Morgan Le Fay: The Fairy Queen as Villain
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.