In Arthurian legend and Celtic myths, Morgan le Fay takes on a wide range of identities and personas – she is sister, sorceress, wise mother, implacable nemesis, and later, grieving goddess – making her one of the most paradoxical and dynamic characters in lore and literature.
Charlotte Spivack notes in Popular Arthurian Traditions that Morgana le Fay, beautiful and nurturing, first appears in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, as one of “the nine sisters of the holy isle of Avalon” (18). In some texts, she is sister or half-sister to the King Arthur, and in other literature, it is he with whom she begets a child, Morgan (Joe). She is a benevolent figure in the earlier British romantic verses, and it is her remarkable healing powers that make her so. In The Grail from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, Arthurian scholar Roger Looms notes that “There is no attribute of Morgan’s better authenticated than her power of healing” (161).
In later literature, her identity starts to change and she is portrayed as “a malicious master of the black arts” (Spivack 18). Maureen Fries notes, in “Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes: Images of Women in Arthurian Tradition” that her degeneration in the later retellings of the myths stems from society’s changing outlook, as her traits start as noble skills of a goddess, and then morphs into the destructive magic of witches and sorceresses (13).
Her powers and her role center towards the destruction of King Arthur, and she comes up with several elaborate ploys to kill him, all of which fail, not for want of clever and diabolic planning, but of fate, as in the case of the assassin she sent, whose horse trips on a hole (Spivack 31).
However, she reverts to her nurturing goddess role, again playing the role of healer and protector to King Arthur, whose fate ultimately leads him, in his final moments, to her grieving care in the isle of Avalon (Fries 13). Although portraying a range of roles and intentions, it is the contradictions of Morgan le Fay that make her resonate in the Arthurian legends.
Fries, Maureen. “Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes: Images of Women in Arthurian Tradition.” Popular Arthurian Traditions. Ed. Sally K. Slocum. Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1992.
Joe, Jimmy. “Morgan Le Fay.” Timeless Myths: Arthurian Women. 24 June 1999. 03 May 2008. ;http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/women.html#Morgan;.
Loomis Roger Sherman. The Grail from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. New York: Columbia University Library, 1965.
Spivack, Charlotte. “Morgan le Fay: Goddess or Witch?” The Company of Camelot: Arthurian Characters in Romance and Fantasy. Eds. Charlotte Spivack and Roberta Lynne Staples. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
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