Copyright: me. Today. I keel you.
The world of Arthurian legend is perhaps best known for Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Quest for the Holy Grail. While female roles might not be the first thing that springs to mind, each story has at least a small part played by a woman. Be they hags, maidens, queens or witches, the driving force of many tales of King Arthur are the women surrounding the knights. Guinevere may be the most famous, but arguably the most important female character is Morgan la Fey, Arthur’s half-sister, an instigator, and Arthur’s final embrace. Morgan is more than a character; she is a reminder of the Celtic foundation of the story, and the embodiment of a Celtic goddess. She is a lover, a mother, a healer, a killer, a sister and an instigator, which roots her identity firmly on the foundation of the Morrigan.
In the earliest tales of Arthur, the only mention of Morgan comes at the end of the story. After his mortal wounding at the hands of Mordred, the legend says “he was was taken to the isle of Avallach by Modron, and that he is waiting there until the time comes to resume his leadership of the British armies” (Markale 1977, 173). At this point in the story, Arthur’s sister, if mentioned at all, is a woman named Anna and otherwise unremarkable. The name Modron is the Welsh variety of the Gallic Matrona, both of which are generic names for the Celtic mother goddess (Markale 1995, 182). The similarity of these words to the Latin matronae should not be dismissed. “In various parts of Britain we find the Goddess referred to merely as Modron, which means ‘mother’ “(Stewart, 64). In several works it is plainly stated that Morgan is based on Modron/Matrona and not the Morrigan, but this is simple semantics. Morrigan is herself a mother goddess, albeit from Ireland, and thus fits under the heading of Matrona. Arthur is unarguably British, and thus the inclusion of an Irish goddess is suspect; however, the only difference is in name. While the source for the name ‘Morgan’ is more likely to be ‘Modron’ than ‘Morrigan,’ they are still one and the same; Modron and Morrigan are themselves from the same root.
In Ireland we see the Morrigan playing the part of the female deity embodying the land, counterpart and consort to the Dagda or Cernunnos. Often referred to as “the Queen of Demons” she is “both fertile and destructive” (Cunliffe, 186). Destruction is not something Americans would normally associate with a mother goddess**. In the Celtic mind, however, nothing can live without death.
Awesome goddesses like the Irish Morrigan, who often appears in triple form, are not the stereotypical seekers after blood and battle, but reveal an inherent unity of life and death: the Morrigan controls both death and sexuality, and may appear as an alluring but deadly maiden or a screaming hag in early tales; hence she takes in order to give. (Stewart, 58)
Evidence of the triplicate nature of Morgan can be seen all over the Arthurian legend. Some authors have chosen to split Morgan into three women, the sisters Morgan, Morgause and Elaine. The inhabitants of the isle of Avalon vary also, from just Morgan, to Morgan and her two sisters, to nine women (three times three).
It is ruled by nine sisters under a system of benign laws to which visitors coming from our regions are introduced. Of the nine sisters, one surpasses the others in beauty and power. Her name is Morgan and she teaches the use of plants and how to cure sickness. She knows the art of changing one’s appearance and of flying through the air with the aid of wings, like Daedalus (Markale 1995, 5).
This split into three separate characters is precendently Celtic, particularly in Ireland. “The great goddess, the Morrígan in her plural form, the Morrígna, resolves into three: Morrígan, Badb, and Nemain” (Cunliffe, 187). The similarity between Elaine and Nemain might also be noted.
Further evidence of Morgan’s origins in the Morrigan can be seen in the above reference to Daedalus and in the story of Owein son of Uryen. Owein is given a flock of ravens to fight for him; “the end of the tale of Owein tells how Owein stayed in Arthur’s court as his steward until he returned to his own land with the 300 swords of Kynverchin… and his flight of ravens, and they were victorious wherever they went” (Markale 1977, 135). Markale goes on to say “Owein’s mother is supposed to be the goddess Matrona, or Modron, who Thomas Malory identifies with Morgan; and Modron could turn herself into a bird.” Perhaps the most well known symbol of the Morrigan is the raven or crow, seen in one of the Morrigan’s triplicate forms; “Morrigan means ‘Phantom Queen’ while her other forms are Nemhain and Badhbh meaning ‘Frenzy’ and ‘Crow’ or ‘Raven’ “(Stewart, 80).
Understanding Morgan as the Morrigan makes her first appearance in the Arthurian legend painfully obvious: she is the bearer of Arthur’s body to Avalon. She appears after a terrible battle to claim the body of a great warrior, and not to bury him. The oldest Arthur tales see Morgan treating his wounds so that Arthur may one day return to rule Britain. There is perhaps no better way to personify a goddess responsible for fertility and destruction, life and death.
Since that initial inclusion, Morgan has been written more into the stories of Arthur’s knights, often as an antagonist in some form. While this antagonism is generally aimed at Lancelot, and sometimes other knights, in some stories she stands in direct opposition to Arthur himself.
In The Story of Morgan and Arthur by Thomas Malory, Morgan hatches a plan to kill both her brother Arthur and her husband Uryen, so she can be freed to marry her lover, Accolon. Arthur is imprisoned and Excalibur secretly replaced with an imitation. Excalibur is given to Accolon to use against Arthur and thus kill the king; the Lady of the Lake saves Arthur by pulling the real sword out of Accolon’s hands before he can use it against Arthur. Arthur then uses Excalibur to defeat Accolon; he dies of his wounds, but not before revealing the entire plot to Arthur. Meanwhile, Morgan, thinking Arthur is dead, tries to kill Uryen with his own sword while he sleeps but is stopped by their son, Yvain (seen earlier as Owein). Learning later that Arthur has killed her lover, she is infuriated and sends him a magic cloak that will burn his skin if he puts it on. Arthur is again saved by the Lady of the Lake, and this time he banishes Morgan from court. (Markale 1977, 45-46)
What isn’t shown is a purpose behind Morgan’s treachery beyond desiring to replace her husband with her lover. Given her eventual claiming of Arthur’s body and their bonds of kinship, her scheming to kill Arthur seems misplaced, or incompletely explained at the least. This story seems to be exception rather than the rule, as Morgan’s familial bonds with Arthur explain many of her other schemes, particularly her venomous relationship with Lancelot and Guinevere.
While the argument is made elsewhere that Guinevere and Morgan are the representatives of Christianity and paganism, respectively (especially in modern fantasy such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon), the simpler contrast between the two is one of color. Guinevere is depicted as blond and fair; her name contains the adjective gwynn or gwenn, “white” in Celtic (Markale 1995, 85) and she is associated with Arthur’s glorious kingship. Morgan on the other hand, “who is distinctly dark and somber, and who represents a force of darkness” (Markale 1995, 84) is associated with crows and ultimately Arthur’s death. Another telling difference is Guinevere’s barrenness, while Morgan (albeit sometimes under the guise of Morgause or Elaine) is decidedly fertile.
Whether attributable to defense of Arthur or opposition of Guinevere, many of Morgan’s schemes end up directed at Lancelot, the man who consistently cuckolds Arthur. In the third part of Lancelot in Prose, Morgan repeatedly attempts to expose Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair, which serves as a call to adventure for Lancelot and several other characters.
Morgan catches Lancelot shortly after he escapes the Valley of No Return and tries (unsuccessfully) to get Guinevere’s ring from his finger. There is another adventure after he escapes, and he inexplicably returns to Morgan, who now swaps Guinevere’s ring for a fake. Morgan sends the ring to Arthur, with a fraudulent deathbed confession from Lancelot begging forgiveness. Guinevere manages to convince Arthur that the ploy is false, and another long chain of adventures happen, in which Lancelot fathers Galahad with Elaine (Markale 1977, 37-38).
Much later, Morgan captures Lancelot again, this time locking him in her castle for more than a year. Lancelot decides to paint the walls of his prison with the story of his love for Guinevere, which Morgan endorses as a means of Lancelot incriminating himself. He escapes before she can use this against him, however (Markale 1977, 39).
This painting comes to light again in the fifth part of Lancelot in Prose when Arthur and some of his knights are lost in the forest and fortuitously come upon Morgan’s castle. Morgan shows Arthur Lancelot’s artwork, and although Arthur does not completely believe Morgan, this leads directly to Lancelot and Guinevere’s exposure (Markale 1977, 41).
In the tale of Sir Tristram, Morgan is again plotting against Lancelot. Tristram is portrayed here as a knight of some great renown, second only to Lancelot. “Tristram is himself manipulated by Morgan la Fey into bearing to Camelot a shield depicting Arthur and Guinevere being dominated by Lancelot, with the intention of bringing shame on the court” (Fulton, 291).
In Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green knight reveals at the end of the story that the entire plot was undertaken at the behest of Morgan le Fay (Fulton, 255). The purpose, again, is an attack on Guinevere: “She put this magic upon me to deprive you of your wits, in hope Guinevere to hurt, that she in horror might die aghast at that glamoury that gruesomely spake with its head in its hand before the high table” (Sir Gawain, 118-119).
That Morgan has a vendetta against Guinevere, and consequently Lancelot, is evident. The precise reason why she constantly plots against the lovers is subject to conjecture.
The first point to consider is that the Christianization of the Arthurian legend brought with it the concept of adultery as a deadly sin. Lancelot as a knight, a Christian, and a seeker of the Holy Grail, was supposed to be virtuous. Though Lancelot’s love for Guinevere was stated to be “perfect” (Markale 1977, 37) and he was never fickle to his lady, she was never anything but Arthur’s wife and queen, and thus her relationship with Lancelot was forbidden under Christian doctrine.
Something had to be done about Lancelot and Guinevere, both from a Christian perspective and to forward the story. Morgan then is placed in the role of prosecuter and penalizer, continually trying to bring Lancelot and Guinevere to justice. It is a surprisingly modern form of justice, with hearsay and verbal condemnation not enough to implicate Lancelot; Morgan needs solid proof, and preferably (in good Christian fashion) a confession. In the end, the lovers must be caught in the act for any action to be taken, and they are too far gone to be redeemed. The country is torn apart, Arthur is killed, and Guinevere ends up in a nunnery, Lancelot taking vows soon after.
The second matter to consider is rooted in Morgan’s identity as the Morrigan. The Morrigan gives and takes, kills and heals; the entire situation between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is in need of the sort of balance a Celtic goddess is especially suited to deliver.
A Celtic king, much like the Celtic god Dagda or Cernunnos, was married to the land. Arthur was virile, a strong king, and Britain did well under his rule; his marriage to a barren woman is counterintuitive. That this woman would then betray him constantly for many years compounds the problem. Guinevere needs to be removed so that the king’s line can be continued. Given that the Morrigan has already born the king a son – Mordred, bearing similarity perhaps to Mabon son of Modron in another myth – Guinevere and Lancelot’s intrusion in the natural order of things needs to be rectified. The Morrigan has been demoted into a mere student of Merlin (Stewart, 90), so the range of supernatural powers normally attributed to a goddess have been greatly limited and she is reduced to using glamours and trickery to try to bring balance to Britain. Exposing Lancelot with the Queen is less an act of vengefulness and more one of patriotism; colloquially, it wasn’t personal.
Conversely, had Morgan not worked so hard to expose Lancelot and Guinevere, there arises the possibility that Arthur could have died peacefully in his bed and Mordred quietly assumed the throne as Arthur’s next of kin and nearest relation. While that might have been the better thing to happen to Britain, it makes for a terrible story. At some point the desires of the storytellers have to be factored in; the great warrior king Arthur simply cannot die of old age. Betrayal, incest, treachery, patricide, regicide, scorned women and flawed heros make for a far better tale.
That Arthur’s legend is simply that – a story, greatly embellished so far as to make the original undiscernable – introduces the question of the Morrigan’s inclusion. As previously noted, the original stories only include Morgan at the very end of the tale, as Modron. She takes Arthur to Avalon, the other world, and tends his otherwise mortal wounds. Arthur’s original sister was named Anna and had no obvious connection to the Celtic goddess. It is long after the decline of the Celts and the Christianization of the story that Morgan makes inroads into the heart of the legend.
The obvious connection between Morgan and Morrigan/Modron/Matrona and her relatively late introduction to the story leads to the supposition that she was a result of the Christianization, and not a resurgence or regression. Many pagan forms and functions were absorbed into Christianity to make conversion easier to swallow. The timing of Easter every year is a clear illustration of this; that some form of secular or Christian holiday now falls on all eight of the Druidic sabbats is another.
Reintroducing the antiquated Celtic goddess as a force of treachery and malice against the more sympathetic treatment of Guinevere and Lancelot could have been used as a conversion tool. That the Arthurian legend survived at all during the Inquisition, with its overtly pagan themes, support of magic and near deification of Merlin, suggests that the legend was too important to be destroyed.
Morgan’s role in the Arthur legends as an antagonist to Guinevere can be likened to the struggle between Celtic paganism and early Christianity. Arthur the king chose Christianity in marrying Guinevere, but the country had not successfully converted. Morgan the mother goddess is fertile; Guinevere the sinner is barren. In the end, Arthur is reclaimed by the land, taken to Avalon with Morgan, while Guinevere goes to God, the abbess of the nunnery at which she takes vows. Arthur is thus lost, as much as the old faith is.
Regardless of the motives of those writing the story, the presense of the Morrigan looming behind the character of Morgan is difficult to deny. Whatever name assigned to her, she is the archetypical triple goddess of Celtic descent.
Within the Arthurian legend, Morgan plays all the roles we see in the Morrigan. She is a maiden as Arthur’s sister, a mother to Mordred and/or Owein, a wife to Uryen, a lover to Accolon, a wielder of supernatural power as a student of Merlin, a representative of the land as an herbalist and druid of Avalon, a bringer of war and chaos as the instigator of countless adventures including the conflicts between Arthur & Lancelot and Arthur & Mordred, and lastly a healer and bringer of closure when she takes Arthur’s body to Avalon.While Guinevere might be the first woman who comes to mind with the legend of Arthur, Morgan is undoubtedly the most important. Guinevere is a static character, committed to her marriage with Arthur and her love of Lancelot, never changing until the world changes around her. Morgan, on the other hand, is the vector for change in the world. Her instigations serve as a call to adventure for numerous knights, forcing the progression of the story. Morgan, as befits the Goddess Morrigan, leaves a profound mark on the world of Arthur.