Traditionally regarded as King Arthur's adversary, yet also his half-sister, Morgan le Fay remains a relatively mysterious character in literature. Known by many names--among them, Morgaine, Morgana, and Morgen--she appears in a wide variety of stories in the Arthurian tradition. Almost always portrayed as a magical character, she casts spells, heals people, and generally influences the other characters.
Many stories describe Morgan as Arthur's older half-sister, the child of Queen Igerna and her first husband Gorlois. Morgan is also said to be married to King Uriens, with whom she had a son, Sir Uwain. Morgan's relationships with her family commonly play a prominent role in these stories. Many tell of feuds with Arthur or his wife, Guinevere. These arguments often escalate into attempts on her brother's life. Yet, extreme as this behavior sounds, Morgan le Fay was not always such a meddlesome character.
A Shapeshifter and Healer
The first Arthurian story in which Morgan appears is Vita Merlini, a poem written in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth in A.D. 1150. Monmouth briefly describes her as the first of nine sisters who dwell on the Isle of Apples. A fertile place, overflowing with plants and trees, this island would eventually become known as Avalon. Morgan is described as skilled in witchcraft, healing, and the ability to change her appearance at will. In Vita Merlini, the character Taliesin explains that, after the Battle of Catalan, Arthur was brought to the Isle of Apples. There, Morgan welcomed him into her chamber and had him stay while she healed his wounds.
In the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (see pages 10-11), written in the 1300s by an unknown author, Morgan appears as a very old, ugly woman. Lines at the end of the poem identify her as the driving force behind all of the mayhem caused by Bertilak, the Green Knight. Her cunning plan to create chaos in the kingdom was, in fact, nothing more than an attempt to frighten Guinevere to death. Generally, Morgan is depicted as petty and malicious. Such behavior contrasts with her earlier appearance in Vita Merlini, where she functions primarily as a healer.
A Deceptive Sister
Le Morte D'Arthur (see pages 34-37), written by Sir Thomas Malory, was first printed in 1485. It is probably the most well-known tale about Arthur because it combines many of the original elements into one volume. In it, Morgan's most prominent role is as the fashioner of a duplicate of Arthur's sword, Excalibur. After giving the copy to Arthur and the real Excalibur to Sir Accolon, her favorite knight, Morgan arranges for the two to fight each other. Neither, however, is to know who his opponent really is. Morgan's goal is to have Accolon kill her brother. Unfortunately for her, Arthur, tipped off by the Lady of the Lake, orders a halt to the confrontation and reveals Morgan's deceitful actions. Morgan later rides to the monastery where Arthur is staying and steals Excalibur's scabbard. Arthur gives chase, but
Morgan, sensing that she is soon to be caught, throws the scabbard into a lake and turns herself to rock (above). Morgan then sends her brother a cloak encrusted with gems as an apology for her horrible behavior. Warned once again by the Lady of the Lake, Arthur commands the messenger to don the cloak first, at which point the poor girl bursts into flames and dies.
Morgan also appears after Arthur dies, hearkening back to her original role as a healer on the Isle of Apples. She arrives on a ship with both the Queen of Northgales and the Queen of the Waste Lands. Together, they pay their respects to the dead king and escort his body to its grave. Thus does Le Morte D'Arthur's portrayal of Morgan combine the two sides of her personality as shown in Vita Merlini and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
A New Way to See Her
In more modern times, Morgan's character has been adapted for use in comic books, novels, and television shows. She has become a favorite of feminist writers who usually portray her as a powerful and not necessarily villainous character. A prominent example of this is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. First published in 1983, Bradley's book offers a retelling of the Arthurian legends from the point of view of the female characters. In this version, Morgan is revealed to be behind most of the driving events of the novel. An example of this is when Morgan and her aunt Viviane present Arthur with Excalibur, giving him the strength to fight off an invading force of Saxons. The Mists of Avalon offers an interesting look at the Arthurian legends from a totally new perspective.
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Amberlee Venters did her graduate studies in English at Sacramento State University where her focus was primarily on medieval literature.