Morgan Le Fay: Mother Goddess
She said to the King, Oh my brother,
This happy dwelling is not always given to me;
And, as a wise fairy who wishes her learning to grow,
I cannot always be in one place:
Here and there, across the wide earth,
I always go in search of a new hill
Where I can hide from the foolish crowd
And seek that which reaches the pinnacle of knowledge.
– Morgan le Fay, La Caccia (“The Hunt”, 1591), Erasmo di Valvasone
Powerful sorceress. Wicked witch. Benevolent enchantress. Evil crone. Immortal goddess. Demonic villain. Feminist icon. Fairy Queen. Princess, healer, wise woman, mother, sister, lover, enemy. Morgan le Fay is and has been all things to all people, an eternal shapeshifter who has captured the imagination in every form of art throughout the centuries. Loved and hated, admired and feared, she is a character whose origins reach far back into the mists of time, her very name inspiring awe and terror in equal measure.
The multi-faceted, ambiguous goddess has her origins in myth far earlier than Arthurian legend. Both the Greco-Roman and Celtic traditions are replete with goddesses and nymphs whose characters and actions are seemingly contradictory. Morgan, whose name means ‘Sea-Born’, shares many characteristics with water goddesses such as the Roman Sulis, the goddess of the thermal springs at Bath, England. As a goddess, Sulis had the power both to harm and to cure, to nourish and to punish. Morgan’s conflicting nature also resembles that of the Celtic Morrigan, the goddess of fertility and war, of life and death. More direct origins of Morgan le Fay are believed to be found in an earlier, possibly even pre-Celtic goddess: Modron, whose name means ‘Mother.’ It is with Modron that we find the first connection to Avalon. She was the daughter of the island’s ruler, Avallach, and the mother of Mabon, the “Divine Youth” and Apollo-esque Celtic god of light and music.
Like the above goddesses, Morgan is portrayed in Arthurian lore as both healer and destroyer, guardian and nemesis, loving angel and vengeful demon. As a mother, she is doting and callous; as a sister, she is caring and hateful; as a lover, she is generous and cruel. She is unpredictable, elusive, contradictory: the Fairy Queen who spends Arthur’s reign attempting to bring him down, only at the end to bear him away to her magical Isle of Avalon to heal him and shield him from the world until the Once and Future King is called to arms again.
Complexity and ambivalence are key to understanding Morgan’s character. The propensity to depict Morgan, without nuance, as either benign goddess or evil enchantress is often due to a seeming inability to comprehend or capture the multi-dimensional aspect of earlier portrayals of female deities. The contradictions of Morgan’s character stem from a grand tradition of goddesses, sorceresses, nymphs and fairies throughout literature and myth. Another crucial point to remember about the great Fairy Queen of Arthurian legend is how she holds up a mirror to the society around her at any given time. Morgan le Fay has always been a template for women who do not conform to convention - women who wield, pursue and achieve great power – and her treatment in literature is more often than not a reflection of society’s attitudes to such women at the time of writing. We can understand the attitudes to women through the ages through the characterisation of Morgan le Fay in various art forms recounting the tales of King Arthur and his knights.
The earliest portrayals of Morgan le Fay depict her as the ruler of a magical island in a similar vein to Circe and Calypso in classical Greek literature, as well as fairy queens of Celtic legend such as Niamh of the Golden Hair, who ruled the magical island of Tír Tairngiri (“Land of Promise”), to which she would bring her captive human lovers. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (ca. 1150), Morgan dwells on the Island of Apples, known as the ‘Fortunate Isle’, where she is the most powerful of nine sisters, recalling the nine Muses of antiquity. She is learned above all others, gifted with the arts of healing and herb lore. She can change her shape, fly through the air, appear at will anywhere she wishes, and teaches astrology and mathematics to her sisters. When Merlin, Taliesin and Barinthus bring the wounded Arthur to her after the battle of Camlann, she tells them it is possible for her to heal him, but only if he remains with her for a long while. Here, in her earliest literary incarnation, the trope of Morgan as the Fairy Queen of a magical island is established. She has no relation to Arthur in this account, nor is any part of her human. She is a goddess and sorceress in the classical literary mode; an otherworldly queen of her own realm.
Similarly, in Etienne de Rouen’s Draco Normannicus (ca. 1167-1169) Morgan is called “the eternal nymph” who lives on “the holy isle of Avalon” and grants Arthur immortality. Unlike Geoffrey, Etienne describes Arthur and Morgan as brother and sister. However, in Layamon’s Brut (ca. 1190-1215), the first poem written in Middle English, Morgan is spoken of as Argante, the elf queen of Avalon and fairest of all maidens, again a character who is no apparent blood relation to Arthur. In the Brut, as soon as Arthur is born, he is taken by the elves, who enchant him with the gifts of strength, wealth, long life, and all the virtues of goodness to raise him to greatness. At the end of his final battle, Arthur’s last words reveal his intention of leaving for Avalon to be healed by Argante, “the queen, an elf most fair”, so that one day he can return to his people.
In these early versions of Morgan, she is depicted wholly as a source of good, not evil: a benevolent magical being who is admired, venerated and trusted. We have seen that this figure harks back to goddesses and nymphs of Greco-Roman antiquity and to Celtic mother goddesses. This would explain why these early Arthurian writers treat her with the reverence and honour worthy of a divinity, as yet untinged with the unremittingly evil characteristics and misogyny of later versions. As the Fairy Queen of a paradisal island, this Morgan is removed from the earthly pursuits of the mortal characters, and thus in these early texts she appears uninvolved with political plots, intrigues and machinations. The idea of the island as another (“other”) world, set apart from the human world, is linked to the cosmological concept of water in Celtic tradition. Water is magical, transmutable, perceived as the gateway between this world and the Otherworld. Many fairies, like ancient gods, live on distant islands, in underwater cities, beneath the ocean, in wells and springs, and at the bottom of rivers or lakes.
It has been suggested that the original Lady of the Lake, who appears in Ulrich von Zarzikhoven’s Lanzelet (ca. 1200) as Lancelot’s foster mother, is an aspect of the character of Morgan. Lancelot is raised by the queen of the sea fairies on an island of women. The Fairy Queen trains him as a knight and will not tell him his name until he performs the task of killing the Lord of Beforet who is invading the lands of her son Mabuz. Mabuz is a version of Mabon, the young Celtic god who is the Divine Son of the Mother Goddess, Modron, the template for Morgan le Fay. This would render the Lady of the Lake another early incarnation of Morgan’s character, one which in later literature was assigned to other characters, most notably Nimue and Vivien.
Morgan le Fay is also the fairy foster mother of Prince Floriant, son of King Elyadus of Sicily, in the little-known 13th century French poetic romance Floriant et Florete, inspired by Chrétien de Troyes. The story takes place in Sicily, where King Elyadus is slain by his seneschal and his pregnant queen escapes into the forest. After the child is born, the queen takes refuge in Monreale to which the seneschal lays siege, while Morgan takes the baby boy to Mongibel, her fairy palace and realm within the volcano Mount Etna. Morgan names the child Floriant and raises him in her realm for fifteen years before sending him back out into the mortal world on an enchanted ship. The young Floriant’s heroics and chivalric deeds gain him renown and a tournament is organised in his honour at Arthur’s court. Morgan sends a messenger to Floriant revealing his true identity and the situation of his birth mother, the queen, whereupon Arthur raises an army to free Floriant’s mother from Monreale.
Years later, after marrying his enemy’s daughter, Florete, and regaining his father’s throne, Floriant follows a white deer which leads him back to the mountain palace of Mongibel and Morgan le Fay. There Morgan tells Floriant that his life is coming to an end, but if he stays with her in Mongibel, he will remain immortal. She reveals that Arthur will join them there later when he is mortally wounded. Morgan then sends three fairies to bring Florete to Mongibel to join her beloved husband in the Otherworldly realm. In this tale, Morgan is a once again a fairy protector and guardian in the traditional mother goddess mode, a figure to be respected and revered. At this point in time, the Fairy Queen of Arthuriana is essentially a force for good, a goddess of both life and death, and the saviour of kings.