Morgan le Fay: Modern Morgan
It was through A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that Morgan le Fay re-emerged in the 20th century through a new medium: cinema. Rosemary Theby played Queen Morgan le Fay in the first adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel in 1921; following her, Myrna Loy and Virginia Field would play Morgan in 1931’s A Connecticut Yankee and the 1949 musical version, respectively. In literature, Morgan continued to be the target of male writers’ hostile views to women, most notably in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958), in which the author describes her as a “fat, dowdy, middle-aged woman with black hair and a slight moustache.” She is shrouded in mystery – whether a fairy or a human enchantress, White does not make clear – but she is, again, remorselessly evil. White adapts the medieval stories of the magic horn and fatal cloak, while also having Morgan imprison Elaine of Corbin, mother of Galahad, by forcing her to spend five years in a tub of scalding water – the latter taken from a tale in Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur.
In 1955, Morgan entered another literary genre: comics. Created by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely, she was incorporated into Marvel Comics in 1978 as a villain, nefarious foe to the Avengers and ally to supervillains such as Doctor Doom. Her cinematic portrayals continued with English actress Anne Crawford, who played her in the 1953 film Knights of the Round Table. Almost always in the company of her knight champion Modred (Stanley Baker), Crawford’s Morgan is established from the film’s opening as the antagonist of Arthur (Mel Ferrer), claiming that the throne is hers by right. She is a cool, strikingly blonde Morgan, dressed in vibrant yellow, a stark contrast to Ava Gardner’s darkly exquisite Guinevere. In the film, Morgan exposes Guinevere as unfaithful to Arthur with Lancelot (Robert Taylor), and succeeds with Modred in persuading the knights to turn against the king.
Helen Mirren’s commanding Morgana in Excalibur (1981) is another blonde Morgan contrasted with Cherie Lunghi’s dark-haired Guinevere, and is a conflation of the characters of Morgan and Morgause, the latter of whom in traditional Arthuriana is the half-sister of Arthur who bears his child, Mordred. Mirren’s Morgana is drawn from traditional portrayals of Morgan, Morgause and Vivien, the Lady of the Lake: angry at her father’s death, learning magic from Merlin, tricking Arthur, bearing Mordred, trapping Merlin, raising her son to become his father’s enemy. In the end, Nicol Williamson’s Merlin tricks Morgana in turn, his magic ultimately superior to hers. Morgana’s beauty is taken away from her, leaving her a haggard crone, whereupon a horrified Mordred kills her on the eve of the final battle.
However, with the second wave of feminism and the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Morgan began to be portrayed in a much more favourable and sympathetic light. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s seminal work The Mists of Avalon (1983) was the first mainstream novel to recount the Arthurian legend from a female perspective and had a tremendous cultural impact. Described by author Isaac Asimov as “the best retelling of the Arthurian saga I have ever read”, The Mists of Avalon was groundbreaking by virtue of the fact that it presented Morgan not just as sympathetic but as the heroine of her own story. Morgaine, as Morgan is called in the book, is the half-sister of Arthur and a seer, born with magical gifts, who becomes the High Priestess of Avalon, a religious and political figure of enormous power and responsibility. Morgan’s goal is to protect the ancient beliefs of the Goddess from the encroaching Christian Church which is threatening to destroy them. This struggle is at the heart of her conflict with Arthur, who, despite receiving the political support of Avalon, is influenced by his devoutly Christian wife Guinevere to favour male-dominated Christianity at the expense of the old ways of the Divine Mother. In this novel, Morgan becomes a highly relatable, complex and sympathetic character in her own right: a fascinating protagonist, powerful leader and courageous hero, the equal of any in Arthurian legend.
A wealth of literature about Morgan sprang up in the wake of the influential Mists of Avalon. In Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon (1988), Morgan is the studious daughter of Merlin and Nimue, who is raised in her father’s villa of Avalon. Morgan and Arthur grow up together and fall in love. Unaware that Morgan is Igraine’s much younger half-sister and therefore Arthur’s aunt, they are forbidden to marry but never stop loving each other. Another notable work of Morganiana is Fay Sampson's Morgan le Fay quintet: Wise Woman's Telling, Nun's Telling, Blacksmith's Telling, Taliesin's Telling and Herself. First published in 1989 and later in a revised edition in 2006, the set-up is extremely effective: the first four novels are told from the points of view of various people in Morgan's life, and the final book – the longest – takes all the events of her life from the previous books and re-tells them from Morgan’s perspective. Sampson reveals how Morgan is forever misinterpreted, misunderstood, feared and taken out of context in order to demonise and discredit her.
Young Adult authors also see Morgan as a worthy protagonist, creating stories that centre her experiences and have very little to do with traditional Arthurian legend. Nancy Springer’s I Am Morgan le Fay (2001) portrays Morgan le Fay in childhood and adolescence as a powerful and magic fairy child. She travels to Avalon and falls in love with a young man named Thomas, reminscent of Thomas the Rhymer in folk tales, who is fated to die. Morgan creates a castle to entrap Thomas, but Thomas begs her to let him leave and eventually tricks her, with tragic consequences that cement her path to evil. Alex Epstein’s The Circle Cast (2011) is another story about Morgan as a child and teenager. Subtitled The Lost Years of Morgan le Fay, the plot follows Morgan in the years after her father is killed: vowing revenge, she is exiled to Ireland and forced into slavery, eventually escaping and falling in love with a chieftain, before returning to Britain to reclaim her father’s lands.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Morgan was played by high-profile actresses in a number of television series. In the TV mini-series Merlin (1998), Helena Bonham Carter was a spirited, riveting Morgan le Fay, an ugly young woman who forms an alliance with Queen Mab. Mab casts a glamour spell on Morgan to make her beautiful, whereby she seduces Arthur and gives birth to Mordred. But Bonham Carter’s Morgan is sympathetic and not intrinsically evil; Mab is the evil Fairy Queen in this version. Morgan is in love with Mab’s servant Frik, who is also under a glamour spell, and eventually she comes to realise she is being used by Mab. When Morgan refuses to allow Mab to use Mordred in the same way, Mab kills her. Morgan and Frik, returned to their former selves, profess their love as Morgan dies. The sympathetic portrayal of Morgan on television continued with Julianna Margulies’ subtle and moving performance as Morgaine in the TV adaptation of Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.
However, in the 1990s, feminist writers were already noticing a backlash against the gains of the women’s movement, and by the end of the 2000s, misogyny once more started to become more overt in popular culture. In two recent TV series, Morgan reverts back to being the female villain, the evil sorceress, the wicked witch who must be vanquished by the male heroes. Such is the skill of the actresses playing her that in both versions Morgan remains arguably the most interesting and compelling character, but it cannot be denied that this is a regression back to the tired old trope of powerful woman = evil woman. In the BBC TV series Merlin (2008), Katie McGrath’s complex Morgana starts out as one of the heroes, but as the series goes on, she devolves into a one-note villain reminiscent of medieval texts. Likewise, in Camelot (2011), Eva Green imbues her Morgan with nuance and sympathy, but she is written as an evil, overly ambitious woman, unnaturally lustful for power. This unfortunate trend continues with the 2019 film The Kid Who Would Be King, in which Rebecca Ferguson’s Morgana is written simply as an “out-and-out villain.”
It is time for a 21st century Morgan. No more evil witch to act as a one-dimensional foil for the heroes; no more mere appendage to Arthur, Merlin or the knights, a supporting character on the periphery of the main story. No more villain who only serves an age-old misogynist narrative; no more easy target of hatred who exists solely to be vanquished. Morgan transcends all stereotypes, all boxes, all constraints. She is an extraordinary, mesmerising, independent character in her own right: the magical heroine and powerful protagonist of her own unique, fascinating story, much of which still remains untold. Morgan le Fay is and will remain the eternal Fairy Queen; the centre of her own epic, ongoing tale spanning the aeons of time.
Primary texts and translations
Armitage, Simon trans., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber, 2009)
Boiardo, Matteo Maria, Orlando Innamorato, trans. Charles Stanley Ross (Oxford University Press, 1995)
Bradley, Marion Zimmer, The Mists of Avalon (Sphere Books Ltd, 1984)
Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, trans. Carleton Carroll and William Kibler (Penguin Classics, New Ed. Edition, 1991)
Combes, Anne and Richard Trachsler, eds. Floriant et Florete (Honoré Champion, Paris, 2003)
Craik, Dinah Maria Mulock, Avillion; Or, The Happy Isles: A Fireside Fancy (University of Rochester, Robbins Digital Library, The Camelot Project from original text, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1853)
Epstein, Alex, The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan le Fay (Tradewind Books, 2011)
Erasmo da Valvasone, La Caccia (Società de’ Classici Italiani, Contrada di Santa Margherita, 1808), trans. Jane Blanco (2018)
Étienne de Rouen, Le Dragon Normand et autres poèmes, ed. Henri Auguste Omond (Rouen, 1884)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, Vita Merlini, ed. and trans. Basil Clarke (Cardiff, 1973)
Guillem de Torroella, La faula (Editorial Tirant lo Blanch, 2011)
Hartmann von Aue, Erec, ed. and trans. Cyril Edwards (Boydell & Brewer, 2014)
Hervey, T. K. Mrs, King Arthur’s Court; or The Feasts of Camelot: With the Tales That Were Told There, ed. Renee Ward (University of Rochester, Robbins Digital Library, The Camelot Project from original text, Bell and Daldy, London, 1863)
Malory, Thomas, Le Morte d’Arthur: The Winchester Manuscript, ed. Helen Cooper (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008)
Martorell, Joanot, Tirant lo Blanc, trans. David H. Rosenthal (Macmillan, London, 1985)
Sampson, Fay, Wise Woman’s Telling (Cosmos Books, 2005)
- Nun’s Telling (Cosmos Books, 2005)
- Blacksmith’s Telling (Cosmos Books, 2005)
- Taliesin’s Telling (Cosmos Books, 2005)
- Herself (Cosmos Books, 2006)
Springer, Nancy, I Am Morgan le Fay (Firebird, 2002)
Twain, Mark, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008)
White, T. H., The Once and Future King (Collins Fontana Books, 1969)
Wolf, Joan, The Road to Avalon (Chicago Review Press, 2007)
Archibald, Elizabeth and Ad Putter, eds, The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
Barber, Richard ed. The Arthurian Legends (Dorset Press, 1979)
Bryant, Nigel ed. and trans., The Legend of the Grail (Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2004)
Dixon-Kennedy, Mike, A Companion to Arthurian and Celtic Myths and Legends (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004)
Dover, Carol, A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle (Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2010)
Fenster, Thelma S., ed. Arthurian Women (Routledge, 2000)
Gardner, Edmund G., Arthurian Legend in Italian Literature (1930; Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints)
Graves, Robert, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, ed. Grevel Lindop (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)
Hamlyn, Paul, ed., Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology, trans. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames (Batchworth Press Ltd., 1959)
Herbert, Jill M., Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
Larrington, Carolyne, King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition (I. B. Tauris Ltd, London, 2006)
Le Saux, Françoise H. M., Layamon’s BRUT: The Poem and Its Sources (Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 1989)
Loomis, Roger Sherman, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance (Columbia University Press 1927; Academy Chicago Publishers, 1997)
McLelland, Nicola, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s ‘Lanzelet’: Narrative Style and Entertainment (Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2000)
Monaghan, Patricia, The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (Checkmark Books, 2008)
Paton, Lucy Allen, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance (Ginn & Company, 1903; Forgotten Books, 2012)