Morgan Le Fay

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

An enchantress or fairy, probably derived from the Welsh Modron and, ultimately, from the Celtic goddess Matrona, and she may have been influenced by an enchantress in Irish mythology called Morrigan, an Irish crow-goddess of war (Morgan, like Arthur, occasionally took the shape of a raven or a crow).

She is generally named as Arthur’s half-sister, but she is sometimes his full sister or his niece. Her most important role is to bear Arthur’s body to the Island of Avalon after he receives a mortal wound at the battle of Camlann. Incongruously, though, she is often portrayed as Arthur’s enemy during his reign. Thus, her character is remarkably incosistent throughout the Arthurian saga, sometimes described as evil, sometimes as benevolent; sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful. When she is not a character in a story, she is sometimes mentioned as a metaphorical or mythical figure.

She first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini as the Queen of the Island of Apples (Avalon), to which Arthur’s body is borne after Camlann. Described as beautiful, she is said to have shape-shifting and healing abilities. She has nine sisters including Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, and Thitis. Geoffrey, however, does not name her as Arthur’s sister.

Morgan does not appear in Geoffrey’s Historia, nor in Wace’s Roman de Brut. Layamon includes a variation of her name, Argante, as the elven queen who takes Arthur’s body to Avalon. As it is unlikely that Layamon was influenced by Geoffrey’s Vita, both of these stories can be taken as examples of a widely-held Welsh or Breton oral tradition. Either Chrétien de Troyes or Etienne de Rouen is the first to name her as Arthur’s sister. In Chrétien’s Erec, she is, as in Geoffrey, the ruler of Avalon, and she has a lover named Guinguemar. Her magical healing ointment heals Erec and Yvain in their respective romances. Chrétien does not demonstrate a dependence on the earlier texts, suggesting, again, a wide profusion of her character in oral legend.

In between these early accounts and the Vulgate Cycle are a smattering of contradictory appearances in various French romances, few of which contribute anything meaningful to the evolution of her character. Wolfram von Eschenbach (who, through a reversal of her traditional name, calls her Terdelaschoye of Feimurgan) has her as the wife of Mazadan and an ancestor of Arthur. Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet features a water fairy who raises Lancelot from infancy. Though not named as “Morgan,” the fairy is said to be the mother of Mabuz, probably identical to Mabon son of Modron in Welsh legend. Morgan may have therefore once been the same character as the Lady of the Lake, a role which she is given in Arthour and Merlin.

She is first mentioned as the mother of Yvain in a minor French romance called Tyolet, and she does not assume the role again until the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin. However, her counterpart, Modron, is named as Owain’s (Ywaine) mother in Welsh legend.

As with a great many of characters, the Vulgate Cycle is the first group of texts to give Morgan le Fay a complete story, starting with her birth as the daughter of Igerne. Her father is not named. He was most likely Gorloïs, Igerne’s first husband, but at one point Morgan is called a bastard. Igerne were married to Uther and her daughters Margawse and Elaine of Tintagil were wed to King Lot and King Nentres of Garlot. The latter took her into his care when her father died, and he assigned her to a nunnery, where she learned to read, write, heal, and interpret the stars. Malory tells us,

she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy.

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, Guenevere’s cousin, 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 Gawain 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 Tristan. She also trid 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.

Morgan’s hate against Guenevere, Arthur and his knights, was intensified by her own love or lust for Lancelot, who would have nothing to do with her. With Lancelot she seems to have had an especial love-hate relationship. Malory records one instance of her kidnaping him (acting with her companions at the time, the queens of Norgales (North Wales), Eastland, 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.

After the episode of the poisoned 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 Gawain 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.

She created the Valley of No Return, which entrapped a number of Arthur’s warriors; imprisoned Lancelot on three separate occasions and tried to trick Arthur’s court into thinking he was dead; and sent hints of Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere to Arthur. Eventually, Morgan retired to her castle near Tauroc in Wales, 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.

In the end, however, she dutifully takes Arthur’s body from the battlefield of Salisbury without any explanation for her change of heart.

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.

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 – no reference in Chrétien’s work can be found that she’s a villain.


Alterations of her story

The Suite du Merlin, the other Post-Vulgate romances, and the Prose Tristan add and change the following facts:

She married King Urien, and she had a son by him named Yvain le Blanchemains. She later tried to murder Urien but was stopped by her son. Merlin fell in love with her. After she learned Merlin’s magic, however, she scorned him and threatened him with death if ever came near her again. In addition to her other plots against Arthur, she made a counterfeit of Excalibur and its scabbard, giving the original to her lover, Sir Accalon of Gaul, while returning the fake one to Arthur. She then arranged for Arthur and Accalon to meet in combat, and it was only through the intervention of Nimue (the Lady of the Lake) that Arthur survived. Afterwards, Morgan managed to throw Excalibur’s scabbard into a lake.

She sent a mantle to Arthur that would have burned him to cinders had he put it on, but Arthur made her unfortunate servant don it instead. She also sent a magical chastity horn to Arthur hoping to reveal Guinevere’s adultery. It was from Morgan that Mordred learned of the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. She kidnapped Tristan and made him carry an insulting shield depicting Guinevere’s infidelity at one of Arthur’s tournaments. Later, she sent a poisoned lance to Mark, which Mark used to kill Tristan. She also plotted with Mark to destroy Alexander the Orphan, who for a time become Morgan’s prisoner. She had a number of lovers, including Helians, Kaz, Gui, and Corrant.

Despite her evil deeds, she again bears her brother’s body away from the last battlefield for healing.


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. It’s 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. In this romance, it is revealed that the Green Knight’s visit to Arthur’s court is yet another of Morgan’s plots to distress Arthur.

Malory’s tales are derived primarily from the Vulgate, and he adds only the confirmation of her parentage by Igerne and Gorloïs, giving her two sisters named Morgause and Elaine. In the French tale of Huon de Bordeaux, she has a son with Julius Caesar named Huon, and in La Bataille de Loquifer, she has a son with the hero Renoart named Corbon. In Italian romance, she has a daughter named Pulzella Gaia, the Lady of the Lake is presented as her sister, and Uther Pendragon is her father. Some texts have her living on Sicily, in a castle called Montegibel.

Consequent of the growth of her fame, Morgan appears in a number of non-Arthurian or quasi-Arthurian texts as the mother, sister, or benefactress of various characters.


See also
Alcina | The Legend of King Arthur
Castle Chariot | The Legend of King Arthur
Elaine of Tintagil | 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
Marrion | The Legend of King Arthur
Marsion | The Legend of King Arthur
Morgen | The Legend of King Arthur
Nine Sisters | The Legend of King Arthur
Queen of Cyprus | The Legend of King Arthur
Items, characters and locations connected to Morgan | The Legend of King Arthur


Morgan le Fay’s Family and Allies

Father
Duke Gorloïs of Tintagil

Mother
Igraine of Tintagil

Sisters
Margawse of Orkney and Elaine of Tintagil

Half-brother
King Arthur

Husband
King Uriens of Rheged

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)


Sources
Vita Merlini | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1150
Erec | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Second Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval | Attributed to Wauchier of Denain, c. 1200
Parzival | Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1200–1210
Tyolet | Late 12th century
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Mort Artu | 1215-1230
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
La Bataille de Loquifer | c. 1230
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Mort Artu | 1230-1240
Arthour and Merlin | Late 13th century
Huon de Bordeaux | Early 13th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470


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