Morgan le Fay: Evil Queen or Loving Sister? (Part 2)

by E.J. Lawrence

Last week, we looked at the infamous “evil queen” of Arthurian literature, Morgan le Fay, and found that she’s too complicated of a character to warrant the stigma of pure evil. These complexities I labeled the “ugly” debate. This week, I want to offer some specific examples from the text, showing times when Morgan does acts that can be considered “bad”…but also times when her acts and motivations are more “good.”

Though, as I pointed out last week, medieval literature tends to be so plot-driven that it’s sometimes difficult to discern character motivations, there are times in Arthurian literature when the audience is aware of Morgan le Fay’s motives. One example of her “bad” side would be her jealousy toward Guinevere because of her own love of Lancelot.

When you think about it…it’s kind of amazing Morgan’s plan to kill Guinevere in this manner didn’t work

The few times we are explicitly given Morgan’s motives for her actions, we see a queen jealous of Guinevere, and there are several instances where Morgan tries to trap Guinevere or even cause her death via magic. One such instance is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Bertilak tells Gawain why his Aunt Morgan orchestrated the elaborate scheme of the Green Knight. He says that, while part of the ruse was meant to humble Arthur’s table (she thought them too proud), a secondary motive, the “icing on the cake,” as it were, was “to grieve Guinevere and to bring her to die/ aghast at that same ghoul with his ghostly speech/ with his head in his hand before the high table.”3 In other words, she’d hoped by disguising the man as a green giant, she would both prove Arthur’s knights prideful and frighten Guinevere to death. Two birds. One stone.

In another instance from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Morgan le Fay casts a spell upon a shield, which she gives to Sir Tristram in hopes that he will fight Lancelot. The shield, she tells him, represents Arthur, Guinevere, and a “knight who holdeth them both in bondage.”4 Her plan? To have Tristram fight this knight (whom Morgan knows is Lancelot) and expose Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair because “Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength.”5 The plot fails at exposing Lancelot as a false knight, but does succeed in allowing Tristram to dominate at the tournament. However, I can’t really fault Morgan for wanting to expose Lancelot–Lancelot is in many ways a “false knight.” What one can fault Morgan for is her petty, jealous motive.


Lancelot and Guinevere (Herbert James Draper)–Gee, when you put it like that, no wonder Morgan couldn’t stand them


But at the outset of this post, I mentioned Morgan le Fay could not truly be categorized as “evil.” Rather, like most human beings, she is marbled, and for the most part, the medieval narratives treat her thus. There are two instances in particular which show Morgan le Fay using her magic for more positive ends. In one, she shows a side to herself that is just. A knight leads another knight behind his horse, bound and blindfolded, toward a lake. The two men cross paths with the Queen, and she asks the man on horseback who his prisoner is.

The knight explains he caught the prisoner sleeping with his wife, and now he was going to take the man to the lake and drown him, and then throw his wife in after.6 Morgan questions the prisoner–is this accusation true? The prisoner denies that it is, and says he is a knight of Arthur’s court and cousin to Accolon of Gaul, a man whom Morgan had loved.

“Ye say well,” says Morgan. “For the love of him, ye shall be delivered, and ye shall have

Drawing of a Knight on Horseback (Randolph Caldecott)

your adversary in the same case ye be in.”7 And with that, the prisoner is loosed and the other man is bound. Though the text does not say overtly, it implies that Morgan’s magic allows for this switch. The former prisoner then promptly throws his captor into the lake, where he drowns.

Morgan has, at this point in the story, fallen out of Arthur’s good favor. Yet, rather than tell them knight, “Hey, be sure you tell my brother what I did for you so that maybe he won’t be angry with me anymore,” she tells him, “Tell [Arthur] that I rescued thee, not for love of him, but for love of Accolon, and tell him I fear him not while I can make me and them that be with me in likeness of stones.”8 Their feud, then, isn’t ended there, though Morgan does send him a peace offering a few days later, which Arthur accepts, saying “but little” except that she is a “loving sister”9 (perhaps a bit sarcastically?). However, it’s worth noting that many of the knights were so angry with her words, they called for her to be burnt at the stake, and though it’s clear Arthur is angry, he is more willing to allow peace rather than continue their passive-aggressive argument. Their relationship, more so than the relationship between Arthur and his other sisters, is not much different from how we perceive sibling relationships today. They fight, but at the end of the day, they are family. Even if one’s a king and one can call upon demonic powers.

Perhaps the best example of this love-hate relationship is at Arthur’s death. He commands Bedivere to throw Excalibur in the lake and then to put him on a barge where there are “three queens,” one of whom says, “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.”10 The implication is that this is Queen Morgan herself, come to her brother’s side. Her words make it clear that she wishes he had come to her sooner; then, perhaps, she could have helped him with her magic. As it is, he is too wounded even for her powers, and she ferries him toward Avalon from where, as the legend goes, he will return when England most needs a king.

The Death of King Arthur (James Archer)

Women play no small role in Arthurian legend. And many of the female characters–perhaps, most especially, Morgan le Fay–are complex. Which is why it continues to surprise me when I read articles about how there are so few women in fantasy novels because medieval women did not live very interesting lives…so why would they exist as major characters in medieval-style fantasy novels? Yet, one only has to go to the medieval narratives themselves to discover a world in which women do more than sit at a spinning wheel and gossip. And if one digs a little deeper, going beyond the plot-driven narrative of a medieval story, one can even find women with motivations and desires strikingly similar to the motivations and desires people have today. At her core, Morgan le Fay is the good, the bad, and the ugly side of humanity altogether in a single person. Just like most of us, I’d wager.


  1. SGGK, stanza 99,
  2. Malory, 346,
  3. Malory, 346
  4. Malory, 123
  5. Malory, 123
  6. Malory, 123
  7. Malory, 124
  8. Malory, 732

Marie de France Invents Courtly Love; Or, Why We Have Chivalry All Wrong

by E.J. Lawrence

I love history. My favorite part is learning about historical events, especially ones which occurred out of pure selfishness, or happenstance, that affected people or places hundreds of years later. Henry VIII’s desire to get divorced, which later caused intense strife between the Catholic and Protestant churches, for instance. Or Russia’s Pauline Laws in 1797 that said only male heirs could rule, and thus caused a young czarina to seek out the help of a devilish monk named Rasputin to save her only son. Her attempt to salvage the Romanov line, of course, ended tragically.

Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire, 6th Century

So, when K.P. suggested our May theme be about women in their “purple” (from the Empress Theodora quote), I interpreted this as a question about influence. Not just influencing a decision now and again, but influencing a long-lasting decision–one that affects our world even now.

I’m sure I could look to find women commanding armies (Boudica) or kingdoms (Empress Theodora), but that’s not really where my expertise lies. My expertise lies in literature. Arthurian literature, specifically. At first glance, you might not think women had much influence over the King Arthur stories. After all, the canonical works about King Arthur are all by men.

Perhaps. But they were enjoyed by men and women alike. And one of the most enduring facets of Arthurian legend would not even exist if it weren’t for one very influential woman: Marie de Champagne, also known as Marie de France.

Marie de France was the daughter of another highly influential woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Yes, the same Eleanor who married Henry II (the one who killed Thomas a Beckett) and conspired with her son, Henry the Young, to overthrow his father. Also, this is the same Eleanor who gave birth to Richard the Lionhearted (Marie de France’s half-brother) and John (also Marie’s half-brother, and the same man who signed the Magna Carta).

Let me re-cap that for you: If it weren’t for Eleanor of Aquitaine and her crazy family, we would likely have no Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, no T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, no Robin Hood, no Magna Carta either!the influence that this one family had on literature is immeasurable.

But we’re here to discuss Marie de France.

Marie de France by Richard of Verdun

Yes. Without Marie de France, there might not be a Lancelot, and there certainly wouldn’t be a salacious love triangle between him, King Arthur, and the beauteous Queen Guinevere.

You see, back in the day, authors used to have patrons. The patron would allow the author (or painter, or musician, etc.) to work on their art, as long as they could commission a piece from time to time for themselves. Marie de France patronized the writings of one Chrétien de Troyes. We know almost nothing about Chrétien, except that he was a writer, possibly from Troyes (in Champagne), he had an extensive education, and he was fascinated by the King Arthur tales. Anything beyond this is mostly speculation.

But we do know Marie de France asked him to write “a romance.” “Romance” for this time period is a type of work that dealt with chivalry and noble quests, not necessarily a love story. However, in this case, it was a love story. Chrétien says that “The Countess presents [me] with the matter and the meaning, and [I] undertake to shape the work, adding little to it except effort and careful attention.”1 This means, of course, that the story was all her idea, and Chrétien claims he did not change anything. Whether he says this as a dutiful artist to his patron, or to ensure everyone knows this story was not his idea, we don’t know. Yet, we are certain this story is hers.

The story is “The Knight of the Cart,” and it introduces Lancelot as he goes to rescue Guinevere from Meleagant. It is in this tale, we see Lancelot as being wholly in love, devoted to his queen…but more than a “I really hope no harm comes to my best friend’s wife” kind of way. Or even more than a “She’s the queen, it’s my duty to help her” kind of way. Rather, we get scenes such as when Lancelot is forced to lie with a woman overnight (a common trope in Arthurian literature), he keeps his shirt on, and lays as far from her as humanly possible. The Lady recognizes that “The knight had only one heart, and it was no longer his; he had entrusted it to another[…]Love, who governs all hearts, made it stay in one place.”2 It’s at this moment the Lady excuses herself, telling Lancelot she knows her company isn’t pleasing to him. Lancelot “gladly” lets her go. He is so committed to his love that he refuses the advances of another.

His passion is later compared to Pyramus when, as he fights Meleagant, Guinevere wills him to stop, and Lancelot obeys, for “A lover is obedient; when he is completely in love, he performs his beloved’s pleasure eagerly and promptly. Thus Lancelot, who loved more than Pyramus–if love more any man could–was compelled to obey.”3

But, of course, these vignettes could perhaps be brushed aside as “Courtly Love”–a name often given to the “duties” a knight owes his “lady” in such romances. Despite the title of this post, I’m not here to debate Courtly Love. However, the story makes it perfectly clear this is more than Courtly Love, for later, Lancelot breaks the bars off the queen’s prison and “had all he desired. The queen eagerly sought his company and his pleasure as he held her in his arms and she held him in hers. In the pleasure of loving, he tasted such rapturous happiness by kissing and caressing her that theirs was, without word of lie, a wondrous joy, whose equal has never yet been heard or known. But on this matter I shall always be silent. Every tale should pass over it in silence. The choicest and most pleasurable joys are those the tale keeps from us.”4

But on this matter I shall always be silent. Every tale should pass over it in silence. The choicest and most pleasurable joys are those the tale keeps from us.4

As he leaves her room the next morning, before he is discovered, he is described as leaving like a suppliant before an altar.4 I mean, that’s a romance, right? Kissing, holding, cut scene, idol worship of the lover? Well, it’s an Arthurian Romance, in any case.

Lancelot and Guinevere’s Last Night Together by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Though Chrétien’s tale ends well, without the downfall of the kingdom, we know the impact the story has on the legend moving forward. The Lancelot/Guenevere affair sets off the chain reaction for the what will ultimately be the demise of Camelot. It’s because of this affair that Lancelot is barred from the Grail quest. Without this element of the story, Malory, Tennyson, and T.H. White would probably never written their versions. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to write their versions with the same sense of gravitas. For the fall of Arthur’s kingdom is a tragedy…but Malory’s story doesn’t end there. Rather, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur actually ends with Lancelot’s death, as he’s spirited away by “more men than he had ever seen angels.”5 In the end, Lancelot finds redemption for his betrayal. In Lancelot, there’s a picture of Malory himself, a man with overwhelming potential who gave it all up for “love.” Lancelot finds forgiveness in ways one can only imagine Malory hoped to. So many end the story with Camelot’s destruction, but the ending of Malory’s tale is a beautiful representation of redemption. The “romances” often get lumped in with ideas about “Courtly Love” and damsels in distress, and while some of them are that simple, they expanded to be tales about so much more. Stories about love and betrayal and loss and faith.

For all this (or a good bit of it, at least), we can thank Marie de France and her patronage of the arts. So keep sharing your stories! Who can say what resounding influence they might also have on future generations?

If you’re interested in more about Lancelot and Grail lore, I also have a piece you can read here:

Transposing the Planes: Supernatural vs. Natural Elements in Le Morte D’Arthur

1 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 170

2 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 185

3 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 216

4 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 227

5 Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Modern Library, 1999.