Morgan le Fay

   There are spiteful, vindictive women recorded in history but Morgan le Fay stands out from their ranks. But was she truly the evil witch crafted by Malory and other Middle Age wordsmiths?
   The problem with researching any Arthurian character through the centuries' worth of literature is the subtle changes that each rendition introduced, not to mention that the collection itself is vast. Morgan is most often associated with Arthur as his half-sister, daughter of Gorlois and Igraine. Because of Uther's murder of her father, a hatred is kindled and when it can not be burned out on Uther, it is transferred to Arthur.

   Morgan's earliest appearance is in Geoffrey of Monmouth's *Vita Merlini* (ca. 1150) where her name is spelled "Morgen." There is some speculation and agreement that the Arthurian matter developed and was transmitted by Celtic (Welsh, Breton, Cornish) troubadours/ bards before the first written Arthurian narratives. Some scholars have tried to work back from this process to connect the personages in the legend with historical persons or with ancient Celtic myth. According to scholars such as R. S. Loomis in his "Morgain la fée and the Celtic Goddesses", the fays (Old French fee, Latin fata) are euhemerized goddesses and Morgan is a version of a Celtic water goddess, one of the Matres or Matronae who appear in Gaulish funerary monuments in groups of three. Loomis also derived the name "Morgan" from the Irish "Morrígan". No matter the arguments against, the addition of the le Fay could indicate the straight corruption of and confusion of the character with the Morrigan, or the Morrigu of Irish/ British mythology. The fey or fairy folk is the modern version of the ancient Tuatha de Danaan Sidhe of which the Morrigu was a member. Loomis also associated her with Modron, who in the Welsh triads is the wife of Urien and mother of Owein). In turn, he derives Modron from a Gallo-Celtic goddess whose Latin name is Matrona (the Great Mother) and who gave her name to the Marne river.
   In addition, the name Morgan or Morcant is generally a man's name. The more proper form for a feminine name as described by other authors and researchers is Morgue or Morgain or Morgne. One surmise would be that certain attributes of a half-sister of Arthur's must have led to comparisons with the Celtic Goddess of battle, so much so, that her original name is forgotten and her nickname used as her epitaph or as we shall see, we may not even be dealing with the Arthur of legend but a different plot. Susi Hafner noted that in the Middle English "Ywain and Gawain" Morgan is male. Chrétien’s original (lines 2948-55) reads, “Car d’un oignement me sovient, / Que me dona Morgue, la sage, / Et si me dist, que nule rage / N’est an teste, que il n’an ost”. The Middle English renders this as a speech by Morgan the Wise: “He [Morgan the Wise] sayd, ‘This unement es so gode...’” (1755 ff.). The masculine pronoun suggests that at least the scribe thought Morgan was male. The edition by M. Mills (Everyman paperback) emends to “Scho”. So the gender confusion might only be scribal error.
   From early Welsh literature, Modron was the daughter of Avallach, wife of Urien, and mother of Owein. The name Modron is often considered a corruption of Matrona, one of the earth goddesses; but by Malory's time, the wife of Urien had become Morgan. For some reason, during the periods of Arthurian rejuvenation, when the Urien story lines were merged into the Arthurian genre, some connection was created between Modron and Arthur. The idea that Morgan was typically the plotter of King Arthur's death might equate her with the Morrigan and suggest a name change but ....
   Urien Rheged ruled from the Cumbrian area in the late sixth century and fought against the growing strength of the Angle kings of Bernicia. He fought and lost and soon Northumbria was born. This was the period of 580-590 CE (following Peredur of York's defeat by the Bernicians) and thus beyond even the later dates of the traditional Arthur. The alliance that Urien presided over was a fractious coalition of British kings, a loose confederation perhaps held together by Urien's power.
   Nennius stated that there was a Morgan in this confederation but he is a man, Morcant Bulc, a reluctant ally. Other purported allies in the alliance were Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde and Gaullauc of the upper Forth. At the same time, there are accounts of King Aedan of dal Riada and King Fiachna of Ulster fighting the English which would indicate Urien had also allied with old enemies. And by some accounts, there is an Arthur, son of King Aedan of dal Riada. Sometime around 589-593, the alliance came close to annihilating the Angles and the Irish/ dal Riadan army captured the Angle stronghold Bamburgh as prize. Morcant, jealous of the loss of Bamburgh to Aedan and Fiachna (Bamburgh and Medcaut were originally part of Morcant's lands), conspires to have Urien assassinated. Could this be the source of the plot in Malory where Morgan attempts to kill Arthur and Urien?
   At the end of Malory, Morgan reappears as one of the triple goddesses that arrives to take Arthur for healing in Avalon. I will always consider Morgan le Fey not as the evil queen of Malory, sowing the seeds of destruction through the venom of her son but as one aspect of the triple goddess that comes to take Arthur for healing in Avalon.

Morgan le Fay in Malory's le Morte

Select Bibliography on Morgan le Fay

Blaess, M. "Arthur's Sisters." BBSIA (1956): 69-77.

Blanchet, M.C. "L'Argante de Layamon." BBSIA (1966): 164-65.

Bogdanow, Fanni. "Morgain's Role in the Thirteenth-Century French Prose Romances of the Arthurian Cycle." Medium Ævum 38 (1969): 123-33.

Delbouille, M. "Morgain soeur d'Arthur." BBSIA (1966): 167.

Fauth, Wolfgang. "Fata Morgana." Beiträge zum Romanischen Mittelalter. Ed. Kurt Baldinger. Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie, Sonderband zum 100-Jährigen Bestehen. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1977. 417-54.

Foulon, C. "La fée Morgue chez Chrétien de Troyes." Mélanges Frappier. Geneva, 1970. 283-90.

Fries, Maureen. "From the Lady to the Tramp: The Decline of Morgan le Fay." Arthuriana 4 (1994): 1-18.

Funcke, Eberhard W. "Morgain und ihre Schwestern: Zur Herkunft und Verwendung der Feenmotivik in der Mittelhochdeutschen Epik." Acta Germanica: Jahrbuch des Germanistenverbandes im Südlichen Afrika 18 (1985): 1-64.

Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens. Ed. Hans Bächtold-Stäubli. Berlin / Leipzig, 1938. 2:1285-95. [general article on lore of fays]

Harf-Lancner, Laurence. Les fées au moyen âge. Nouvelle Bibliothèque du Moyen Âge 8. Paris: Champion, 1984.

Haug, Walter. Das Land von welchem niemand wiederkehrt: Mythos, Fiktion, und Wahrheit in Chrétiens Chevalier de la Charrete, im Lanzelet Ulrichs von Zatzikhoven und im Lancelot Prosaroman. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1978.

Loomis, Roger S. "Morgain la Fée and the Celtic Goddesses." Speculum 20 (1945): 183-203, rpt. in Wales and the Arthurian Legend. Cardiff, 1956. pp. 105-30.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. "Morgain la Fée in Oral Tradition." Romania 80 (1959): 337-67.

"A Survey of Scholarship on the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance Since 1903." In Paton (below) 280-307.

Olstead, M. "Morgain le Fay in Malory's Morte Darthur." BBSIA (1967): 128-38.

O'Sharkey, E. M. "The Identity of the Fairy Mistress in Marie de France's Lai de Lanval." Trivium VI. 1971. pp. 17-25.

Paton, Lucy Allen. Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance. 2nd ed. Burt Franklin Bibliographical Series 18. New York: Burt Franklin, 1960.

Pickford, C. E. "Morgue in the Prophecies de Merlin." BBSIA (1966): 169.

Poirion, D. "Le rôle de la fée Morgue et des ses compagnes dans le Jeu de la Feuillée." BBSIA 18 (1966): 125-35.

Ruggieri, R. "Morgain la fée en Italie: un personnage et un mirage." BBSIA (1966): 170-71.

Twomey, Michael W. Morgain la fée in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: From Troy to Camelot." Text and Intertext in Medieval Arthurian Literature. Ed. Norris J. Lacy. New York: Garland, 1996. pp. 91-115. [cites all earlier scholarship on Morgan in SGGK.]

"Morgan le Fay." Mythen des Mittelalters III: Magier, Verführer, Schurken, ed. Ulrich Müller and Werner Wunderlich (Konstanz: Universitätsverlag, forthcoming).

Vendryes, J. "Review of Jean Marx, La légende arthurienne et le graal." Études Celtiques 6 (1953-54): 365. [refutes derivation of Morgan's name from Irish; see also Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, 3rd ed. (Cardiff, 1991) 461-3 and Harf-Lancner, 265.]

Vinaver, Eugène. "La fée Morgain et les aventures de Bretagne." Mélanges de langue et de littérature de moyen âge et de la renaissance offerts à Jean Frappier. Publications Romanes et Françaises, 112 2. Geneva: Droz, 1970. 2 vols. 1077-83.

Wais, Kurt. "Morgain amante d'Accalon et rivale de Guinièvre." BBSIA (1966): 137-49.

Wathelet-Willem, Jeanne. "La fée Morgain dans la chanson de geste." Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale 13 (1970): 209-19.

Faral, Edmond. "L'ile d'Avallon et la fée Morgane.' Mélanges de linguistique et de littérature offerts a M. Alfred Jeanroy. Paris: Droz, 1928. 243-53.