The Arthurian Romances were written by many authors over a period of hundreds of years. Due to this fact, the stories and characters are complex and evolve over time to reveal how the culture changes. The stories actually reveal more about the cultural climate of the time period when they were written than of the historical time period of King Arthur.
The examination of the development of the characters can lead to a better understanding of the mainstream attitudes toward the ideas that those characters represent. An example of a complex character whose development mirrors changes in the culture through the centuries is Morgan le Fay. Due to the sheer volume of information and complexity of the subject, this paper will only look at the changes in Morgan’s character and how she relates to Arthur and Guinevere in four major works in the Arthurian library. These works are Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, the Vulgate Cycle, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. In each of these works, there are shifts in Morgan’s relationship to Arthur and Guinevere that represent shifts in the society’s attitudes toward gender and religion. This is just a small sample of how these characters represent the cultural climate of the time period they are written.
The Arthurian romances are primarily written by Christian writers and will represent the cultural value of that society. Our main character, King Arthur, represents Christianity and Morgan le Fay represents the Celtic faith. Guinevere is a little more complicated because of her gender. On the surface, one would think that since Guinevere is Arthur’s wife, she would also represent Christianity but it is her gender that connects her to the matriarchal, Celtic society. With Guinevere’s relationship to Arthur and Morgan, we see the shifts of gender relations over the centuries. After looking at these changes and how they manifest through these works over time, it becomes clear that the power struggle with the faiths is closely tied to the power struggle of gender. The main difference is that the religions don’t need each other to survive but the genders do. This is why we need Guinevere to represent gender issues as Morgan’s foil.
Prior to appearing in the Arthurian legends, Morgan is represented in Celtic mythology. In many of the Celtic legends, she is portrayed as a goddess but there is no Christianity to contend with so no Arthur or Guinevere. Once Morgan is placed in the Christian context, her character changes. Because early Arthurian legends are written by Christian writers, Morgan, the representation of the Celtic faith, is no longer a goddess. She becomes more human and less powerful.
Morgan is originally introduced to the Arthurian legends around 1150 in Vita Merlini. In this text, Morgan is both a healer and possesses magical powers like shape shifting and the ability to fly but these qualities are not seen negatively. “She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person … She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus” (Vita Merlini). She is a positive character, an educated woman that saves Arthur’s life. The relationship between she, Arthur, and Guinevere is not yet complicated. She is equal to if not more powerful than the men in the story but it is not seen as a threat to anyone, she has female power and they have male power. This is the same in the religious arena of the period, the Celtic society is still present and they coexist with the budding Christian church.
In later works, Morgan will not be portrayed as favorably as in Vita Merlini for several hundred years. “Morgan is depicted as petty and malicious. Such behavior contrasts with her earlier appearance in Vita Merlini, where she functions primarily as a healer” (Venters, 2012). “Vita Merlini” is from a time when both matriarchal Celtic faith and patriarchal Christian faith were in existence and not exclusionary. Since the Christian church is not powerful enough to feel threatened by the Celtic presence, we see an uncomplicated relationship with these characters. Once the relationship of the cultures becomes complicated, so too does the relationships between the characters.
In Vulgate Cycle, which was created sometime between 1210-1230, we see Morgan villainized and furthur humanized. She is educated in a convent but instead of learning Christian lessons, she learns magic. This development of her character represents a clear rejection of Chrisitanity and tie to the Celtic faith. The villianization of Morgan demonstrates how the attitude of tolerance towards the Celtic faith no longer exists within the church. By humanizing Morgan, the authors take away the mystique and power of the Celtic faith. This is one way the religion is devalued in this text. At this point, the Christian faith has gained popularity and the society has become patriarchal which is reflected by the developments made by the authors of the Vulgate Cycle.
Major developments are made in the relationship of Arthur and Morgan in this text. Morgan is no longer some benevolent stranger that heals Arthur, she is his older sister and his enemy. The Celtic religion is the older “sibling” to Christianity and has, at this point in history, become the enemy to the Christian church. Arthur is seen as good and Morgan as evil. She uses deciet and trickery to manipulate the story, even going so far as to seduce Arthur and have a child by him. This child, Mordred, eventually usurps Arthur which might be seen as a warning by the authors against consorting with practictioners of the Celtic faith. Her power makes her dangerous even by association, just like the Celtic faith at the time.
Morgan is not the only threat to Arthur and his kingdom but infidelity, which is a sin in the Christian faith. It is the adulterous affairs of Morgan and Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot that lead to the destruction of the Round Table and ultimately Camelot. Guinevere and Lancelot have a love that is true but because it is forbidden, it leads to division and deterioation of foundations of the Round Table. Guinevere is jealous and untrustworthy. She is inconsistent and moody. Arthur is also unfaithful but he is seen as a victim of the seduction of Morgan, his sister. In both of theses situations, it is the woman that is responsible for sin, just as it is in Christianity with the apple and fall of man. Guinivere is married, not Lancelot, so she has more responsibility for the sinful act. Morgan is the seductress and instigator for incest and in the Bible, Eve is the one that lures Adam into partaking of the forbiden fruit. All these acts lead to a seperation from the church and the downfall of the main characters’ world.
Making the primary female characters sinful makes the statement that women are not just weaker but in need of being protected from themselves. Also, since women use seduction and trickery to get what they want, they are feared and in need of domination. This mirrors the desire of the Christian church to repress the Celtic faith. There is no longer a live and let live attitude; the pagan, female empowered way of life is a threat that needs to be controlled.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was created somewhere between 1340 and 1400, shows development in both the Morgain character and the relationship between Christianity and Celtic faith. In this piece, Morgain is hardly mentioned but she is the driving force of the entire story. “Morgain has by far the most important role in the poem, both with regard to her initiating the plot and her exercise of direct influence upon other characters in the poem” (Carson, 1962). She is powerful, manipulative, devious, jealous, and most important, she is behind the scenes.
At this point, the Christian church had successfully marginalized the pagan faith and diminished women’s power within society. This is seen with how Morgain and Guinivere seemingly have no legitimate power in the poem. Guinivere is a beautiful object that plays no real part and Morgain is only powerful from behind the scenes using manipulation and trickery. The only way the women exert their power is by controlling the men that have the power. In this time period, this was also true. Women couldn’t hold land or property, only through a male family member. It was a man’s world and women gained power through the men in their lives.
Mists of Avalon
Mists of Avalon, written in 1982, is a story told from the women’s perspective. The contemporary world is as different from the time of the earlier versions as Morgan in the contemporary versions is from her previous portrayals. Like with many contemporary versions of the Arthurian romances, Morgain is a sympathetic character. She is directly identified with the pagan religions as high priestess of Avalon. She is the older half sister to Arthur and slightly jealous of him and the attention he recieves as a child. The older Celtic religion also recieves less attention than the Christian religion and practitioners of the faith are marginalized in Western society. Unlike many of the earlier versions of the Arthurian Romances, there is more acceptance of the Celtic religion and Morgan is not seen as an evil, decietful character. She has her faults but so does Arthur, whose only real power comes from the magical objects, namely Exaliber, that he recieves from Morgan and their aunt Viviane. Viviane is the more scheming female character, similar to the Morgan of older versions but Morgan, the current version of the pagan faiths is complex and sympathetic to most. Even though she is a sympathetic character, she is not embraced by mainstream. She is often misunderstood and just like practitioners of the old religion, she is sometimes called a witch. The term witch carries with it the negative connotations associated with the Morgan of the older versions of the Arthurian romances. This is reflected in the attitude towards the Celtic faith in mainstream society, it is tolerated to a point but not embraced.
During the time that this novel was written, the Christian church had lost ground within mainstream society. Scientific discoveries had made people question the church and many people turned away from the church. Some people, mainly women, began to experiment with the pagan faiths. The religion and way of life that had been successfully marginalized and suppressed was once again a threat. Much of this was due to religion but it also was in part due empowerment of women that challenged many of the old Christian values.
Previous versions placed Morgan and Guinevere as foil characters with Morgan as a warning and Guinevere as an ideal. Since this story is told from the feminist perspective, it switches the roles. While Gwenhwyfar and Morgaine are still foil characters, their roles are reversed. Gwenhwyfar is the negative character. She is fearful and unsure. She is also selfish and not very intelligent. She does have power over the men in her life and even successfully urges Arthur to reject the ways of Avalon and fully embrace the Christian religion. The lines of religion and gender are more complicated and therefore not as clear cut as in many earlier versions but Christianity is still more male dominant and this is the way of life that Gwenhwyfar embraces. She is the representation of how feminists saw women that embraced the “traditional” system of male dominance.
Crater writes about the importance of this new version of Morgan and how it relates to both religious and gender issues:
The feminist recasting of Morgan le Fey gives women new ways of conceiving themselves and their place in the scheme of things. It also gives women a means of seeing themselves in the divine. After the Roman conquest of Europe, patriarchal science and religion replaced the pagan cyclical way of thinking with the idea of the linear march of progress. This has been reflected in Darwin’s concept of evolution, Marx’s idea of the communist revolution, and Christianity’s concept of the Apocalypse and New Jemsalem. Thinking cyclically instead of linearly and apocalyptically gives humanity new (or renewed) metaphors. New metaphors open new possibilities, new solutions to old problems. New metaphors bring new hope. (Crater)
A strong Morgan le Fey represents power for women in society. It represents a change in our everyday lives. This is something embraced by some and rejected by others. Just like the changes in our society are embraced by some and embraced by others. There are some that see the changes as exciting and necessary and others that think they are a challenge to tradition and to be avoided. Whatever the case, the changes with Morgan le Fay reflect the complex and everchanging relationship between men and women and between the faiths.
From goddess to human to villian to priestess, Morgan continues to evolve with the culture. Her character is the favorite to some, the “bad guy” to others. Whether you love her or hate her, she is as complicated as faith and the relationships between men and women. Entire libraries have been written on both topics and an entire library could be devoted to the enigmatic Morgan. I have tried to trace two ideas, religion and gender within four texts, such a small sample of the vast topic. Examining gender and religion through the Morgan character demonstrates how closely tied the issue of gender equaility and the relationship between the Christian and Celtic faiths is in our society. As our society continues to change, so too will Morgan le Fey. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for us and for Morgan.
Carson, Angela. “Morgain Le Fée As The Principle Of Unity In Gawain And The Green Knight.” Modern Language Quarterly 23.1 (1962): 3. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 July 2014.
Crater, Theresa. “The Resurrection Of Morgan Le Fey: Fallen Woman To Triple Goddess.” Femspec 3.1 (2001): 12-21. Humanities International Complete. Web. 13 July 2014.
“Morgan le Fay.” Encyclopedia Mythica. 2014. Encyclopedia Mythica Online. 15 Jul. 2014.
Venters, Amberlee. “Morgan Le Fay: From Healer To Treasonous Queen.” Calliope 22.9 (2012): 21. MAS Ultra – School Edition. Web. 13 July 2014.