Every year in my British Literature classes, I teach an Arthurian unit. Every year, I mention King Arthur’s family tree, and his three sisters: Elaine, Margawse, and Morgana (or Morgan le Fay). The first two sisters rarely ever resonate with my students. However, when I mention the third one, they perk up and at least one student asks, “Wasn’t she evil?”
I suppose I can hardly blame them. I once thought the same thing myself. I mean, she was a magic user who used her “necromancy” to deceive various members of Arthur’s court; she tricked her own nephew (Gawain) into entering a beheading contest, where he was found to be less-than-honorable (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); she captures Lancelot and holds him in a cell (Le Morte D’Arthur); and let’s not forget the many times she tries to trap/kill/frighten Guinevere.
Given all of that information, the case for her does not look very good.
And yet, one of the things I love about studying Arthurian literature is how marbled the characters truly are. We tend to categorize medieval romances by archetypes: the damsel-in-distress, the knight-in-shining-armor, the greedy dragon, etc. However, what makes that easy is the narrative structure of medieval prose.
When modern readers read a novel, they have certain expectations of plot, setting, and characterization. Yet, it would be wrong to superimpose those same expectations on a work of medieval literature. In fact, medieval prose spends very little time setting a scene or “digging” into the minds of a character. Medieval prose is typically concerned with one thing and one thing only: Plot.
Thus it makes sense that we can look at the surface-level of a medieval story and pick out archetypes–a plot is composed entirely of archetypes!
But, while plot is the most driving part of medieval prose, it isn’t the only part. There is characterization infused in a medieval narrative. It just happens to be quite subtle most of the time. In many cases, we can only read characters’ motives by judging their actions. Since this is meant to be a short blog post, and not a step-by-step retelling of the life of Morgan le Fay, I have chosen three examples of Morgan’s actions showing the good, the bad, and the ugly…in reverse order.
After Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon–who, even by the medieval accounts, was kind of a jerk–deceives Igraine into marrying him, one of his first acts as a new stepfather is marry off two of Igraine’s daughters, Elaine and Margawse.1 However, for reasons unknown, but perhaps because she was too young, Uther sends the youngest daughter, Morgan, to school in a convent, and “there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy.”2 This is the first inkling the reader has that Morgan knows magic. And she learns it at a convent, of all places.
From a medieval standpoint, this is not a terribly unusual concept. The world existed in three realms: The Supernatural, the Natural, and the Unnatural. The Supernatural superseded the Natural world, existing before it and imposing its will on it. The Unnatural world is essentially a perversion of the Supernatural–it has powers of its own, but its powers exist in twisting the powers from above. The Supernatural and Unnatural Realms are at constant war with each other, but they cannot fight each other directly–they must attack through the Natural Realm. Thus is the Natural World constantly being assaulted by powers from below and powers from above.
In other words, our world is filled with unseen magic.
Humans can access this magic, but at a great cost. The type of magic they access depends upon which powers they call–the powers from above? In Arthurian narrative, this is where priests, nuns, and certain other mystical creatures draw their power.
Or the powers from below? In Arthurian narrative, this is where the femme fatales, sorcerers, and other mystical creatures draw their power.
The “ugly” side, then, is this: Morgan’s motives in using magic are often unclear. She learned necromancy from a convent, which in and of itself seems contradictory–“necromancy” suggests a communion with the dead, the ability to conjure magic from below (“unnatural”). However, a convent suggests communion with the supernatural, and the ability to conjure magic from above. Whose side, then, is she on?
Even her nickname “le Fay” is confusing. “Le Fay,” of course, means “the faerie,” and faeries in medieval lore are difficult creatures to pin down. They are not happy, cute little humanoids with wings who go about sprinkling “fairy dust” to help people fly (thanks, Disney). Rather, to the medieval mind, faeries were capricious, impish creatures who could hurt as well as help someone for no real motive or reason whatsoever, other than the fairy’s own whims. (A good example of this is Shakespeare’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream–Puck causes mischief for mischief’s sake) Just as one cannot always discern a fairy’s motivation, Morgan le Fay’s own motives are difficult to pin down. Thus, I propose when studying Morgan le Fay (or any medieval narrative, really), that we avoid the temptation to neatly categorize characters into archetypes. Just because Morgan’s motivations are at times hard to pin down does not mean she doesn’t have them. And it also doesn’t mean her motives aren’t good ones. Morgan le Fay is no easy archetype, and she certainly isn’t a sociopath.
To prove this, next week, I’ll explore a few of the instances where the text actually gives us her motives for actions–both the “bad” and the “good.” But at least, for now, we can avoid calling her “evil” or “femme fatale” and just call her “human.” That is, human…with a bit of fairy magic.
- Malory, 35, http://www.heroofcamelot.com/docs/Le-Morte-dArthur.pdf
- Malory, 35