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  • Writer's pictureJo-Anne Blanco

Morgan Le Fay: Feminist Ruler

This blog has covered in depth the ways in which Morgan le Fay has been portrayed throughout the ages, and how the depictions of her reflect the way women were treated at the time of writing. With horrific levels of sexism, misogyny, violence against women and girls, and attempts to roll back women and girls’ existing rights currently rearing their ugly heads across the entire political spectrum, it seems timely to examine the ways in which Morgan and the portrayals of her all the way up the the present day provide not only examples of hatred and fear of women throughout history, but also examples of female resistence to patriarchal norms and male supremacist bigotry.

The first example of female resistence and feminist rebellion I want to look at is Morgan’s realm: the Island of Avalon. From her very first appearance in literature, Morgan is the shape-shifting, magic-wielding goddess who can fly through the air and appear anywhere in the world at will. It is she who rules Avalon, “The Island of Apples”, otherwise known as “The Fortunate Island”; a beautiful, paradisiacal place of permanently good weather and eternal spring. All manner of flowers and plants grow there, animals roam freely and harmlessly, and crops and fruit trees grow there naturally without any cultivation or agricultural practices. In modern parlance, we would term Avalon an eco-friendly system as opposed to an industrialised one.

In some early legends, a shadowy figure named Avalloch was the king of Avalon; he was the son of Beli Mawr, possibly a derivative of the god Bel or Belenos, the Celtic solar god of light. This, in addition to Avalloch’s name meaning “apple”, links him to the ancient Greek sun god Apollo, whose name may have originally been Apellôn, a word derived from the same source as our word “apple.” The apple was both the sacred fruit of Apollo and the most magical of fruits to the Celts, considered by them to be a talisman of good fortune and prosperity. Avalloch lived on Avalon with his daughter, the goddess Modron, a prototype of Morgan herself, but he soon disappears from the story, and, upon the emergence of Arthurian literature, Morgan is the ruler of Avalon as its queen, living there with her eight sisters, recalling the nine Muses of antiquity. In Morgan’s time, Avalon is predominantly an island of women and only the most virtuous of mortal men are permitted to set foot there. Among these is Arthur, brought to Avalon after his last battle at Camlann by either Merlin or Morgan herself as a special privilege.

In her 1980 book Man Made Language, feminist scholar Dale Spender writes, “Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practised no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety in the streets, for child care, for social welfare, for rape crisis centres, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says, ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist’, I ask, ‘Why? What’s your problem?’” Why indeed. As a literary ideal of a feminist space, Morgan’s Avalon, an island far away, and usually and for good reason kept hidden from a world dominated by patriarchy, is the intellectual and ideological counterpoint to Arthur’s militaristic Camelot. Avalon is a place where medicine, herb lore, astronomy, mathematics, therapy, music, the arts, the sciences, scholastic knowledge, and tranquillity are valued, rather than the fighting prowess, war, battles, duels, hunting, and jousting which consume Camelot and are the tools of advancement for the Knights of the Round Table. In the legend, it is ultimately Camelot which falls, destroyed from within; victim of its own internecine conflicts, betrayals, and mistakes (more on this in a future blog post). It is Avalon that endures; Avalon, where Morgan still rules and Arthur awaits his time to return to the mortal world. Avalon, the safe haven of peace, learning, equality of the sexes, and living in harmony with nature. In these turbulent times, a lesson, maybe?

Read my retelling of Morgan le Fay in my Fata Morgana series.

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