Morgan le Fay

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For other uses, see Morgan le Fay (disambiguation).
Morgan le Fay by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1864)

Morgan le Fay /ˈmɔrɡən lə ˈf/, alternatively known as Morgan le Faye, Morgane, Morgaine, Morgana and other names, is a powerful sorceress in the Arthurian legend. Early works featuring Morgan do not elaborate her character beyond her role as a fay or magician. She became much more prominent in the later cyclical prose works such as the Lancelot-Grail and the Post-Vulgate Cycle, in which she becomes an antagonist to King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.

The early accounts of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales refer to Morgan in conjunction with the Isle of Apples (Avalon) to which the fatally wounded Arthur was carried. To the former, she was an enchantress, one of nine sisters. In the early romances of Chrétien de Troyes, she also figures as a healer. In later stories, Morgan is said to be the daughter of Arthur's mother Lady Igraine and her first husband Gorlois, so that Arthur (son of Igraine and Uther Pendragon) is her half-brother. She becomes an adversary of the Round Table when Guinevere discovers her adultery with one of her husband's knights, though she eventually reconciles with her brother and even retains her original role, serving as one of the four enchantresses who carry him to Avalon after his final Battle of Camlann. In Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur ("The Death of Arthur") and elsewhere, she is married, unhappily, to King Urien of Gore, Ywain is her son, and her sisters include Morgause.


Voyage of King Arthur and Morgan le Fay to the Isle of Avalon by Frank William Warwick Topham (1888)

As her epithet "le Fay" (from the French la fée, meaning fairy) indicates, the figure of Morgan appears to have been originally a supernatural being. Her main name could be connected to the myths of Morgens, or Morgans or Mari-Morgans, which are Welsh and Breton water spirits. While later works make her specifically human, she retains her magical powers.[1] Inspiration for her character likely came from earlier Welsh mythology and literature. Additional speculation sometimes connects Morgan with the Irish goddess Morrígan, though there are few similarities between the two beyond the spelling of their names.

She has been compared with the goddess Modron, a figure derived from the continental Dea Matrona and featured with some frequency in medieval Welsh literature. Modron appears in Welsh Triad 70, in which her children by Urien, Owain and Morfydd, are called the "Three Blessed Womb-Burdens of the Island of Britain,"[2] and a later folktale preserved in the manuscript known as Peniarth 147 records the story behind these conceptions more fully.[3] Urien is Morgan le Fay's husband in the continental romances, while Owain mab Urien is the historical figure behind their son Ywain. Additionally, Modron is called "daughter of Avallach," a Welsh ancestor deity whose name can also be interpreted as a noun meaning "a place of apples".[4] In fact, in the story of Owain and Morfydd's conception in Peniarth 147, Modron is called the "daughter of the king of Avallach." This is similar to Avalon, the "Isle of Apples" with which Morgan le Fay has been associated since her earliest appearances.

Because her name and sometimes her traits resemble those of many supernatural women in Welsh and Irish tradition, many assume that Morgan is a remnant of a pagan Celtic goddess or spirit. Morgan’s Celtic genealogy may include war goddesses (Irish Morrigan and Macha) as well as waterfolk (Irish Muirgen, Welsh Modron, and Breton Morganes)—though none of these figures can be positively identified as her ancestor. About 1216 Gerald of Wales wrote that in the “fabulosi Britones” [tales of the Britons] an imaginary goddess named Morganis transported Arthur to Avalon to heal him. This is one of our few documented links between the Celtic oral tradition and the figure that would emerge in romance as Morgan le Fay.[5]

— Carl Lindahl, Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs

In medieval literature[edit]

Morgan first appears by name in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, written about 1150. Purportedly an account of the wizard Merlin's later adventures, it elaborates some episodes from Geoffrey's more famous earlier work, Historia Regum Britanniae. In Historia, Geoffrey explains that, after Arthur is seriously wounded at the Battle of Camlann, he is taken off by her to Avalon, the Isle of Apples, to be healed. In Vita Merlini, he describes this island in more detail and names "Morgen" as the chief of nine magical queen sisters who dwell there. Morgan retains this role as Arthur's other-worldly healer in much later literature. Her sisters' names are Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton.[6][7][8]

Before the cyclical Old French romances, appearances of Morgan are few. Chrétien de Troyes mentions her in his first romance Erec and Enide, completed around 1170; in it, one guest at the titular characters' wedding, a certain Guigomar, Lord of the Isle of Avalon, is a friend of Morgan. She is later mentioned in the same poem when Arthur provides a wounded Erec with a healing balm made by his sister Morgan; this episode both affirms her early role as a healer and provides the first mention of Morgan as Arthur's sister. Chrétien again refers to Morgan as a great healer in his later romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, in an episode in which two ladies restore the maddened hero to his senses with a concoction provided by Morgan. However, while Modron is the mother of Owain in Welsh literature, and Morgan would be assigned this role in later French literature, this first continental association between Ywain and Morgan does not imply they are son and mother. The Arthurian tale Geraint son of Erbin, based on de Troyes's Erec and Enide, mentions King Arthur's "chief physician", Morgan Tud; it is believed that this character, though considered a male in Gereint, may be derived from Morgan le Fay (though this has been a matter of debate among Arthurian scholars since the 19th century. The epithet Tud may be a Welsh or Breton cognate or borrowing of Old Irish tuath, "north, left, sinister, wicked", also "fairy, elf").[9][10]

Morgan Le Fay by John R. Spencer Stanhope (1880)

Morgan's role is greatly expanded in the 13th-century Lancelot-Grail (Vulgate Cycle) and the subsequent works inspired by it. The youngest of Duke of Cornwall Gorlois and Igraine's daughters, she is sent to a convent when Uther Pendragon kills her father and marries her mother. There she begins her study of magic, but is interrupted when Uther betroths her to his ally Urien. Unhappy with her husband, she takes a string of lovers until she is caught by a young Guinevere, who expels her from court in disgust. Morgan continues her magical studies under Merlin, all the while plotting against Guinevere. In subsequent chapters she uses her skills to foil Arthur's knights, especially Lancelot, whom she alternately tries to seduce (including imprisoning him along with her fellow enchantress friends Queen Sedile and the Queen of Sorestan, each of whom wants to make him their lover[11]) and to expose as Guinevere's adulterous lover. In the prose Tristan, she delivers to Arthur's court a magic drinking horn from which no unfaithful lady can drink without spilling, hoping to reveal the infidelity. According to Gerald of Wales, Morgan was the ruler and patroness of an area near Glastonbury and a close blood-relation of Arthur.

Queen Morgana le Fey tossing Excalibur's sheath to the Lady of the Lake, Howard Pyle's illustration from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903)

Thomas Malory mostly follows the portrayal of Morgan in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles in his book Le Morte d'Arthur, though he expands her role in some cases. Through magic and mortal means, she tries to arrange her half-brother Arthur's downfall, most famously when she arranges for her lover Accolon to obtain the sword Excalibur and use it against Arthur in single combat. Failing in this, Morgan throws Excalibur's protective scabbard into a lake. She has at least two elder sisters, Elaine and Morgause, the latter of whom is the mother of Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravain by King Lot and usually the traitor Mordred by Arthur.

Morgan turns up throughout the High and Late Middle Ages, generally in works related to the cycles of Arthur or Charlemagne. At the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it is revealed that the entire Green Knight plot has been instigated by Morgan as a test for Arthur and his knights and to frighten Guinevere. Morgan's importance to this particular narrative has been disputed and called a deus ex machina[12] and simply an artistic device to further connect Gawain's episode to the Arthurian story. In the legends of Charlemagne, she is most famous for her association with Ogier the Dane, whom she takes to her mystical island palace to be her lover. In the chanson de geste of Huon de Bordeaux, Morgan is the mother of the fairy king Oberon by none other than Julius Caesar.[13]

Morgan le Fay, or Fata Morgana in Italian, has been associated with Sicily since the Norman conquest of southern Italy.[14] As such she gave her name to the form of mirage common off the shores of Sicily, the Fata Morgana.[14] The medieval romance Floriant et Florete places Morgan's mountain home of Montegibel on Sicily, and later Italian folklore describes Morgan as living in Mount Etna.[15]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ Briggs, Katharine (1978). "Morgan le Fay." In Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, p. 303. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 0-394-73467-X.
  2. ^ Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, p. 195.
  3. ^ Preserved in Peniarth 147. See Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, p. 449–451.
  4. ^ Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, p. 274–275.
  5. ^ Folks, Cathalin B. (2000). "Morgan le Fay". In Lindahl, Carl. Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs 2. p. 682. ISBN 1-57607-121-9. 
  6. ^ Philippe Walter (1999). Le devin maudit: Merlin, Lailoken, Suibhne : textes et étude, p. 127, ISBN 2843100186
  7. ^ Frédéric Lachèvre (1968). Mélanges, p. 251, ISBN 1175272361
  8. ^ Algernon Herbert (1836). Britannia After the Romans, p. 11, ISBN 1104627353
  9. ^ Paton, Lucy Allen. Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance, Ginn, 1903, p. 259-274.
  10. ^ Loomis, Roger Sherman. Arthurian Tradition and Chretien de Troyes, Columbia Univ. Press, 1949, p. 488.
  11. ^ Bruce, Christopher W. (1999). The Arthurian Name Dictionary. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0-8153-2865-6. Retrieved 24 May 2010. 
  12. ^ Albert B. Friedman, "Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" in Speculum, volume 35, p. 260-274.
  13. ^ Sion, C.M.H. (translated). Saints and She-Devils (Foundation Werkplaats Wetenschap, NL). Rubicon Press, 1987. ISBN 0-948695-06-4.
  14. ^ a b Adeleye, Gabriel; Acquah-Dadzie, Kofi; Sienkewicz, Thomas J.; McDonough, James T. (1999). World Dictionary of Foreign Expressions: a Resource for Readers and Writers. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers. p. 142. ISBN 0-86516-423-1. 
  15. ^ Bruce, Christopher (1999). "Sicily". In The Arthurian Name Dictionary. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0-8153-2865-6. Retrieved 24 May 2010.

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