Morgan Le Fay; the Arthurian Sorceress
Morgan Le Fay: popularly known as Arthurian sorceress, benevolent fairy, priestess, dark magician, enchantress, witch, sea goddess, shape-changer, healer, and the sole personage of Avalon the Isle of Apples, not to mention daughter of Ygerna (Igraine) and Gorlois, half-sister to King Arthur, mother of Mordred, lady-in-waiting to Guinevere, wife of Uriens, lover of Sir Accolon, fancier of Sir Lancelot, and ‘as fair a lady as any might be’.
Morgan Le Fay was first introduced into Arthurian legend by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Vita Merlini (c. 1150) but her true origin, as with many Arthurian characters, leads back into Celtic mythology and inevitably develops with each new rendition of the tale. Morgan Le Fay’s character is interesting enough, but so is her name.
The name ‘Morgan Le Fay’
In Celtic terms, Morgan (or Morcant) is a man’s name. The feminine version is more correctly Morgain (or Morgue or Morgne). Also Morrigan equates with Morrigu of Irish mythology. According to Celtic tradition the Morrigan (a Triple Goddess of Celtic myth, thought of as the Goddess of Death) flew over battles, shrieking like ravens and claiming dead soldiers’ heads as trophies. Or the answer may lie in Uriens – in early Welsh literature Modron (a version of Matrona) was the daughter of Avallach, wife of Urien, and mother of Owein. The Welsh and Arthurian story lines were later merged, forming a link between Modron and King Arthur. Further, there was a sixth-century Cumbrian ruler called Urien Rheged who presided over a loose coalition of kings (according to some accounts there was also an Arthur, son of King Aedan of dal Riada). Urien had a loose ally: Morcant Bulc – a man – who eventually plotted to assassinate him, which could have been Sir Thomas Malory’s inspiration for the plot in Le Morte d’Arthur where Morgan Le Fay attempts to kill Arthur and Uriens.
‘Le Fay’ is an ancient word for a fairy and to this day, apparently, the Breton name for a water-nymph is a ‘Morgan’.
The possible roots of the Arthurian character Morgan Le Fay therefore run deep into early British mythology and can be traced across several hundred years up to her final act as one of the three women who transported the fatally wounded King Arthur in a barge to the Isle of Avalon to be healed (outcome unrecorded). A speculative summary, based on Welsh and other Arthurian legend, suggest an identification with Modron and also with the river goddess Matrona, possibly derived from the Irish goddess Morrigan. Given the superstitious Christian attitude to supernatural women in the medieval era, the more she is humanised, the more the name Morgan Le Fay descends into an easy literary metaphor for devious, sometimes evil mischief.
Nonetheless the much-maligned Morgan Le Fay never becomes purely evil. Her attractive qualities remain – a healer, she is associated with art and culture, she is sexy, and in the end is worthy of redemption.
Morgan Le Fay pre-Malory
In Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Morgan was the chief among her nine sisters: Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Cliton, Tyronoe, and Thitis, and Morgause. She could change shape at will (and to be young or old, beautiful or ugly, or an animal or other object) and to fly with wings, hence – ‘Le Fay’, or Faerie. There was no suggestion of a blood relationship between Arthur and Morgan – she was simply his healer. In Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec and Enide, Morgan le Fay was a friend of Guingamar, Lord of Avalon and one of the guests at the wedding of Erec and Enide. Chrétien descibes her as a giver of healing ointments but she is more typically portrayed as a wicked enchantress who learned her crafts in a Christian nunnery, powers which were subsequently extended with the help of Merlin. She was referred to later as Arthur’s sister (and again as a healer), and in Le Chevalier au Lion her ointments cured Yvain’s madness. Neither Geoffrey of Monmouth nor Chrétien de Troyes described her as the wife of Uriens.
In the The Vulgate Cycle (1215 to 1235) Morgan Le Fay is however married to Uriens. She is also Queen Guinevere’s lady in waiting and fell in love with the King’s nephew, Giomar, but Guinevere put an end to the romance. Morgan responded by betraying the Queen’s affair with Lancelot to King Arthur. She had herself become infatuated with Sir Lancelot though he consistently refused her attentions, despite being imprisoned by her several times. The suspect nature of Morgan Le Fay’s character appears to have been fuelled by the Cistercian monks who wrote the stories of the Vulgate Cycle, prejudiced by the earlier concept of the Morrighan. They undoubtedly considered the idea of a non-religious female healer to be the mark of blasphemy.
In another well-known work – the anonymous late 14th Century poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (the Green Knight was, like Morgan, a ‘shape-shifter’) – she was the instigator of the plot which began the story. Here, the Virgin Mary (as the female archetype representing spiritual love, obedience, chastity, and life) is contrasted with Morgan Le Fay’s representation of courtly love, disobedience, lust and death.
Morgan Le Fay in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur
In Le Morte d’Arthur Morgan Le Fay is fully established as wife of Uriens, sister of Arthur, but is not, truly, a major character. Her best-known part in the tale is as follows:
When Uther Pendragon married Igraine (Book 1), Morgan was the youngest of her three daughters from her previous marriage to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, who had been slain by Uther’s army just before he raped her at Tintagel Castle (and begat Arthur). Morgan was then sent to a nunnery. According to Malory’s timescale, at the time of Uther’s death two years later, Morgan would have been between thirteen and sixteen and already married to Uriens. At any rate, when the young King Arthur waged war against the five kings Morgan had a grown son, Uwaine, who was close to knighthood.
King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay first came face to face when he sent for Igraine to verify his parentage. At that stage there are no indications of any feelings either way between Morgan and Arthur, but at the burial of Lot and the eleven kings (Book 2) Merlin told Arthur, “Sir, take care with the scabbard of Excalibur, for ye shall lose no blood while ye have it upon you, no matter how many wounds ye have.” Arthur passed the scabbard to Morgan Le Fay for safekeeping, but she loved another knight more than she did her husband (or King Arthur) so she secretly had made a replica of the scabbard and gave the real one to her lover, Sir Accolon of Gaul to protect him.
Following the war with the five kings, Arthur, Uriens, and Accolon went on a hunt (Book 4). Their horses exhausted, they found themselves near nightfall by a great lake where they saw a silk-clad ship approach. Venturing on board, they were greeted by twelve damosels, banqueted, then shown separate chambers. Once in a drug-induced sleep, each was magically transported away, Uriens back to Camelot (where he awoke beside Morgan), Arthur to the prison of the evil Sir Damas (minus his sword and scabbard), and Accolon to a well close to manor of the good Ontzlake, younger brother of Sir Damas.
Morgan Le Fay’s wicked plan
Despite being brothers, Sir Damas and Sir Ontzlake had become mortal enemies, the younger offering to resolve their differences in combat but the latter always refusing, preferring to elect another knight to fight for him. But Damas was too hated ever to find such a knight. At this point a damsel came to Arthur with an offer from Damas that he and his fellow-prisoners would be freed if he would take on the fight, to which Arthur agreed. The damsel was of course ‘false’, having been sent by Morgan Le Fay.
At the same time a dwarf came to Sir Accolon by the well, sent by Morgan to remind him of his earlier (secret) promise to fight an unspecified knight whenever she chose the moment. Accolon would bring her the knight’s head and Morgan Le Fay would become Queen. And now was the moment. The dwarf gave him Excalibur and the scabbard, sent by Morgan, and Accolon made himself ready for combat, on behalf, as it turned out, of Sir Ontzlake against his brother. As Arthur in turn readied himself another damsel came, once again sent by Morgan, and gave him a sword like Excalibur and its scabbard, from which he took reassurance not knowing they were nothing more than poor replicas. The whole monstrous ruse, evidently, had long been planned by Morgan Le Fay so that she could replace Guinevere as Queen.
Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, saves King Arthur
The duel, watched by Nimue, the Lady of the lake, was prolonged and bloody and Sir Accolon, boldened by Excalibur, almost won after Arthur’s useless sword snapped off at the handle. Nimue took pity and with the help of her enchantment Arthur was able to deal such a blow to his opponent that the real Excalibur fell to the ground and he leaped to it and took it in his hand. About to kill Accolon, he asked his name and Accolon confessed all, and thus was spared but died from his wounds soon after, prompting Arthur to despatch his remains to his half-sister at Camelot as a warning.
In the meantime Morgan would have slain her husband, confident of Accolon’s success with Excalibur and the scabbard, but Uriens was saved at the last moment by the intervention of Uwaine, his son, by whom Morgan would herself have been slain had she not agreed to leave Camelot forever. She rode to the nunnery where Arthur was recovering from his wounds and tried to steal back the real Excalibur and scabbard while he slept, but was only able to take the scabbard because the sword was in his hand. When Arthur awoke he set off with Sir Ontzlake in pursuit of Morgan, but she cast the scabbard into a deep lake. She then used her shape-changing powers to disguise herself and her entourage as standing stones to escape further pursuit.
Morgan Le Fay then retreated to her domains (still Book 4). En route she came across a knight leading another bound knight, Manassen (a cousin of Accolon) to be drowned in a fountain for adultery with his wife. For her lost love, and because Manassen swore his innocence, she released him and let him bind and drown his accuser.
At this point Morgan fades somewhat from the mainstream of the story. She went to occupy her lands in Gore, and then to her Castle of Tauroc. To thwart any reprisal by Arthur she sent a damosel to give him a rich mantle embellished with precious stones (in atonement for her sins). But the mantle was laced with poison – Nimue intervened to save Arthur, who made its bearer put it on, who fell down and burnt to coals. Uwaine was later suspected by Arthur of being instrumental in Morgan’s earlier escape from Camelot, and was banished from the court.
The Royal court appears to have thought Morgan Le Fay dead, until King Arthur came across her residence while out hunting one day, and the two were reconciled. In later life she moved to the Isle of Avalon, where she and her allies, the Queen of Northgalis, and the Queen of the Wastelands (and also many damosels, including Nimue) took her dying half-brother to be “healed” after his last battle.
See also Arthurian Legend homepage.