Morgan Le Fay

‘Morgan the Fairy’
Feimurgan, Marguel, Morgain, Morgaine, Morgana, Morganna, Morgant la Fee, Morgein, Morghain, Morghana, Morgn, Morge, Morgue, Morguein, Morguen

Morgan was one the three daughters, apparently the youngest, of Igraine and Gorloïs, and thus an elder half-sister of Arthur’s. When Igraine was wed to Uther and her daughters Margawse and Elaine of Tintagil to Kings Lot and Nentres, Morgan was put to school in a nunnery, where, as Malory tells us, “she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy”. Later she was married to King Uriens of Gore, to whom she bore Ywaine le Blanchemains.

After being an early rebel, Uriens came over to Arthur and was made a companion of the Round Table. He seems to have spent much time in Arthur’s court, along with his wife and son. At first Morgan and Guenevere were friends, and Guenevere gave almost identical rings to Morgan and to Lancelot (not necessarily, one supposes, at the same time). But Morgan took Guiomar, a cousin of Guenevere’s, for a lover. Finding them together, the angry Guenevere banished Guiomar.

Morgan fled to Merlin, learned (or increased her earlier knowledge of) necromancy, and hated Guenevere ever afterward. This incident is recorded in Vulgate IV and may refer to the same period mentioned in Vulgate II, when Morgan met Merlin in Bedingran (Bedegraine) at the time of the knighting of Gawaine and his brothers.

Eventually returning to Arthur’s court, Morgan took a new lover, Sir Accolon of Gaul, with whom she plotted the deaths of both Arthur and Uriens, planning to put Accolon and herself on the throne of Britain. The scheme was thwarted by Nimue. On learning of Accolon’s death at Arthur’s hands, some distance from court, Morgan attempted at least to murder her sleeping husband – surprisingly, by the natural means of a sword – but was prevented by their son Ywaine. Gaining Ywaine’s promise of secrecy on her own pledge of future good behavior, she got Guenevere’s permission to leave court, pretending urgent business at home. She stopped at the nunnery where Arthur lay wounded and stole the Scabbard of Excalibur; the sword she could not get since he was sleeping with it. Pursued by Arthur, she threw the scabbard into a deep lake and then changed herself and her men into stones to escape capture.

Their danger past, she saved Sir Manassen, a cousin of Accolon’s, from enemies and sent him back to Arthur to tell how cleverly she had eluded him. She returned to Gore and garisoned her castles in preparation for attack, nor was the precaution groundless, for Malory mentions Arthur’s attempt to win back at least one castle he himself had given her in friendlier times. Soon after this return to Gore, she sent him a poisoned mantle as a pretended peace-offering, but Nimue’s advice saved him from death.

One conceives that she was eventually forced to vacate Gore rather than run afoul of her husband or his deputy King Bagdemagus. She owned, acquired, or usurped more than one castle outside Gore, from which she could operate. Her last known lover was Sir Hemison, whom she mourned deeply and buried richly when he was slain by Tristram. She also tried to make Alisander le Orphelin her paramour and, more than once, Sir Lancelot. She seems, however, to have had her lovers one at a time, taking a new one only some while after the former one was slain or otherwise lost.

With Lancelot she seems to have had an especial love-hate relationship. Malory records one instance of her kidnaping him (acting in concert with her companions at the time, the queens of NorgalesEastland, and the Out Isles); the Vulgate records other occasions when she got him into her power. She hated Lancelot because Guenevere loved him, and also, we may suspect, because he loved Guenevere and repulsed Morgan’s own advances. Yet, whenever she captured him, she tried to get him into her own bed. As an example of one of their exchanges, after he had saved Duke Rochedon’s Daughter, Morgan conjured him by what he loved best to doff his helmet. (This was probably not enchantment, but a rule of courtesy.) When he unhelmed, she said that if she had known his identity before, he would not have escaped so easily. He replied that if she were a man, he’d know how to deal with her; she responded that he would regret that comment.

For some time, probably many years, Morgan seems to have been or had the reputation of being at the heart of some network of enchantresses and villains. Once King Mark appealed to Morgan and the Queen of Norgales to set the country “in fire” with enchantresses and wicked knights like Malgrin and Breuse Sans Pitie; this suggests that there was such a network, or at least that Morgan and the Queen of Norgales wielded authority over other necromancers and wicked men. These same two are credited in Malory with putting a damsel into a scalding bath. Morgan’s nephew Mordred may have served her at least for a time. Another instance of Morgan’s mischief may be found under Val Sans Retour.

After the episode of the poisoned mantle (Morgan’s Mantle), however, Morgan’s efforts against Arthur seem almost entirely directed at forcing him to recognize the love of Lancelot and Guenevere. Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert remarked to Gawaine that the affair of the Green Knight’s beheading game had been staged by Morgan to shock Guenevere to death – an explanation which we may take figuratively, if not with a grain of salt; nevertheless, Morgan may well have continued to resent the fact that, after raising such a fuss about her friend’s affair with Guimoar, Guenevere proceeded to enjoy a long, adulterous liaison of her own. Efforts by Morgan to reveal the adultery of Lancelot and Guenevere may be found under “Morgan’s Shield“, “Morgan’s Ring“, and “Morgan’s Drinking Horn“.

In “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight”, Morgan appears as an extremely old woman. This is curious, for here, as in Malory, she is Gawaine’s aunt, and Gawaine, like Arthur and the rest of his court, is still quite young. Igraine must be granted a remarkably long period of childbearing if Morgan has naturally attained her great age in this work. I think it much more likely that, as Morgan could give Bertilak the appearance of the Green Knight, so she could give herself the appearance of any age she wished.

Eventually, Morgan retired to her castle near TaurocWales, where she lived quietly for so long that Arthur and his court came to assume her dead. At last, however, Arthur chanced upon her castle while hunting, and she welcomed him warmly. On this occasion he spent a week visiting her, and the only attempt she made on his wellbeing was to show him the murals Lancelot had once painted while a prisoner in this castle, which murals revealed his relations with Guenevere. Arthur refused to believe even this evidence, but invited his half-sister to Camelot. She replied that she would never leave her castle again until the time came for her to go to Avalon.

Despite her long role as antagonist to Arthur, Guenevere, and their court, Morgan was the chief of the grieving ladies who came to bear Arthur away to Avilion after the last battle.

The fifteenth-century Catalan romance Tirant Lo Blanc continues this final favorable light without allusion to Morgan’s villain aspect. She appears dressed in black and searching diligently for her brother; finding him, she rejoins and, in the ensuing celebration, it appears that dancing with her constitutes a signal honor for the knight she chooses as her partner.

Spence identifies Morgan with Morrigan, an Irish crow-goddess of war; Morgan, like Arthur, occasionally took the shape of a raven or crow.

While never showing Morgan in person, Chrétien de Troyes refers to her rather more than to Merlin. In Erec and Enide he identifies her as Arthur’s sister, mentions that Guingomar (Lord of the Isle of Avalon) is her lover, and describes a salve she made for her brother: if applied once a day, it effectively heals any wound within a week. Again, in Yvain, “Morgan the Wise” has given the Lady of Noroison an ointment that cures madness. Both these preparations – assuming that they are two separate preparations – show Morgan in her beneficen aspect; I did not spot any reference in Chrétien’s work to her as a villain.


See also
Alcina | The Legend of King Arthur
Castle Chariot | The Legend of King Arthur
Cliton | The Legend of King Arthur
Elaine of Tintagil | The Legend of King Arthur
Gliten | The Legend of King Arthur
Gliton | The Legend of King Arthur
Glitonea | The Legend of King Arthur
La Beale Regard | The Legend of King Arthur
Lady Without Pride | The Legend of King Arthur
Logistilla | The Legend of King Arthur
Margawse of Orkney | The Legend of King Arthur
Marrion | The Legend of King Arthur
Marsion | The Legend of King Arthur
Mazoe | The Legend of King Arthur
Morgan Le Fay | The Legend of King Arthur
Morgen | The Legend of King Arthur
Moronoe | The Legend of King Arthur
Nine Sisters | The Legend of King Arthur
Queen of Cyprus | The Legend of King Arthur
Thitis | The Legend of King Arthur
Tyronoe | The Legend of King Arthur

See also
Items, characters and locations connected to Morgan | The Legend of King Arthur


Morgan le Fay’s Family and Allies

Father
Duke Gorloïs

Mother
Igraine

Sisters
Margawse and Elaine of Tintagil

Half-brother
Arthur

Husband
King Uriens

Daughter
Nivetta

Son
Ywaine

Husband’s bastard son
Yvonet li Avoutres

Brothers-in-law
King Lot (married to Margawse), King Nentres (married to Elaine)

Nephews
Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, Mordred (all by Margawse); Galeshin (by Elaine)

Grandson(?)
Ider

Lovers
Guiomar (Guenevere’s cousin), Accolon of Gaul, Hemison

Lover’s cousin (Accolon’s)
Manassen

Allies
Queen of Eastland(?), Queen of Norgales, Queen of the Out Isles(?), Queen of the Waste Lands(?), Sebile, King Mark(?), Breuse Sans Pitie(?), Malgrin(?)

Protegé(?)
Oriolz the Dane (Oriel de Sorionde)


Image credit
Education of Morgan Le Fay | Artist: Howard David Johnson