Essay, Research Paper
The Depiction of Morgan Le Fay In
Various Accounts Of The Arthurian
“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
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
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.