Good Girl, Bad Girl: Guinevere and Morgan
Guinevere and Morgan le Fay, the best-known women in Arthurian legend. Guinevere, Queen of Camelot, wife of King Arthur. Morgan, Queen of Avalon, in many versions Arthur’s half-sister – though in the earliest versions of the legend, she was a powerful fairy and goddess-like figure unrelated to Arthur.
On the surface it would seem that Guinevere and Morgan are the embodiment of the good girl, bad girl trope; the tiresome, archetypal, and archaic division of women into virgin Mary and temptress Eve opposites: Guinevere, Arthur’s noble, adored consort queen, and Morgan, his evil, reviled witch nemesis. But of course it is nowhere near as simple as that. The most famous story about Guinevere is her love affair with Lancelot, the bravest and most gallant knight of Arthur’s Round Table; while Morgan taking the wounded Arthur away with her to Avalon in her boat after his last battle to heal him and thus assure his immortality is one of the legend’s most iconic motifs.
Arthurian literature before the late 20th century is not known for being kind to its women characters. In fact, you can pretty much trace the history of misogyny and society’s attitude to women at any given time through Arthurian literature’s treatment of its most prominent women, Guinevere and Morgan. Both have been much-maligned, but which of them has ultimately been the more demonised?
Tales of Guinevere’s infidelity occur from the very beginning. The early versions of the legend were heavily influenced by the fact that the tales of Arthur derive extensively from Celtic mythological sources, with Guinevere’s prominence suggesting that she was originally a traditional goddess figure. The goddess of the land, known also as the goddess of sovereignty, would marry one king after another, discarding the old king for the new, for it was through her that the throne and royal power were maintained. Thus, Guinevere’s “infidelities” can be seen in this light, with Guinevere in the role of the Celtic goddess. In some versions, Arthur marries three women, all named Guinevere, suggesting Guinevere to be an incarnation of the Triple Goddess of Celtic pantheon. Guinevere’s original name, Gwenhwyvar - gwen, meaning white, and hwyvar, meaning fairy or spirit – denotes her connection to the otherworldly.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1136), Guinevere marries Arthur and, while Arthur is away at war, Mordred seizes the throne and takes Guinevere as his wife. Following the creation of Lancelot by Chrétien de Troyes later in the same century, Guinevere’s love affair with the handsome knight becomes the catalyst which causes disaster at Arthur’s court and eventually brings about the ruin of the kingdom. Thus, the blame for the fall of Camelot is cast upon Guinevere for not living up to the purity and virtues that were expected to exemplify womanhood, instead of taking into account Arthur’s failures as king and husband, Lancelot’s choices and actions as a man and as a knight, or the feuding and ultimately futile questing of the knights themselves. The recurring idea of Guinevere as the destroyer of Camelot was exacerbated by later authors, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s portrayal of her as a sinful fallen woman in his Idylls of the King (1859 to 1885) being particularly harsh – so much so, that it was even criticised in its time by his fellow Victorians, many of whom were not known for their sympathies towards women.
Like Guinevere, Morgan’s origins are to be found deep in the mists of Celtic legend – and from even more ancient mythologies as well. Morgan’s first literary appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (ca. 1150) evokes island goddesses and enchantresses such as Circe and Calypso, and the Muses of ancient Greek legend, as well as Celtic female deities such as Madron, the Mother. In the Vita Merlini and other early versions, Morgan is almost the polar opposite of the villainous witch figure she was later to become. In her earliest incarnations, she was a benevolent fairy queen, a guide and ally of Arthur by whom she was admired and revered. Later, as pagan goddesses and powerful women became anathema to medieval cleric writers, Morgan was subjected to deliberate denigration and distortion. Though, interestingly, while her benevolent side was eroded, her power and magic were never fully taken away from her – only twisted and redirected to serve nefarious ends.
As part of this process, Morgan was also downgraded from powerful fairy goddess and island ruler in her own right to human woman defined by her relationships to men – Arthur’s half-sister, Merlin’s pupil, Gorlois’ daughter, Urien’s wife. It is notable that Morgan’s demotion in literature from deity to mortal coincides with her slide into villany. Although, as pointed out, she never loses her connection to magic – always being Morgan le Fay, a sorceress in some shape or form – it is ironic that making her more human serves to dehumanise her, turning her into something that is all malevolent, conniving and duplicitous; the “erthley fende” as Thomas Malory calls her in Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). What’s also interesting is how Morgan’s transformation into the main villain of the legend makes her the enemy of Guinevere as well as Arthur, pitting the two women against each other. Morgan’s hatred of Guinevere becomes one of the prime motivations for her actions, constantly seeking to expose the latter’s affair with Lancelot in the hope of bringing down Arthur, an endeavour in which she ultimately succeeds – and thus, like Guinevere, is deemed responsible for the fall of Camelot.
So which of the two women has been the more maligned over the centuries of Arthurian legend? Guinevere, as the adulterous sinful queen, or Morgan, as the treacherous evil witch?