Morgan le Fay: Good Fairy or Bad Fairy?
As we have seen in the 13th century French romance Floriant et Florete, Morgan le Fay’s links with the folkloric motif of fairy abductions was established early in Arthurian tradition. Kidnapping lovers or children was a well-known attribute of supernatural woman in literature, as Circe, Calypso and Niamh can testify. Like all goddesses and despite her benevolent actions, Morgan was to be feared as well as revered. Her name was given to Breton sea fairies who, like Morgan herself, are ambivalent in nature. The Morgans lure human men to drag them to the depths of the ocean, but at the same time they are known to rescue and heal shipwreck victims. Similarly, a mirage of palaces and cities is named the Fata Morgana (Morgan the Fairy), as it was believed to be a sighting of Morgan’s realm – alternately a glimpse into the Otherworld or a sorceress’ spell designed to capture unsuspecting sailors. In Guillem de Torroella’s La Faula (“The Tale”, ca. 1370), the author recounts a journey in which, at the behest of Morgan le Fay, he is carried over the sea on a whale’s back to an Enchanted Island, where he finds Morgan with King Arthur. In this story, Morgan has brought the narrator to her realm to help Arthur, who is being kept young and immortal by the Holy Grail but has fallen into despondency over the world’s loss of chivalry.
As medieval Christianity developed, the depiction of Morgan began to change. The characteristics of the all-powerful Mother Goddess, the Greco-Roman island sorceress, the Celtic Fairy Queen, began shifting into something more recognisably human. In Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide (1160) and Yvain, the Knight of the Lion (ca. 1170), she is described as Arthur’s sister, known as Morgan the Wise, whose healing ointments are the most precious gifts anyone could receive. Likewise, Robert de Boron in his Merlin (ca. 1195-1210) writes of her as Arthur’s half-sister, the daughter of Arthur’s mother and the Duke of Cornwall, and recounts how she was sent away to school where she learned magic. Morgan’s status begins changing from deity and ruler of a magical island to that of king’s sister and noblewoman, wise woman and healer. She is still a woman of high rank, to be sure: a learned scholar and healer with an enviable position in Arthur’s court. And she still has ties to Avalon, with Chrétien calling her “Morgan the Fay” and intimating that she is “a friend” of Guingomar, Lord of the Isle of Avalon. But in these works, though still depicted as a “good fairy”, much of Morgan’s power has already been taken away. Her status now depends on that of her brother or her lover; she is no longer an independent entity.
This humanisation of Morgan and the weakening of her power soon began to devolve into more negative portrayals of her character. Christian male writers, often clerics or monks, sought to dethrone the Fairy Queen and wrest from the pagan goddess any reverence that was her due, besmirching her name, blackening her character, and transforming her into an evil witch hell-bent on cruelty and revenge. A woman who was both powerful and benign was anathema to the beliefs of the Middle Ages: it was deemed blasphemous to attribute scholarly knowledge or healing skills to a female who was not a member of the Church. Women’s sexuality, abhorred by male clerics in particular, was a major source of medieval misogynist fear and loathing. In the 13th century Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles, Morgan is still described with many positive traits – she is merry and charming, pretty and a talented singer – “but she was the most lustful woman in all Great Britain and the lewdest.” She falls in love with Guiomar (possibly a reference to Chrétien’s Guingomar), who in this tale is the cousin of Guinevere. When the Queen discovers their affair, she parts the lovers, inciting Morgan’s anger and hatred. It has been suggested that this is the origin of Morgan’s hatred for Guinevere, and that all her subsequent evil deeds stem from the loss of her lover and her desire for revenge.
However, there is another interpretation for Morgan’s actions. In the Vulgate Cycle, Morgan leaves Camelot after the Guiomar affair and uses her magic to cast a spell upon a valley in the forest. If a knight who has been unfaithful to his lover enters the valley, he can never leave. The Valley of No Return is an interesting concept: an isolated magical area ruled by Morgan and set apart from the mortal world – harking back to Avalon, Mongibel, and other islands and realms where sorceresses would lure and entrap heroes and knights. The Valley is described as a paradise, an idyllic fairy queendom with no shortage of food and drink and entertainment, where the knights are forced to stay but the women of the Valley can come and go as they please. As we have seen with the Roman Sulis, it was the role of ancient goddesses both to provide and to punish, and this is exactly what Morgan does with the Valley of No Return. She punishes and imprisons the knights for their dishonourable transgressions, while at the same time providing a haven where lovers can be together away from the perils and setbacks of the mortal world.
In the Vulgate Cycle, the forest joins the Valley of No Return as one of Morgan’s power bases, where she is the strongest – again, a mysterious, wild place away from the “civilised” court. Throughout Arthurian literature, Morgan travels from realm to realm: the Isle of Avalon in a distant ocean, Mongibel in the volcano Mount Etna, the Fata Morgana, the Valley of No Return, the deep forest – all places removed from the mortal world. Morgan becomes the mistress of all the elements: the watery ocean, the fiery volcano, the ethereal mirage, the fertile valley and forest; each resonant with power, mystery and danger.
Morgan’s connections to the valley and the forest in the Vulgate Cycle are indicative of her strengthening ties with the earthly events and desires of Arthur’s court. She frequently kidnaps Lancelot, attempting to reveal through sorcery his love affair with Guinevere. The motivation for this is often ascribed to Morgan’s own love for Lancelot and her hatred of Guinevere, again pitting the two women against each other. But, as with the Valley of No Return, there is also another explanation. Morgan’s goddess-like punishment of knights for their unfaithfulness in the Valley is echoed in her imprisonment of Lancelot in the forest. Indeed, Morgan explains her actions to Gawain and his brothers, when they discover Lancelot’s cell with his paintings on the wall depicting his love story with Guinevere. Morgan declares, “I’ll hate him [Lancelot] as long as I live, for he couldn’t cause me greater grief by bringing shame on such a noble man as my brother and by loving his wife and lying with her.” In her own words, Morgan doesn’t hate Lancelot because of unrequited love or jealousy. She hates him for his dishonourable betrayal of Arthur.
Another example of the ambiguity of Morgan’s nature can be found in the 14th century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which she appears not as the beautiful Fairy Queen, but as an old crone who is the epitome of ugliness next to the lovely young wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert. Morgan hides her hideous features behind veils so that little of her can be seen, yet she is nonetheless venerated by everyone at Bertilak’s castle. There Gawain undergoes a series of tests of honour, loyalty and virtue. Although Morgan hardly appears, her shadow looms over the story before she is revealed as its most powerful character, described as “Morgan the Goddess” by Bertilak, who talks of her “skill in learning” and being “well-taught in magic arts.” She is the sorceress who has transformed Bertilak into the Green Knight to perform tests of Gawain’s moral character. On the one hand, it is said that her intention with the Green Knight was to scare Guinevere to death; on the other, it is revealed that her goal was to test Arthur’s knights, as did goddesses of old. But by this time in history, fear of women and witchcraft had reached its zenith, and the ambivalent goddess figure had become demonic.