’s conflicting nature also resembles that of the Celtic Morrigan, the goddess of fertility and war, of life and death. More direct origins of Morgan le Fay are believed to be found in an earlier, possibly even pre-Celtic goddess: Modron, whose name means ‘Mother.’ It is with Modron that we find the first connection to Avalon. She was the daughter of the island’s ruler, Avallach, and the mother of Mabon, the “Divine Youth” and Apollo-esque Celtic god of light and music.

Like the above goddesses, Morgan is portrayed in Arthurian lore as both healer and destroyer, guardian and nemesis, loving angel and vengeful demon. As a mother, she is doting and callous; as a sister, she is caring and hateful; as a lover, she is generous and cruel. She is unpredictable, elusive, contradictory: the Fairy Queen who spends Arthur’s reign attempting to bring him down, only at the end to bear him away to her magical Isle of Avalon to heal him and shield him from the world until the Once and Future King is called to arms again.

Complexity and ambivalence are key to understanding Morgan’s character. The propensity to depict Morgan, without nuance, as either benign goddess or evil enchantress is often due to a seeming inability to comprehend or capture the multi-dimensional aspect of earlier portrayals of female deities. The contradictions of Morgan’s character stem from a grand tradition of goddesses, sorceresses, nymphs and fairies throughout literature and myth. Another crucial point to remember about the great Fairy Queen of Arthurian legend is how she holds up a mirror to the society around her at any given time. Morgan le Fay has always been a template for women who do not conform to convention - women who wield, pursue and achieve great power – and her treatment in literature is more often than not a reflection of society’s attitudes to such women at the time of writing. We can understand the attitudes to women through the ages through the characterisation of Morgan le Fay in various art forms recounting the tales of King Arthur and his knights.

The earliest portrayals of Morgan le Fay depict her as the ruler of a magical island in a similar vein to Circe and Calypso in classical Greek literature, as well as fairy queens of Celtic legend such as Niamh of the Golden Hair, who ruled the magical island of Tír Tairngiri (“Land of Promise”), to which she would bring her captive human lovers. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (ca. 1150), Morgan dwells on the Island of Apples, known as the ‘Fortunate Isle’, where she is the most powerful of nine sisters, recalling the nine Muses of antiquity. She is learned above all others, gifted with the arts of healing and herb lore. She can change her shape, fly through the air, appear at will anywhere she wishes, and teaches astrology and mathematics to her sisters. When Merlin, Taliesin and Barinthus bring the wounded Arthur to her after the battle of Camlann, she tells them it is possible for her to heal him, but only if he remains with her for a long while. Here, in her earliest literary incarnation, the trope of Morgan as the Fairy Queen of a magical island is established. She has no relation to Arthur in this account, nor is any part of her human. She is a goddess and sorceress in the classical literary mode; an otherworldly queen of her own realm.

Similarly, in Etienne de Rouen’s Draco Normannicus (ca. 1167-1169) Morgan is called “the eternal nymph” who lives on “the holy isle of Avalon” and grants Arthur immortality. Unlike Geoffrey, Etienne describes Arthur and Morgan as brother and sister. However, in Layamon’s Brut (ca. 1190-1215), the first poem written in Middle English, Morgan is spoken of as Argante, the elf queen of Avalon and fairest of all maidens, again a character who is no apparent blood relation to Arthur. In the Brut, as soon as Arthur is born, he is taken by the elves, who enchant him with the gifts of strength, wealth, long life, and all the virtues of goodness to raise him to greatness. At the end of his final battle, Arthur’s last words reveal his intention of leaving for Avalon to be healed by Argante, “the queen, an elf most fair”, so that one day he can return to his people.

In these early versions of Morgan, she is depicted wholly as a source of good, not evil: a benevolent magical being who is admired, venerated and trusted. We have seen that this figure harks back to goddesses and nymphs of Greco-Roman antiquity and to Celtic mother goddesses. This would explain why these early Arthurian writers treat her with the reverence and honour worthy of a divinity, as yet untinged with the unremittingly evil characteristics and misogyny of later versions. As the Fairy Queen of a paradisal island, this Morgan is removed from the earthly pursuits of the mortal characters, and thus in these early texts she appears uninvolved with political plots, intrigues and machinations. The idea of the island as another (“other”) world, set apart from the human world, is linked to the cosmological concept of water in Celtic tradition. Water is magical, transmutable, perceived as the gateway between this world and the Otherworld. Many fairies, like ancient gods, live on distant islands, in underwater cities, beneath the ocean, in wells and springs, and at the bottom of rivers or lakes.

It has been suggested that the original Lady of the Lake, who appears in Ulrich von Zarzikhoven’s Lanzelet (ca. 1200) as Lancelot’s foster mother, is an aspect of the character of Morgan. Lancelot is raised by the queen of the sea fairies on an island of women. The Fairy Queen trains him as a knight and will not tell him his name until he performs the task of killing the Lord of Beforet who is invading the lands of her son Mabuz. Mabuz is a version of Mabon, the young Celtic god who is the Divine Son of the Mother Goddess, Modron, the template for Morgan le Fay. This would render the Lady of the Lake another early incarnation of Morgan’s character, one which in later literature was assigned to other characters, most notably Nimue and Vivien.

Morgan le Fay is also the fairy foster mother of Prince Floriant, son of King Elyadus of Sicily, in the little-known 13th century French poetic romance Floriant et Florete, inspired by Chrétien de Troyes. The story takes place in Sicily, where King Elyadus is slain by his seneschal and his pregnant queen escapes into the forest. After the child is born, the queen takes refuge in Monreale to which the seneschal lays siege, while Morgan takes the baby boy to Mongibel, her fairy palace and realm within the volcano Mount Etna. Morgan names the child Floriant and raises him in her realm for fifteen years before sending him back out into the mortal world on an enchanted ship. The young Floriant’s heroics and chivalric deeds gain him renown and a tournament is organised in his honour at Arthur’s court. Morgan sends a messenger to Floriant revealing his true identity and the situation of his birth mother, the queen, whereupon Arthur raises an army to free Floriant’s mother from Monreale.

Years later, after marrying his enemy’s daughter, Florete, and regaining his father’s throne, Floriant follows a white deer which leads him back to the mountain palace of Mongibel and Morgan le Fay. There Morgan tells Floriant that his life is coming to an end, but if he stays with her in Mongibel, he will remain immortal. She reveals that Arthur will join them there later when he is mortally wounded. Morgan then sends three fairies to bring Florete to Mongibel to join her beloved husband in the Otherworldly realm. In this tale, Morgan is a once again a fairy protector and guardian in the traditional mother goddess mode, a figure to be respected and revered. At this point in time, the Fairy Queen of Arthuriana is essentially a force for good, a goddess of both life and death, and the saviour of kings.

“The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon" by Edward Burne-Jones (1881-1898)

“Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus" by John William Waterhouse (1891)

“Morgan le Fay" by Doris Curtis from Stories of King Arthur and the Round Table by Beatrice Clay. London: J. M. Dent 1905

“Morgan le Fay" by Christian Waller (ca. 1927)

“The Death of King Arthur" by James Archer (1860)

Voyage of King Arthur and Morgan le Fay to the Isle of Avalon" by Frank William Warwick (1888)

Morgan le Fay: Good Fairy or Bad Fairy?

Part Two

As we have seen in the 13th century French romance Floriant et Florete, Morgan le Fay’s links with the folkloric motif of fairy abductions was established early in Arthurian tradition. Kidnapping lovers or children was a well-known attribute of supernatural woman in literature, as Circe, Calypso and Niamh can testify. Like all goddesses and despite her benevolent actions, Morgan was to be feared as well as revered. Her name was given to Breton sea fairies who, like Morgan herself, are ambivalent in nature. The Morgans lure human men to drag them to the depths of the ocean, but at the same time they are known to rescue and heal shipwreck victims. Similarly, a mirage of palaces and cities is named the Fata Morgana (Morgan the Fairy), as it was believed to be a sighting of Morgan’s realm – alternately a glimpse into the Otherworld or a sorceress’ spell designed to capture unsuspecting sailors. In Guillem de Torroella’s La Faula (“The Tale”, ca. 1370), the author recounts a journey in which, at the behest of Morgan le Fay, he is carried over the sea on a whale’s back to an Enchanted Island, where he finds Morgan with King Arthur. In this story, Morgan has brought the narrator to her realm to help Arthur, who is being kept young and immortal by the Holy Grail but has fallen into despondency over the world’s loss of chivalry.

As medieval Christianity developed, the depiction of Morgan began to change. The characteristics of the all-powerful Mother Goddess, the Greco-Roman island sorceress, the Celtic Fairy Queen, began shifting into something more recognisably human. In Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide (1160) and Yvain, the Knight of the Lion (ca. 1170), she is described as Arthur’s sister, known as Morgan the Wise, whose healing ointments are the most precious gifts anyone could receive. Likewise, Robert de Boron in his Merlin (ca. 1195-1210) writes of her as Arthur’s half-sister, the daughter of Arthur’s mother and the Duke of Cornwall, and recounts how she was sent away to school where she learned magic. Morgan’s status begins changing from deity and ruler of a magical island to that of king’s sister and noblewoman, wise woman and healer. She is still a woman of high rank, to be sure: a learned scholar and healer with an enviable position in Arthur’s court. And she still has ties to Avalon, with Chrétien calling her “Morgan the Fay” and intimating that she is “a friend” of Guingomar, Lord of the Isle of Avalon. But in these works, though still depicted as a “good fairy”, much of Morgan’s power has already been taken away. Her status now depends on that of her brother or her lover; she is no longer an independent entity.

This humanisation of Morgan and the weakening of her power soon began to devolve into more negative portrayals of her character. Christian male writers, often clerics or monks, sought to dethrone the Fairy Queen and wrest from the pagan goddess any reverence that was her due, besmirching her name, blackening her character, and transforming her into an evil witch hell-bent on cruelty and revenge. A woman who was both powerful and benign was anathema to the beliefs of the Middle Ages: it was deemed blasphemous to attribute scholarly knowledge or healing skills to a female who was not a member of the Church. Women’s sexuality, abhorred by male clerics in particular, was a major source of medieval misogynist fear and loathing. In the 13th century Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles, Morgan is still described with many positive traits – she is merry and charming, pretty and a talented singer – “but she was the most lustful woman in all Great Britain and the lewdest.” She falls in love with Guiomar (possibly a reference to Chrétien’s Guingomar), who in this tale is the cousin of Guinevere. When the Queen discovers their affair, she parts the lovers, inciting Morgan’s anger and hatred. It has been suggested that this is the origin of Morgan’s hatred for Guinevere, and that all her subsequent evil deeds stem from the loss of her lover and her desire for revenge.

However, there is another interpretation for Morgan’s actions. In the Vulgate Cycle, Morgan leaves Camelot after the Guiomar affair and uses her magic to cast a spell upon a valley in the forest. If a knight who has been unfaithful to his lover enters the valley, he can never leave. The Valley of No Return is an interesting concept: an isolated magical area ruled by Morgan and set apart from the mortal world – harking back to Avalon, Mongibel, and other islands and realms where sorceresses would lure and entrap heroes and knights. The Valley is described as a paradise, an idyllic fairy queendom with no shortage of food and drink and entertainment, where the knights are forced to stay but the women of the Valley can come and go as they please. As we have seen with the Roman Sulis, it was the role of ancient goddesses both to provide and to punish, and this is exactly what Morgan does with the Valley of No Return. She punishes and imprisons the knights for their dishonourable transgressions, while at the same time providing a haven where lovers can be together away from the perils and setbacks of the mortal world.

In the Vulgate Cycle, the forest joins the Valley of No Return as one of Morgan’s power bases, where she is the strongest – again, a mysterious, wild place away from the “civilised” court. Throughout Arthurian literature, Morgan travels from realm to realm: the Isle of Avalon in a distant ocean, Mongibel in the volcano Mount Etna, the Fata Morgana, the Valley of No Return, the deep forest – all places removed from the mortal world. Morgan becomes the mistress of all the elements: the watery ocean, the fiery volcano, the ethereal mirage, the fertile valley and forest; each resonant with power, mystery and danger.

Morgan’s connections to the valley and the forest in the Vulgate Cycle are indicative of her strengthening ties with the earthly events and desires of Arthur’s court. She frequently kidnaps Lancelot, attempting to reveal through sorcery his love affair with Guinevere. The motivation for this is often ascribed to Morgan’s own love for Lancelot and her hatred of Guinevere, again pitting the two women against each other. But, as with the Valley of No Return, there is also another explanation. Morgan’s goddess-like punishment of knights for their unfaithfulness in the Valley is echoed in her imprisonment of Lancelot in the forest. Indeed, Morgan explains her actions to Gawain and his brothers, when they discover Lancelot’s cell with his paintings on the wall depicting his love story with Guinevere. Morgan declares, “I’ll hate him [Lancelot] as long as I live, for he couldn’t cause me greater grief by bringing shame on such a noble man as my brother and by loving his wife and lying with her.” In her own words, Morgan doesn’t hate Lancelot because of unrequited love or jealousy. She hates him for his dishonourable betrayal of Arthur.

Another example of the ambiguity of Morgan’s nature can be found in the 14th century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which she appears not as the beautiful Fairy Queen, but as an old crone who is the epitome of ugliness next to the lovely young wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert. Morgan hides her hideous features behind veils so that little of her can be seen, yet she is nonetheless venerated by everyone at Bertilak’s castle. There Gawain undergoes a series of tests of honour, loyalty and virtue. Although Morgan hardly appears, her shadow looms over the story before she is revealed as its most powerful character, described as “Morgan the Goddess” by Bertilak, who talks of her “skill in learning” and being “well-taught in magic arts.” She is the sorceress who has transformed Bertilak into the Green Knight to perform tests of Gawain’s moral character. On the one hand, it is said that her intention with the Green Knight was to scare Guinevere to death; on the other, it is revealed that her goal was to test Arthur’s knights, as did goddesses of old. But by this time in history, fear of women and witchcraft had reached its zenith, and the ambivalent goddess figure had become demonic.

“Morgan le Fay" by William Henry Margetson from Legends of King Arthur and his Knights by Janet MacDonald Clark. London: Ernest Nister 1914

“The Crystal Ball" by John William Waterhouse (1902)

“Four Queens Find Lancelot Sleeping" by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1854)

How Morgan le Fay Gave a Shield to Sir Tristram" by Aubrey Beardsley from Birth, Life and Acts of Arthur by J. M. Dent. London 1893-1894

Morgan le Fay: The Fairy Queen as Villain

Part Three

In the late 12th century, the German poet Hartman von Aue wrote the Arthurian epic Erec, based on Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide. Although Morgan le Fay is only briefly mentioned in Chrétien’s poem, Hartmann describes Morgan at length in his Erec, calling her Feimurgân. His description of her is thrilling and chilling in equal measure. Like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Morgan, Feimurgân had the power of flight. She could fly around the world, float on the waves, exist in the depths of the ocean or beneath the earth, live in fire or dew. “Mighty was she in magic and her life was greatly in defiance of God,” Hartmann writes.

Feimurgân commanded birds in the forests and fields, fish in the sea and rivers, and evil spirits. Even dragons answered her call and flew to her aid when she willed them. She could transform men into animals. She took from the earth everything and anything she wanted, knew all the powers and properties of every plant and root, and was in league with the Devil, who supplied her with fire and magic when she required it. Feimurgân was learned, brilliant, a mistress of magic and of nature – reminiscent of the sorceress Circe, among others. Hartmann compares her to the seer Sybil and the witch Erictho of Greco-Roman tradition, equating her to those powerful, sinister women of legend, but adding a spice of Christian devilry for good measure. As in Chrétien’s work, it is Morgan’s healing ointment that ultimately saves Erec, but Hartmann’s Feimurgân has apparently died before his poem’s events take place, thus sparing the hero from being forced to deal directly with the evil fairy.

Morgan’s association with the demonic continues with The Prophecies of Merlin (ca. 1276), a French prose text in which Morgan, albeit still an enchantress, is nonetheless demoted further still. The Dame d’Avalon, like the Lady of the Lake, is now a separate character, an ally of Merlin who acts as a foil to Morgan: the good enchantress who serves the purpose of defeating and humiliating the evil one. In one instance, the Dame d’Avalon challenges Morgan and two of her fellow enchantresses to a contest of magic. What the Dame does not reveal is that she has two magic rings from India: one which bestows invisibility and the other with the power to force people to give its wearer anything they ask for. After the Dame d’Avalon has bested the other two sorceresses, Morgan, having consulted her magic books and unaware of the Dame’s advantage, conjures up an army of demons from Hell. She transforms them into grotesque birds and a snarling dragon, commanding the birds to carry the Dame to the top of a stone tower and drop her into the dragon’s fiery mouth. But the Dame uses the invisibility ring to elude them. Then she uses the second ring on Morgan, striking her dumb and forcing her to strip naked in front of the entire court. The onlookers roar with derisive laughter when Morgan’s nakedness reveals her to be an old woman, stripped literally and figuratively of all dignity, power and magic. This sexualised humiliation and ridicule of the once all-powerful Fairy Queen is another example of the attitudes of the time towards women considered too powerful for their own good.

Morgan continues as a villain in 13th century texts such as the Prose Tristan and the Suite du Merlin. In the Prose Tristan she tries repeatedly to kidnap Lancelot, is foiled by Tristan with whom she develops a similar love-hate relationship to that of Lancelot, and gifts Tristan a painted shield designed to reveal Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. Still driven by hatred of Guinevere, she sends to Arthur’s court a magic horn from which no unfaithful woman can drink without spilling; however, the horn is re-routed to King Mark’s castle where Isolde’s infidelity is revealed instead. When her lover Huneson is killed by Tristan, Morgan swears that Tristan will die by his own lance, fulfilling her own prophecy by poisoning the lance and giving it to King Mark, who uses it to kill Tristan in front of Isolde. In the Suite de Merlin, Morgan is trusted enough by Arthur for him to give her the magical scabbard of Excalibur; however, she betrays her brother, giving the sword and scabbard to her lover Accolon while providing Arthur with duplicates. With the intervention of the Lady of the Lake, Morgan’s plan is foiled and Arthur defeats Accolon, but Morgan steals back the scabbard, throws it into a lake, and turns herself and her knights into stones to avoid capture. She later infamously creates a magic cloak that burns anyone who puts it on to ashes, an event wonderfully depicted in Frederick Sandys’ Pre-Raphaelite painting Morgan le Fay (1864).

Many of these stories involving Morgan were adapted by other authors, cementing her role as villain yet still occasionally containing glimmers of her good side. The 14th century Italian Tavola Ritonda (“Round Table”) contains many of these tales and gives Morgan a daughter, Pulzella Gaia, who later becomes the heroine of her own tale in which she falls in love with Gawain but warns him not to reveal their romance. Back at court, Gawain is accused of an affair with Guinevere and is rescued by Pulzella Gaia and her fairy army, but when Pulzella Gaia goes back to her mother, Morgan imprisons her in an underground dungeon up to her waist in water. Gawain in turn rescues Pulzella Gaia and casts Morgan into the same dungeon. Morgan now becomes an evil mother to add to her sins. Much of women’s status in medieval society revolved around motherhood, which made Morgan’s terrible crimes against her daughter the worst imaginable. Like the Lady of the Lake and the Dame d’Avalon, Pulzella Gaia is the beautiful, good, triumphant fairy maiden, while Morgan is once again the thwarted, humiliated, wicked witch.

Even as a villain, attributes that are never taken away from Morgan are her learning, knowledge and scholarship. Sir Thomas Malory in Le Mort d’Arthur (1485) emphasises her intelligence and ability, stating that she went to school in a nunnery where she became “a great mistress of magic.” Malory’s Morgan is still a villain; indeed, many of his portrayals of women in Arthurian legend are either as evil sorceresses or unfaithful women who cause a knight’s fall from grace. However, despite (or perhaps because of) this, Morgan in Le Mort d’Arthur is an exceptionally dynamic and compelling character. Within tales adapted from previous authors – the enchanted horn, the shield given to Tristan, the cloak that burns its wearer to a cinder, the Accolon and Excalibur episode, the stealing of the magic scabbard, transforming herself and her knights into stones – Malory’s “erthely fende” Morgan is a clever, fierce, vibrant figure: openly defiant of the chivalric code, rebellious, quick-thinking, strategic, strong, powerful, ambitious, driven. She gloats when she tricks Arthur and glories in her ability to work magic. But, interestingly, when all the power struggles are over, even Malory finally reveals the benevolent Fairy Queen of old. After Arthur’s final battle, Morgan appears in a boat to take him to Avalon, greeting him as her “dere brother”, and chides him for being away from her too long. At the end of Le Mort d’Arthur, Morgan resumes her original role of healer and protector, not enemy and villain.

Morgan retained her roles as Fairy Queen and Lady of the Lake in works of Italian Renaissance literature such as Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, the first two parts of which were published in 1484, a year before the first publication of Le Mort d’Arthur. In Orlando Innamorato, Morgan, known in Italian literature as Morgana, has her own realm, similar to the Valley of No Return, an idyllic, paradisal underworld at the bottom of a lake where she hold knights captive. She is the personification of Fortune, described as “bella fata” (“beautiful fairy”). While Morgan’s villainous makeover had taken hold in much of literature by this point, it was around this time that there also began to appear a fascinating counter to this perception. The portrayals of Morgan in some European literary works of the period were more in keeping with the earliest accounts of her, in stark contrast to the negative later depictions which had become part of medieval tradition.

An example of this can be found found in the 1490 Catalan romance Tirant Lo Blanc, written by Valencian knight Joanot Martorell and posthumously completed by Martí Joan de Galba. In a similar episode to her appearance in Toroella’s La Faula, Morgan is again portrayed as a wise and noble Queen wielding powerful magic. She arrives in the Greek Empire on a ship, in search of her missing brother King Arthur. The Greek emperor comes to her, tells her deferentially that “your ancient authority obliges me to reveal what I know”, and informs her of Arthur’s whereabouts. Morgan finds Arthur in a cage with silver bars, with the sword Excalibur across his knees, and accompanied by a single servant. Although the servant at once recognises Morgan as his mistress, Arthur appears to be in a daze and does not acknowledge or recognise her, though he answers questions on the meaning of loyalty, honour, nobility, and the responsibilities of leadership with great wisdom. The cage doors are opened, but when Excalibur is taken away from him, Arthur falls into a silent stupor. Morgan takes a ruby ring off her finger, passes it in front of Arthur’s eyes, and breaks the spell on him. Arthur regains his senses, recognises Morgan, and embraces her “with great love.”  Celebrations ensue in which Morgan dances with the hero Tirant, and invites the Greek emperor and his court to a banquet on her ship. She hails the emperor as “the finest prince on earth”, in reply to which the emperor praises her thus:

“Your nobility, gentle queen, bespeaks royal perfection, for you truly are the beginning and the end of all good. Your Highness valiantly defied the salt seas for many years, seeking your lost brother and showing the grandeur of your ancestry. Such merits oblige me to please and honour you, and since you have invited me to your ship, I shall gladly accept.”

Another wonderfully sympathetic portrayal of Morgan the Wise, Morgan the Goddess, Morgan the Fairy Queen, is found in Erasmo di Valvasone’s didactic poem La Caccia (“The Hunt”) (1591). In the fourth canto, the tale “The Hind of the Fays” finds Arthur pursuing a golden hind at night into caves sparkling with precious stones. Guided by nymphs, he passes through the caves onto a mountain in daylight, where he reaches the palace of Morgan le Fay on a plain of flowers. From the palace roof, Arthur learns about the heavens, the stars and planets, and then, from Morgan’s balcony, he beholds the sea and the earth, the futile endeavours of men, and the challenges that face kings. In her role as guiding goddess, Morgan then tells Arthur that he has learned what he needs to know about heaven and earth, and must return to the mortal world. She gives him the gift of a sword with a hilt made from the shining horns of the hind, telling him the sword will act as a mirror reflecting himself and all his flaws, showing him how to better himself and thus triumph over his enemies. When Arthur asks how he will find the hind if he ever needs her counsel again, Morgan says that a wise fairy does not always stay in one place, but must travel across the earth, from place to place, if she wishes her power and knowledge to grow. The golden hind only appears to the noblest of men and will always lead them to the nearest fairy because it belongs to all fairies.

In English literature, Morgan’s darkly powerful character had become so problematic that she rarely appears in the writings of male authors in Romantic and Victorian works. The dangerous, irresistible, often tragic allure of the fairy woman was central to many works of the times, ranging from John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819) to the ballet La Sylphide (1832). However, Morgan’s character had been demonised too far to be palatable: for example, in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, published between 1859 and 1885, she does not feature at all. She did, however, appear in art form in two very different Pre-Raphaelite paintings, painted at around the same time. The first, Morgan le Fay (1862) by Edmund Burne-Jones, portrays one side of Morgan’s character: a serene, austere, classical goddess-like figure holding a pot of herbs, a reference to her role as healer. The second, Morgan le Fay (1864) by Frederick Sandys, as mentioned before, depicts Morgan the sorceress, a powerful figure in motion casting the spell to create her lethal cloak.

It was women writers of the 19th century who kept Morgan alive in literature and began to express some sympathy for her. In Dinah Maria Mulock Craik’s Avillion, or the Happy Isles (1853), Morgan resumes her original role as Fairy Queen of Avalon, but, true to the Victorian ideal of women, she is meek and subdued, a non-threatening, angelic presence, who states unambiguously to the mortal male hero that she has “no power, nor yet desire, to cast thee hence.” An interesting defence of Morgan comes from Mrs T. K. Hervey in her The Feasts of Camelot (1863). In the chapter “Sir Tristram’s Tale of Mad King Mark”, Merlin is angered at bards attempting to defame Morgan by calling “our most gracious lady Morgana, the ‘Fay-lady’.” Guinevere, Morgan’s erstwhile enemy, tells Merlin that it was him teaching Morgan magic which caused the evil rumours about her in the first place.

In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Morgan le Fay is an evil queen who is both sorceress and seductress. Her beauty and authority beguile the hero, Hank, who calls her a “marvelous woman”, but Twain’s Morgan, though cleverer than most of the other Arthurian characters, is a cruel and merciless tyrant who executes people at her own hand and burns them at the stake. Hated, reviled and disempowered for centuries, Morgan le Fay would enter the modern era with a vengeance.

“Morgan le Fay" by Frederick Sandys (1864)

“Circe Invidiosa" by John William Waterhouse (1892)

“Morgan Le Fay" by John Spencer Stanhope (1880)

“The Magic Circle" by John William Waterhouse (1886)

“Morgan le Fay" by Edward Burne-Jones (1862)

“The Magic Crystal" by Frank Dicksee (1894)

Morgan le Fay: Modern Morgan

Part Four

It was through A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that Morgan le Fay re-emerged in the 20th century through a new medium: cinema. Rosemary Theby played Queen Morgan le Fay in the first adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel in 1921; following her, Myrna Loy and Virginia Field would play Morgan in 1931’s A Connecticut Yankee and the 1949 musical version, respectively. In literature, Morgan continued to be the target of male writers’ hostile views to women, most notably in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958), in which the author describes her as a “fat, dowdy, middle-aged woman with black hair and a slight moustache.” She is shrouded in mystery – whether a fairy or a human enchantress, White does not make clear – but she is, again, remorselessly evil. White adapts the medieval stories of the magic horn and fatal cloak, while also having Morgan imprison Elaine of Corbin, mother of Galahad, by forcing her to spend five years in a tub of scalding water – the latter taken from a tale in Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur.

In 1955, Morgan entered another literary genre: comics. Created by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely, she was incorporated into Marvel Comics in 1978 as a villain, nefarious foe to the Avengers and ally to supervillains such as Doctor Doom. Her cinematic portrayals continued with English actress Anne Crawford, who played her in the 1953 film Knights of the Round Table. Almost always in the company of her knight champion Modred (Stanley Baker), Crawford’s Morgan is established from the film’s opening as the antagonist of Arthur (Mel Ferrer), claiming that the throne is hers by right. She is a cool, strikingly blonde Morgan, dressed in vibrant yellow, a stark contrast to Ava Gardner’s darkly exquisite Guinevere. In the film, Morgan exposes Guinevere as unfaithful to Arthur with Lancelot (Robert Taylor), and succeeds with Modred in persuading the knights to turn against the king.

Helen Mirren’s commanding Morgana in Excalibur (1981) is another blonde Morgan contrasted with Cherie Lunghi’s dark-haired Guinevere, and is a conflation of the characters of Morgan and Morgause, the latter of whom in traditional Arthuriana is the half-sister of Arthur who bears his child, Mordred. Mirren’s Morgana is drawn from traditional portrayals of Morgan, Morgause and Vivien, the Lady of the Lake: angry at her father’s death, learning magic from Merlin, tricking Arthur, bearing Mordred, trapping Merlin, raising her son to become his father’s enemy. In the end, Nicol Williamson’s Merlin tricks Morgana in turn, his magic ultimately superior to hers. Morgana’s beauty is taken away from her, leaving her a haggard crone, whereupon a horrified Mordred kills her on the eve of the final battle.

However, with the second wave of feminism and the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Morgan began to be portrayed in a much more favourable and sympathetic light. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s seminal work The Mists of Avalon (1983) was the first mainstream novel to recount the Arthurian legend from a female perspective and had a tremendous cultural impact. Described by author Isaac Asimov as “the best retelling of the Arthurian saga I have ever read”, The Mists of Avalon was groundbreaking by virtue of the fact that it presented Morgan not just as sympathetic but as the heroine of her own story. Morgaine, as Morgan is called in the book, is the half-sister of Arthur and a seer, born with magical gifts, who becomes the High Priestess of Avalon, a religious and political figure of enormous power and responsibility. Morgan’s goal is to protect the ancient beliefs of the Goddess from the encroaching Christian Church which is threatening to destroy them. This struggle is at the heart of her conflict with Arthur, who, despite receiving the political support of Avalon, is influenced by his devoutly Christian wife Guinevere to favour male-dominated Christianity at the expense of the old ways of the Divine Mother. In this novel, Morgan becomes a highly relatable, complex and sympathetic character in her own right: a fascinating protagonist, powerful leader and courageous hero, the equal of any in Arthurian legend.

A wealth of literature about Morgan sprang up in the wake of the influential Mists of Avalon. In Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon (1988), Morgan is the studious daughter of Merlin and Nimue, who is raised in her father’s villa of Avalon. Morgan and Arthur grow up together and fall in love. Unaware that Morgan is Igraine’s much younger half-sister and therefore Arthur’s aunt, they are forbidden to marry but never stop loving each other. Another notable work of Morganiana is Fay Sampson's Morgan le Fay quintet: Wise Woman's Telling, Nun's Telling, Blacksmith's Telling, Taliesin's Telling and Herself. First published in 1989 and later in a revised edition in 2006, the set-up is extremely effective: the first four novels are told from the points of view of various people in Morgan's life, and the final book – the longest – takes all the events of her life from the previous books and re-tells them from Morgan’s perspective. Sampson reveals how Morgan is forever misinterpreted, misunderstood, feared and taken out of context in order to demonise and discredit her.

Young Adult authors also see Morgan as a worthy protagonist, creating stories that centre her experiences and have very little to do with traditional Arthurian legend. Nancy Springer’s I Am Morgan le Fay (2001) portrays Morgan le Fay in childhood and adolescence as a powerful and magic fairy child. She travels to Avalon and falls in love with a young man named Thomas, reminscent of Thomas the Rhymer in folk tales, who is fated to die. Morgan creates a castle to entrap Thomas, but Thomas begs her to let him leave and eventually tricks her, with tragic consequences that cement her path to evil. Alex Epstein’s The Circle Cast (2011) is another story about Morgan as a child and teenager. Subtitled The Lost Years of Morgan le Fay, the plot follows Morgan in the years after her father is killed: vowing revenge, she is exiled to Ireland and forced into slavery, eventually escaping and falling in love with a chieftain, before returning to Britain to reclaim her father’s lands.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Morgan was played by high-profile actresses in a number of television series. In the TV mini-series Merlin (1998), Helena Bonham Carter was a spirited, riveting Morgan le Fay, an ugly young woman who forms an alliance with Queen Mab. Mab casts a glamour spell on Morgan to make her beautiful, whereby she seduces Arthur and gives birth to Mordred. But Bonham Carter’s Morgan is sympathetic and not intrinsically evil; Mab is the evil Fairy Queen in this version. Morgan is in love with Mab’s servant Frik, who is also under a glamour spell, and eventually she comes to realise she is being used by Mab. When Morgan refuses to allow Mab to use Mordred in the same way, Mab kills her. Morgan and Frik, returned to their former selves, profess their love as Morgan dies. The sympathetic portrayal of Morgan on television continued with Julianna Margulies’ subtle and moving performance as Morgaine in the TV adaptation of Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

However, in the 1990s, feminist writers were already noticing a backlash against the gains of the women’s movement, and by the end of the 2000s, misogyny once more started to become more overt in popular culture. In two recent TV series, Morgan reverts back to being the female villain, the evil sorceress, the wicked witch who must be vanquished by the male heroes. Such is the skill of the actresses playing her that in both versions Morgan remains arguably the most interesting and compelling character, but it cannot be denied that this is a regression back to the tired old trope of powerful woman = evil woman. In the BBC TV series Merlin (2008), Katie McGrath’s complex Morgana starts out as one of the heroes, but as the series goes on, she devolves into a one-note villain reminiscent of medieval texts. Likewise, in Camelot (2011), Eva Green imbues her Morgan with nuance and sympathy, but she is written as an evil, overly ambitious woman, unnaturally lustful for power. This unfortunate trend continues with the 2019 film The Kid Who Would Be King, in which Rebecca Ferguson’s Morgana is written simply as  an “out-and-out villain.”

It is time for a 21st century Morgan. No more evil witch to act as a one-dimensional foil for the heroes; no more mere appendage to Arthur, Merlin or the knights, a supporting character on the periphery of the main story. No more villain who only serves an age-old misogynist narrative; no more easy target of hatred who exists solely to be vanquished. Morgan transcends all stereotypes, all boxes, all constraints. She is an extraordinary, mesmerising, independent character in her own right: the magical heroine and powerful protagonist of her own unique, fascinating story, much of which still remains untold. Morgan le Fay is and will remain the eternal Fairy Queen; the centre of her own epic, ongoing tale spanning the aeons of time.

Myrna Loy as Morgan le Fay in A Connecticut Yankee (20th Century Fox, 1931)

Morgan le Fay (Marvel Comics)

Helen Mirren as Morgana in Excalibur (Warner Bros, 1981)

Julianna Margulies as Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon (TNT, 2001)

Katie McGrath as Morgana in Merlin (BBC, 2008-2012)

Eva Green as Morgan in Camelot (Starz, 2011)

All text copyright © of Jo-Anne Blanco (c) 2019.

Helena Bonham Carter as Morgan in Merlin (NBC, 1998)

Selected bibliography

Primary texts and translations

Armitage, Simon trans., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber, 2009)

Boiardo, Matteo Maria, Orlando Innamorato, trans. Charles Stanley Ross (Oxford University Press, 1995)

Bradley, Marion Zimmer, The Mists of Avalon (Sphere Books Ltd, 1984)

Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, trans. Carleton Carroll and William Kibler (Penguin Classics, New Ed. Edition, 1991)

Combes, Anne and Richard Trachsler, eds. Floriant et Florete (Honoré Champion, Paris, 2003)

Craik, Dinah Maria Mulock, Avillion; Or, The Happy Isles: A Fireside Fancy (University of Rochester, Robbins Digital Library, The Camelot Project from original text, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1853)

Epstein, Alex, The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan le Fay (Tradewind Books, 2011)

Erasmo da Valvasone, La Caccia (Società de’ Classici Italiani, Contrada di Santa Margherita, 1808), trans. Jane Blanco (2018)

Étienne de Rouen, Le Dragon Normand et autres poèmes, ed. Henri Auguste Omond (Rouen, 1884)

Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. Basil Clarke (Cardiff, 1973)

Guillem de Torroella, La faula (Editorial Tirant lo Blanch, 2011)

Hartmann von Aue, Erec, ed. and trans. Cyril Edwards (Boydell & Brewer, 2014)

Hervey, T. K. Mrs, King Arthur’s Court; or The Feasts of Camelot: With the Tales That Were Told There, ed. Renee Ward (University of Rochester, Robbins Digital Library, The Camelot Project from original text, Bell and Daldy, London, 1863)

Malory, Thomas, Le Morte d’Arthur: The Winchester Manuscript, ed. Helen Cooper (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008)

Martorell, Joanot, Tirant lo Blanc, trans. David H. Rosenthal (Macmillan, London, 1985)

Sampson, Fay, Wise Woman’s Telling (Cosmos Books, 2005)

  - Nun’s Telling (Cosmos Books, 2005)

  - Blacksmith’s Telling (Cosmos Books, 2005)

  - Taliesin’s Telling (Cosmos Books, 2005)

  - Herself (Cosmos Books, 2006)

Springer, Nancy, I Am Morgan le Fay (Firebird, 2002)

Twain, Mark, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008)

White, T. H., The Once and Future King (Collins Fontana Books, 1969)

Wolf, Joan, The Road to Avalon (Chicago Review Press, 2007)

Secondary literature

Archibald, Elizabeth and Ad Putter, eds, The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Barber, Richard ed. The Arthurian Legends (Dorset Press, 1979)

Bryant, Nigel ed. and trans., The Legend of the Grail (Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2004)

Dixon-Kennedy, Mike, A Companion to Arthurian and Celtic Myths and Legends (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004)

Dover, Carol, A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle (Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2010)

Fenster, Thelma S., ed. Arthurian Women (Routledge, 2000)

Gardner, Edmund G., Arthurian Legend in Italian Literature (1930; Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints)

Graves, Robert, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, ed. Grevel Lindop (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

Hamlyn, Paul, ed., Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology, trans. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames (Batchworth Press Ltd., 1959)

Herbert, Jill M., Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Larrington, Carolyne, King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition (I. B. Tauris Ltd, London, 2006)

Le Saux, Françoise H. M., Layamon’s BRUT: The Poem and Its Sources (Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 1989)

Loomis, Roger Sherman, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance (Columbia University Press 1927; Academy Chicago Publishers, 1997)

McLelland, Nicola, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s ‘Lanzelet’: Narrative Style and Entertainment (Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2000)

Monaghan, Patricia, The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (Checkmark Books, 2008)

Paton, Lucy Allen, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance (Ginn & Company, 1903; Forgotten Books, 2012)