Morgan le Fay

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Morgan le Fay, by Anthony Frederick Sandys (1829 - 1904), 1864 (Birmingham Art Gallery): a spell-brewing Morgaine distinctly of Tennyson's generation.

Morgan le Fay, alternatively known as Morgane, Morgain, Morgana and other variants, is a powerful sorceress and antagonist of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in the Arthurian legend. Early works featuring Morgan do not elaborate her character beyond her role as a fay or magician. She became much more prominent in the later cyclical prose works such as the Lancelot-Grail and the Post-Vulgate Cycle, in which she is said to be the daughter of Arthur's mother, the Lady Igraine, and her first husband, Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall; Arthur is her half brother by Igraine and Uther Pendragon.

Morgan has at least two older sisters, Elaine and Morgause, the latter of whom is the mother of Gawain and the traitor Mordred. In Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and elsewhere, she is married, unhappily, to King Urien of Gore and Ywain is her son. Though she becomes an adversary of the Round Table when Guinevere discovers her adultery with one of her husband's knights, she eventually reconciles with her brother, and even serves as one of the four enchantresses who carry the king to Avalon after his final battle at Camlann. She was also later introduced into the Matter of France, where she is mainly associated with Ogier the Dane.


[edit] Origins

As her name indicates, the figure of Morgan appears to have been originally a fairy (le Fay from the french La fée=fairy) rather than a human woman. Later transformed into a woman, and King Arthur's half sister, she became an enchantress to continue her powers.[1] Inspiration for her character came from earlier Welsh mythology and literature; she has often been compared with the goddess Modron, a figure derived from the continental Dea Matrona featured with some frequency in medieval Welsh literature. Modron appears in Welsh Triad 70, in which her children by Urien, Owain and Morfydd, are called the "Three Blessed Womb-Burdens of the Island of Britain,"[2] and a later folktale preserved in Peniarth MS 147 records the story behind this conception more fully.[3] Urien is Morgan le Fay's husband in the continental romances, while Owain mab Urien is the historical figure behind their son Ywain. Additionally, Modron is called "daughter of Avallach," a Welsh ancestor deity whose name can also be interpreted as a noun meaning "a place of apples";[4] In fact, in the story of Owain and Morvydd's conception in Peniarth 147, Modron is called the "daughter of the king of Avallach." This is similar to Avalon, the "Isle of Apples" with which Morgan le Fay has been associated since her earliest appearances. Additional speculation sometimes connects Morgan with the Irish goddess Morrígan, though there are few similarities between the two beyond the spelling of their names.

Morgan first appears by name in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, written about 1150. Purportedly an account of the wizard Merlin's later adventures, it elaborates some episodes from Geoffrey's more famous earlier work, Historia Regum Britanniae. In the Historia, Geoffrey explains that after Arthur is seriously wounded at the Battle of Camlann, he is taken off to Avalon, the Isle of Apples, to be healed. In the Vita Merlini he describes this island in more detail and names "Morgen" as the chief of nine magical sisters who dwell there. Morgan retains this role as Arthur's otherworldly healer in much later literature.

Before the cyclical Old French romances, appearances of Morgan are few. Chrétien de Troyes mentions her in his first romance Erec and Enide, completed around 1170; he says one guest at the titular characters' wedding, a certain Guigomar, lord of the Isle of Avalon, is a friend of Morgan. She is later mentioned in the same poem when Arthur provides a wounded Erec with a healing balm made by his sister Morgan; this episode both affirms her early role as a healer and provides the first mention of Morgan as Arthur's sister. Chrétien again refers to Morgan as a great healer in his later romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, in an episode in which two ladies restore the maddened hero to his senses with a concoction provided by Morgan. However, it should be noted that while Modron is the mother of Owain in Welsh literature, and Morgan would be assigned this role in later French literature, this first continental association between Ywain and Morgan does not imply they are son and mother.

[edit] Later medieval literature

Morgan's role is greatly expanded in the 13th-century Lancelot-Grail (Vulgate Cycle) and the subsequent works inspired by it. The youngest of Gorlois and Igraine's daughters, she is sent to a convent when Uther Pendragon kills her father and marries her mother. There she begins her study of magic, but is interrupted when Uther betroths her to his ally Urien. Unhappy with her husband, she takes a string of lovers until she is caught by a young Guinevere, who expels her from court in disgust. Morgan continues her magical studies under Merlin, all the while plotting against Guinevere. In subsequent chapters she uses her skills to foil Arthur's knights, especially Lancelot, whom she alternately tries to seduce and to expose as Guinevere's adulterous lover. In the Prose Tristan, she delivers to Arthur's court a magic drinking horn from which no unfaithful lady can drink without spilling, hoping to reveal the infidelity.

Thomas Malory mostly follows the portrayal of Morgan in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles in his book Le Morte d'Arthur, though he expands her role in some cases. Through magic and mortal means, she tries to arrange Arthur's downfall, most famously when she arranges for her lover Accolon to obtain the sword Excalibur and use it against Arthur in single combat. Failing in this, Morgan throws Excalibur's protective scabbard into a lake. The Fay turns up throughout the High and Late Middle Ages, generally in works related to the cycles of Arthur or Charlemagne. At the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it is revealed that the entire supernatural episode has been instigated by Morgan as a test for Arthur and his knights, and to frighten Guinevere. Morgan's importance to this particular narrative has been disputed and called a deus ex machina [5] and simply an artistic device to further connect Gawain's episode to the Arthurian story.

In the legends of Charlemagne she is most famous for her association with Ogier the Dane, whom she takes to her mystical island palace to be her lover. In the chanson de geste of Huon de Bordeaux, Morgan is the mother of the fairy king Oberon by none other than Julius Caesar.

[edit] Later interpretations

The stereotypical image of Morgan is often that of a villainess: a seductive, megalomaniacal sorceress who wishes to overthrow Arthur. Contemporary interpretations of the Arthurian myth sometimes assign to Morgan the role of seducing Arthur and giving birth to the wicked Mordred, though traditionally Mordred's mother was Morgause, another sister. In these works Mordred is often her pawn, used to bring about the end of the Arthurian age. Starting in the later 20th century, however, some feminists adopted Morgan as a representation of female power or as the simplification of a Celtic goddess. These interpretations draw upon the French romances which portray Morgan as a "benevolent figure" with extraordinary healing powers. [6] This has led to Morgan's expanded role in feminist Arthurian literature, even going so far as to give her credit for the major events of the traditional story (such as in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon).

The Fata Morgana, As Observed In The Harbour Of Messina

[edit] In folklore

Morgan eventually became connected with the mirage known as the Fata Morgana. Wolfram von Eschenbach in his Parzival calls the famous Sicilian volcano Etna "The Mountain of Morgan the Fairy". At the same time legends claimed that sirens in the waters around Sicily lured the unwary to their deaths. Subsequently Morgan le Fay became associated not only with Etna, but also with sirens. In the medieval French Arthurian romance Floriant et Florete, she is called "mistress of the fairies of the salt sea", La mestresse [des] fées de la mer salée.[7]

Other legends claim she created boats that fly above the sea and never approach the shore and caused golden castles to float in the air above the straits of Messina, castles that no one was ever able to reach and that were nothing more than an optical illusion - a mirage, the Fata Morgana, as she was called in Italy.[7]

[edit] In modern culture

Like the other figures of Arthurian lore, Morgan le Fay has appeared in modern novels, comic books, television and film, almost always as the antagonist.

She appears as the protagonist of Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which effectively makes her the heroine. This revisionist fantasy shows Morgaine's opposition to Arthur, her actions as stemming from her fight to preserve the native pagan religion against what she sees as the treachery and oppression of Christianity. The episode of Morgan setting Accolon against Arthur is also explained by making Accolon a priest of the old religion. She also appears as the protagonist of Nancy Springer's I Am Morgan le Fay, a sequel to an earlier work by Springer concerning Mordred, also used as a stock villain in modern works based on Arthurian lore.

In John Boorman's 1981 Excalibur (in which she is played by Helen Mirren), Morgan takes up one of her traditional roles as Merlin's student, though her competition with her mentor assumes a new prominence in the film.

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Briggs, Katharine (1978). "Morgan le Fay." In Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, p. 303. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 0-394-73467-X.
  2. ^ Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, p. 195.
  3. ^ Preserved in Peniarth 147. See Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, pp. 449–451.
  4. ^ Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, pp. 274–275
  5. ^ , "Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" in Speculum, vol 35, pp.260-274.
  6. ^ in Popular Arthurian Traditions pp. 18-23. ISBN 0879725621
  7. ^ a b Vanishing Tricks of a Goddess by Imogen Rhia Herrad.

[edit] References

  • Briggs, Katharine (1978). Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  • Bromwich, Rachel (1963). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University Of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1386-8.
  • Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.) (1991). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.

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