In recent decades, there has been a pop cultural and feminist reclamation of Morgan La Fey, savior and nemesis to King Arthur. This re-appropriation is historically grounded, because Morgan has served many archetypal extremes, starting as loving healer, transforming into violent ravager, and maybe evolving into a trickster that transcends both extremes.
Our earliest record of Morgan of Arthurian fame is from the 12th century Vita Merlini, written by the Norman-Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth. An expansion of his earlier Historia Regum Britanniae, between the two texts we learn that Arthur, mortally wounded by Mordred, is spirited away to Avalon, the Blessed Isle of Apple Trees. Morgen rules over the Isle, and her nine subordinate sister queens. All of them have magical powers, including the ability to shape-shift and fly with Daedalus style wings. Morgen is gifted at mathematics and astronomy; she is also a skilled healer.
And as if things weren’t already going to Morgen’s head, she was also prettier than her sisters. Ouch.
But smug or not, she was the ruler of Avalon, and when Arthur was brought to her, she immediately used her healing arts to stabilize the King.
She promised his knights she would restore him, but it would take time, perhaps a great deal of time. Accepting her word, Arthur’s men sailed away from Avalon, back to Camelot.
The next record of Morgan is from Roman de Troje (c. 1155–1160), by Benoit de Sainté -Maure, which takes a strange time-travel twist. Here, Orva la fée (Orva considered a corruption of Morgan) shows up in ancient Troy, right before it fell. She seduces the Trojan prince Hector, bribes him with a prize horse, but turns vengeful after he rebukes her further advances.
Reconciling these two Morgans would either imply that she is extremely old, or she has conjured up some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey action. Did I mention she was brilliant at mathematics and astronomy?
By the 13the century, some people had had enough of this nonsense. Enter our first Morgan debunker, one cleric named Gerald of Wales who believed that “Morganis” was a noblewoman and relative of Arthur, who buried him in Glastonbury. Gerald concludes that “as a result, the fanciful Britons and their bards invented the legend that some kind of a fantastic goddess (dea quaedam phantastica) had removed Arthur’s body to the Isle of Avalon, so that she might cure his wounds there,” resulting in an eventual messianic return (Speculum ecclesiae, early 13th century).
So now we have three Morgans, one a goddess, one a seductive enchantress, and a third, a mere mortal, who was merely doing right by her dead kinsmen. Will the real Morgan please stand up?
Morgan makes several appearances in works around this time period, typically as Arthur’s healer in Avalon, though there are trysts, especially with knights. Still, it is primarily her benevolent side that is on display…
Until the early 13th century development of what I call the Arthurian Extended Universe (French edition), known to actual academic as the Vulgate (Lancelot-Grail) and Post-Vulgate Cycles.
In the Vulgate Cycle, we find a Morgan who is a treacherous ally, opposed to Arthur’s wife, and his best friend Lancelot. By the end of the Post-Vulgate Cycle (A.E.U. phase II), she’s a full-blown super-villain, filled with malice and rage towards Arthur, and using her powers, which are comparable to the those of Merlin and the Lady of the Lake (like shapeshifting, illusion, and sleeping spells). Along with this demonization, her appearance was equally inverted, depicted as a “loathsome lady” the medieval trope of the crone.
Yet, even in some texts of the Cycles, it’s still Morgan who in one form or another takes Arthur to Avalon…
The French had their way with Morgan, so leave it to the English to take their turn. Exhibit A: Le Mort d’Arthur, by one Thomas Malory, late fifteenth century. The Victim: Morgan La Fey’s character.
Malory’s Morgan grew up studying astrology and the black arts; while in several other narratives she is a former student of Merlin’s, here she is self-taught, and has more to do with folk magic than Christian Demonology, which was a field of much study during Malory’s time.
Still, she uses her magic, and those of her subordinate witch queens, to thwart Arthur in battle, though many of her plans go awry.
And then – almost of out of nowhere, right at the end – she spins 180 degrees.
We fade to black with Arthur in Morgan’s lap, as she laments the death of her “dear brother”.
Deus Ex Morgana?
So maybe there’s a way to reconcile these Morgans…
Before Malory’s very emotionally uncertain Morgan, we have a cameo by Morgan in the late 14th century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Her, it turns out the whole Green Knight affair was engineered by Gawain’s very own aunt…Morgan le Fey, a former student of Merlin’s, now an old crone who hangs out with the Green Knight’s wife, the lovely lady Bertilak (who some theorize is just Morgan in a magical guise).
In this manifestation, she’s a trickster, through and through. Her motivation is mischievous mayhem, and in the end, Gawain keeps his head, so all’s well that ends well, not that we’re led to believe that she really cares. That’s part of the job when you’re a trickster.
So, what’s the take-away?
I think viewing Morgan as a trickster reconciles the apparent dichotomy between the healing mother Goddess of the earlier traditions with the Seductive Sadist described in the Post Vulgate Cycle and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
Still, even Malory, who never explores the origins of the antagonism between Arthur and Morgan, has him die in her lap, as she mourns his passing. Redemption?
To what extent did the increasing the influence of Christianity force a vilification of an obviously Pagan Goddess? Most scholars agree that the new religion played a part, (along with plain-old misogyny in the case of Malory).
Whatever the case, the reclamation of Morgan La Fey’s character is alive and well in the 21st century, some 900 hundred years after he first textual appearance, implying an even older oral tradition.
Who knows, maybe she was even there at fall of Troy…
Maybe she’ll be there when the next Troy falls…long live the once and future queen.