Role Of Morgaine In The Arthurian Legend

Essay, Research Paper

The Depiction of Morgan Le Fay In

Various Accounts Of The Arthurian


Morgaine speaks….

“In my time I have been called many things: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman,

queen.” So begins Marion Zimmer Bradley’s account of the Arthurian legend, which

places unusual emphasis on the character of Morgaine, otherwise known as Morgan Le

Fay. But who exactly is Morgan and how does she vary in the different accounts of the

Arthurian legend?

In order to assess how Morgan Le Fay is depicted throughout history, it is first

important to establish who she is and what part she plays in the legend. Five different

texts: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings Of Britain, Sir Thomas Malory’s

Le Morte d’Arthur, a French version of the Arthurian legend, Mort Artu, written by an

unknown 13th century author and T. H. White’s 20th century classic The Once and

Future King, along with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s New York Times best-selling novel

The Mists Of Avalon show vastly different versions of the character of Morgan and her

importance in the legend.

In most versions of the legend, Morgan is Arthur’s half sister, the daughter of

Queen Igraine and her first husband, the Duke of Cornwall. After her mother’s marriage

to the High King, Morgan is trained in magic of some sort. She, whether knowingly or

unknowingly, beds Arthur and is impregnated by him. She bares him a son, Mordred, then

disappears into the “realm of the fairies” After several years, Morgan is married to the

King of Uriens. This is the way Morgan appears most frequently in re-tellings of the

Arthurian legend. However, the character Morgause has often taken on some of the

characteristics and roles of Morgan in the legend; therefore, in order to adequately

compare texts on Morgan, one must explore the depiction of Morgause also.

The original full retelling of the Arthur story, Monmouth’s The History of the

Kings of Britain, has few female characters. Morgan Le Fay is once such decided absence.

Not only does she play no part whatsoever in the legend, but she is never even mentioned.

Mordred, who is often her son by an incestuous relationship with Arthur, is instead the son

of Anna and her husband, Loth, the King of Lothian. Anna is as close as Monmouth gets

to a Morgan-like character. She is the sister of Arthur, and daughter of Igraine and Uther.

She gives birth to Mordred, who is the means by which Arthur’s death comes about, and

Gawain, one of Arthurs most loyal and trusted knights.

Le Morte D’Arthur by Malory shows an entirely different perspective as to the role

and person of Morgan Le Fay in the Arthurian legend. She is one of Arthur’s three

sisters, the others being Morgause and Elaine. Morgause marries King Lot of Lothian and

has four sons including Gawaine while Elaine marries King Nentis. Arthur has an

incestuous relationship with Morgause and she gives birth to Mordred. Meanwhile

Morgan is continually conspiring against Arthur in an attempt to avenge his father’s poor

treatment of Igraine. Morgan steals Arthur’s sword Excalibur and gives it to her lover

Accolon, who challenges Arthur so that he might become High King. Accolon is fatally

wounded. Morgan also attempts to sabotage Arthur’s knights several times.

Mort Artu, a French prose text by an unknown author from 1225, shows a very

different side of Morgan. She is once again a sorceress and sister of Arthur; however, she

is not shown in such a negative light. She loves her brother and is shown to care very

much about his welfare. She describes herself as one of the “ladies who know all the magic

in the world” and says that she feels most at home on the Isle of Avalon. She is not the

mother of Mordred, nor does she play any part in Arthur’s death and downfall. Morgan

does, however, have two important roles in this account of the legend. She tells Arthur of

Lancelot and Guenivere’s treachery and offers him comfort and advice as to what he

should do. She tells him to punish them, a piece of advice which he follows. Morgan’s

other important role in this legend is that after Arthur is mortally wounded by Mordred

she carries him off to Avalon to tend to his wounds.

The Once and Future King, by T.H. White, shows Morgan in yet another different

light. She is no relation to Arthur, but instead she is the Queen of the Fairies, an women

described as “heartless”. She cares little for others, only for her own pleasure. She also is

not the mother of Mordred. This role is reserved for Morgause, who is shown as a bitter

witch. She has four children by Lot before she seduces Arthur to her bed and bears his

child. Morgaine is not a terribly important part of this version of the legend other than

because she is the Queen of the Fairies. The fairies are described as quite evil characters

and they are responsible for much of the misery of the times. Morgan is describes as one

who “does things to make others cry”. Morgan’s key part in this legend is that she kidnaps

Friar Tuck in the first book, The Sword in the Stone. She takes them to her castle where

Robin Hood and his men come to rescue them. After this account Morgan is only

presented once more, in that case one of the Queens who argues over who should bed

Lancelot. The major outcome of this scene is that Lancelot becomes aware that his love

for Guinevere is widely acknowledged, as Morgan tells him that she is aware of his

pinings’ for Guinevere

In the newest retelling of the Arthurian legend, The Mists Of Avalon by Marion

Zimmer Bradley, Morgan is the most important character in the story. It is from her

perspective the reader witnesses the events that surround Arthur’s reign. She is, in this

account, the daughter of the Duke of Cornwell and Igraine. She is adopted by her aunt

Vivianne and becomes a priestess of Avalon. She unknowingly has sex with her brother,

giving birth to his son Mordred. When Arthur betrays Avalon by breaking his promise to

be faithful to Avalon and the Goddess, Morgan attempts to place her lover and step-son

Accolon on the throne instead of Arthur. This attempt is unsuccessful and fatally wounds


These five very different portrayals of Morgan le Fay stem from five very different

societies. Understanding the social climate in which these novels were written is key to

understanding the manner in which Morgan is portrayed. The political and social issues of

the day, such as war and religious tension, frequently effect the way authors choose to

present their topics and characters, and this is especially the case with the accounts of the

Arthurian legend and Morgan Le Fay.

Monmouth wrote his book The History of the Kings of Britain amongst political

and society turmoil. During the time he was writing, Henry I was the King of England.

After his death, Henry’s daughter Matilda was to inherit the throne, but instead Henry’s

nephew, a man by the name of Stephen of Blois, usurped Matilda’s right to be Queen and

adopted the crown himself, claiming that Matilda was not fit to rule. Stephen began his

reign five years before Monmouth finished his The History of the Kings of Britain. This

undoubtedly had an effect on Monmouth’s portrayal of Morgan. If Morgan was involved,

or indeed if Anna played any major part in the legend, it would show to his

contemporaries that women have played key parts in the country’s history and that,

perhaps, they are fit to rule nations after all. This would have caused outrage and, as

Monmouth had hoped to gain some recognition by higher powers by writing his history,

would not have furthered his political ambition in any way.

Another factor that undoubtedly influenced Monmouth’s depiction of Morgan is

the twelfth century view on women. Women had little rights- rather they were the

property of their fathers until marriage and thereafter the property of their husband. They

had no choice as to whom they married. Anna is shown in Monmouth to be given only as

a prize to Loth for his gallantry. Arranged marriages were used almost solely for financial

and political gain. After marriage, a women’s place was in her home, a concept which

lasted until the mid-twentieth century. Women were responsible for the smooth running

of household affairs and for the upbringing of children. With this responsibility came little

time for frivolous occurrences such as quests and feasts which consumed so much of the

time of their husbands. Because women were expected to be content with this lifestyle,

suggesting that women could be an important and glamorous part of King Arthur’s court

would be going against all that women were expected to believe and cherish. A major

aspect of the twelfth century view on women was that women were to be chaste and

virtuous, while their husbands were permitted to share their beds with any woman he

should choose. Suggesting a degree of sexual liberation exhibited in most account of the

Arthurian legend through Morgan would once again to be creating havoc amongst his

contemporaries. Though most women could not read, the fear of them becoming aware of

the concept that suggests fulfillment can come outside of marriage in their life would

undoubtedly been great, thus preventing Monmouth from presenting an interesting and

details account of the life of Morgan Le Fay.

Mort Artu was written in thirteenth-century France, another society that was

repressive toward women. However, by the time this book was written the ability of

women to influence and manipulate political proceedings was widely acknowledged.

Phillip II, King of France at the time of this novel’s authorship, declared war on England

because the King of England married a woman engaged to another of Phillip’s vassals.

Because of this, the author of Mort Artu can freely write about Morgan because the

effects she a woman could have on the political situation of nations was clearly established

by Phillip’s war with England.

The social context in which this novel was written is also very important when it

comes to analysing the way in which a character such as Morgan is portrayed. The Roman

Catholic church was using its power to manipulate the rulers of the European nations,

especially through the crusades. The Pope Gregory IX excommunicated Frederick II of

the Holy Roman Empire because he would not lead a crusade when the pope demanded

that he do so. This power that belonged to the Roman Catholic Church influenced the

literature of the day, especially in the sense that literature was often used to criticise

Roman Catholic teachings. The morals that the Roman Catholic Church enforced upon its

followers was fiercely protested by French authors of the middle ages. A recurring theme

in this literature is that love cannot exist inside the boundaries of arranged marriages. This

is exemplified in Mort Artu, when Morgan reveals her knowledge of Guenivere and

Lancelet. Mort Artu also presents a view on religious freedom, especially through

Morgan. Morgan is shown in Mort Artu to be a very positive character and she is

portrayed in a very good light, though she is a sorceress. Had the author agreed with

Roman Catholic ideas, Morgan would have been shown as an evil and cruel character.

This cultural factor contributes significantly to the depiction of Morgan Le Fay in Mort


In Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory presents a very negative view of

Morgan Le Fay and she is shown as an evil character who only wants to harm Arthur.

Cultural and historical factors have also influenced this depiction of Morgan and the

Arthurian legend. The fifteenth century in England was a time of political uncertainty and

anarchy. England had lost its hold in France, largely due to the pursuits of a young lady

named Joan of Arc, who seemed to have some sort of mystical power that allowed her to

help drive the English out of France and seat Charles VII on the throne as king of France.

Because England’s latest attempts to increase their empire were dampened by a mystical

girl, Malory’s depiction of Morgan must have been influenced. There would be immediate

suspicion and connotations in relation to Joan of Arc. If Morgan was interested in

Arthur’s good rather than his downfall the similarities between her and Joan of Arc would

have been uncanny. Malory could not write to the English audience a book that promotes

a heroine like Joan of Arc, so instead he must make her evil.

Aside from this, there was a genuine belief in 15th century western society that

women alone were responsible for all the problems in the world. This theory comes from

Genesis, because Eve eats the fruit before Adam then persuades him to eat of the fruit. It

was a common belief in churches in Malory’s day that women needed to be watched at all

times and never trusted, because they all wanted to continue sinning in the way Eve did.

Malory successfully continues that trend, as there are no virtuous female characters in Le

Morte d’Arthur. Morgan, Morgause and Guinevere are all shown in a very negative light,

while Lancelot, who is an adulterer and is unfaithful to his King, and Arthur, who is

incestuos, are not shown in such a negetive light.

The Once and Future King is filled with important cultural and historical

connotations and contexts that it is important to grasp in order to fully understand the

novel. It was written as an allegory to World War Two and the political situation that

surrounded it. T. H. White’s treatment of Morgan is such that it reflects certain aspects of

the society and he war during which White wrote.

A basic understanding of World War Two is important in understanding the ideas

behind The Once and Future King. The war began as a European conflict between

Germany and the English-French coalition. Adolf Hitler, the leader of the German army

and country, was committing crimes against humanity: he was attempting to exterminate

an entire race. Morgan, in The Once and Future King, is the leader of a cold and brutal

people who kill people for their own pleasure. The influence the times in which The Once

and Future King was written, especially the influence of Hitler and his regime, are very

apparent in The Once and Future King.

The historical context also becomes an issue in White’s portrayal of Morgause.

She has an affair with her brother, Arthur, yet the fact he was her brother alone does not

result in White’s negative portrayal of her. It seems that White is punishing Morgause for

her unfaithfulness to her husband in his very pessimistic depiction of her. This can be

traced to the time in which White wrote. While their husbands and sweethearts were away

at war, no matter how long they be there for, women were expected to remain chaste.

This value of the society is exhibited in the way White treats adultery on the part of the

women involved.

The Mists of Avalon, a twentieth century New York Times best-seller by Marion

Zimmer Bradley is very influenced by the early 1980’s society in which it was written. This

era was both very humanistic and feminist, two values that are reflected in Bradley’s

depiction of Morgan Le Fay. This is exhibited in the values which Morgan holds and her

reactions and actions in light of what she is experiencing. Morgan is incestuous, as is a

common theme in the Arthurian legend, however this is not presented as terribly bad by

Bradley. The modern “anything goes” society in which she wrote definitely influenced the

way Morgan was presented in being essentially “good” despite the “bad” things she has

done- in killing Avalloch, in her affairs with many men and in her ill treatment of her

husband. Abortion and suicide, two things frowned upon very much until the last half of

the twentieth century are both shown through Morgan to be viable options.

Feminism has influenced the depiction of Morgan to a huge degree. Instead of the

patriarchal society view that women are essentially evil and responsible for all the

problems in this world, women, especially Morgan, are portrayed to be superior in

intellect and talent, free of all moral constraint and incapable of doing wrong. There has

been no balanced view, either women are very good or very bad.

Morgan Le Fay is an interesting character who changes a good deal throughout the

various accounts of the Arthurian legend. The societies in which all these accounts of

Arthur were written have contributed to the author’s decision to portray her in a certain

way. While in The Once and Future King we find her to be an allegory to Hitler, in The

Mists of Avalon she is the epitome of feminist ideals, and while she is portrayed in a very

positive light in Mort Artu, it seems she could not possibly do any more evil in Le Morte

d’Arthur. Morgan Le Fay is a very complex character whose essential identity has been

changed dramatically throughout the ages and who has frequently fallen victim to the

stereotypes that have accompanied women throughout the ages.


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