ARThurian: Morgan le Fay

Morgan le Fay is possibly one of the largest enigmas of Arthurian legend.  She has many names, including Morgaine, Morgana, etc.

She was traditionally simply a powerful sorceress in the Arthurian legends, but over time she evolves into an antagonist to King Arthur.  Eventually she becomes his half-sister as well, as she is daughter of Queen Ygraine and her first husband, Gorlois.  In Malory’s version, she is married to King Urien and is the sister of Morgause, another prominent antagonist.  Though she put down to many evil deeds in some tales, such as stealing Excalibur, sending Arthur a fatal cloak, and exposing Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot, in many versions she is a character capable of good deeds as well.  Her healing powers are usually mentioned, and some writers include her in the group of enchantresses who carry Arthur to Avalon at his death.  She is also often portrayed as a rival of Guinevere; they alternately try to expose the other’s adulterous affairs in court.  In more recent literature, however, she has been reinterpreted as a strong, female protagonist, most notably in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

In literature she is widely interpreted, from a seductress to a gentle healer to a jealous sister to a wicked sorceress.  Understandably, she is portrayed in many different manners in art as well.

“Morgan le Fay” by John Spencer-Stanhope.  This piece depicts the seductive characteristics of Morgan le Fay.  She is wearing a close-fitting red dress and languidly brushing her long hair.  Flowers litter the grown and furniture around her  The castle shown behind her implies that she is at Camelot, which might mean that she is preparing for a tryst with one of Arthur’s knights who she seduces in some versions of the legend.

Morgan le Fay

“Morgan le Fay” by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys.  In this painting, Morgan le Fay is making the cloak for King Arthur that will light on fire as soon as he puts it on.  In the background is the loom she used to make it.  She passes a lamp in front of the cloak as she casts her spell.  Her clothing, with the animal skins and mysterious symbols, and the objects lying around the floor, hint at a dark magic and draw on preconceived notions of witches and sorceresses.

Morgan le Fay

“The Magic Circle” by John William Waterhouse.  Though the character in this piece is not explicitly named as Morgan le Fay, most people assume that is who Waterhouse had in mind, considering his love of Arthurian subjects in his art.  This painting depicts a very sinister, dark, primeval enchantress.  Her dark black hair is very unkempt and wild, signifying some sort of inner spirit.  She draws a circle around her fire, which a thick smoke rises from.  She is in the middle of the wilderness, it seems.  Ravens, frogs, skulls, and other sinister signs can be seen scattered on the ground around her.

The Magic Circle

“Morgan le Fay” by Edward Burne-Jones.  In this painting, Morgan le Fay is collecting herbs in a jar.  Many people interpret that she is using these herbs to cast the spell that reveals Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair.  However, I think it could also be portraying the other side of her character: the powerful, yet gentle healer.  There is nothing in this painting that suggests a sinister motive, so I like to think that Burne-Jones was drawing on the older tales of her healing skills for his inspiration.

Morgan le Fay

“Morgan le Fay with Excalibur” by Dora Curtis.  This last piece is one of the few artworks portraying Morgan le Fay simply as a power-hungry princess.  There is no hint at magic or sorcery.  Her theft of Excalibur reveals her jealousy of Arthur’s power and her wish to defeat him once and for all.

Morgan le Fay with Excalibur

Needless to say, there are many ways that people interpret Morgan le Fay’s character.  Wronged sister?  Wicked witch?  Wise healer?  You decide.

ARThurian: Guinevere

Guinevere, Guennuvar, Gwenhwyfar, Ginovar, Wenhaver, Wennevaria.  Her character is about as widely interpreted as the spellings of her name.  Damsel in distress, cunning adulteress, noble queen.  Every version of the legend (and need I repeat that there are hundreds) seems to have interpreted her differently.  Her portrayal in art is no less varied and complex.  All in all, she is a very multifaceted and real character.  Her actions are not difficult for us imperfect humans to understand, especially given her situation, caught between duty and passion.

“Guenevere” or “La Belle Iseult” by William Morris.  Though this painting is generally thought to depict Guinevere, some think that it may actually portray Isolde.  Nevertheless, the situation is applicable to either.  The rumpled sheets, unfastened belt, and preoccupied expression on her face hint at the sexual guilt of an adulterous queen.  However, it doesn’t necessarily portray her as wicked.  Her expression implies remorse and deep sadness.  This painting is a masterpiece in that it combines multiple sides of Guinevere’s character into a believable portrait.

Guenevere or La Belle Iseult

“Queen Guinevere Maying” by John Collier.  This beautifully executed scene portrays Guinevere Maying with her servants and subjects.  According to many legends, she is separated from the group kidnapped by Melwas while Maying.  However, this scene does not necessarily imply impending doom.  Rather it depicts her regal, almost aloof bearing.  No one could mistake her for being anything less than a queen.  She is an object of wonder, outshining the blossoms held in her hand.

Queen Guinevere Maying

“Lancelot and Guinevere” by Herbert James Draper.  In this whimsical, romantic depiction of Lancelot and Guinevere’s first meeting, Guinevere is preparing for her wedding.  The celebration tents can be seen in the background, as well as the flowers adorning everything.  Their eyes meet as Lancelot passes by on his horse.  This painting portrays Guinevere as beautiful and noble, but also foreshadows her coming betrayal when she chooses her heart over her duty.

Lancelot and Guinevere

“Queen Guinevere” by James Archer.  This is perhaps one of the only artistic portrayals of the burdens of being Arthur’s queen.  It is not clear whether the departing ship is Arthur leaving to fight the Saxons, or is Arthur’s death boat.  Either way, Guinevere must bear the burden of a soldier’s wife, as well as a king’s wife.  She must watch him go off to war, not knowing if and when he will return, left lonely and filled with anxiety.

Queen Guinevere

“Guinevere in her Golden Days” by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.  Ms. Brickdale illustrated a version of Tennyson’s Idylls of a King.  These include many different stages of Guinevere’s life, from an innocent maiden, to a radiant young queen, to a guilt-ridden lover, to a penitent nun.  This one is my personal favorite, depicting Guinevere shortly after becoming queen, but before her affair with Lancelot.  The peace, leisure, and sumptuousness of being queen are well portrayed, as well as her natural beauty and grace.

Guinevere in her Golden Days

Book Review: Queen of Camelot

Queen of CamelotI recently read Queen of Camelot by Nancy McKenzie, an epic about Guinevere, Arthur’s wife and queen.  It spans from practically her birth to just after the death of Arthur and the fall of Camelot.  This novel was originally published as two separate books, The Child Queen and The High Queen, and so is 623 pages, but is completely worth it.  Here is the synopsis:

On the night of Guinevere’s birth, a wise woman declares a prophecy of doom for the child: She will be gwenhwyfar, the white shadow, destined to betray her king, and be herself betrayed. Years pass, and Guinevere becomes a great beauty, riding free across Northern Wales on her beloved horse. She is entranced by the tales of the valorous Arthur, a courageous warrior who seems to Guinevere no mere man, but a legend. Then she finds herself betrothed to that same famous king, a hero who commands her willing devotion. Just as his knights and all his subjects, she falls under Arthur’s spell.

At the side of King Arthur, Guinevere reigns strong and true. Yet she soon learns how the dark prophecy will reveal itself. She is unable to conceive. Arthur’s only true heir is Mordred, offspring of a cursed encounter with the witch Morgause. Now Guinevere must make a fateful choice: She decides to raise Mordred, teaching him to be a ruler and to honor Camelot. She will love him like a mother. Mordred will be her greatest joy–and the key to her ultimate downfall.

This novel was masterfully written, as the author sets the story against a historical background, somewhere in the late 5th century.  These circumstances could have happened, had Arthur been a real historical figure.  At the beginning, Britain is divided and having to fight against the Saxons.  Arthur rises to power with his ability to lead the army and strategically defeat them in battle, before his true lineage as heir to Uther Pendragon is revealed.  The Saxons are finally beaten back at the Battle of Badon Hill.  Throughout the book there are tensions between the rather new, but rapidly spreading Christianity, and the old pagan beliefs and the Druids.  Towards the end of the book, Arthur travels to mainland Europe to aid Brittany in fending off Romans.  They call him Riothamus because of his power, just decision-making, and ability to inspire love and devotion in his subjects.   Even the ancient historian Gildas is mentioned.  All of these situations and more are drawn from the records of what and who Arthur may have been, had he existed.

However, McKenzie also uses both main and minor events from the legends and weaves them into the story in a more believable way.  Merlin exists, as well as Nimue, Niniane, and Vivien, but the magic is kept to a minimum and does not interfere with the historical believability of the story.  Arthur does conceive Mordred with his half sister Morgause, but this occurs before he knows of his true identity and he feels extreme guilt for it the rest of his life.  Guinevere is kidnapped by Melwas and is saved by Lancelot, but the circumstances and purpose for it make much more sense than they traditionally do in the legend.  Elaine does seduce Lancelot, but only to spite Guinevere and not because she actually loves Lancelot.  Guinevere is saved from burning at the stake by Lancelot, but she is not sentenced to this fate by Arthur; she has been kidnapped by Druids who attempt to sacrifice her in retaliation to avenge the massacre of some of their priests.  Mordred does become king in Arthur’s absence, but because they all believe him to be dead and not because he is trying to be traitorous.  Arthur asks Guinevere to move to a nunnery towards the end of her life because he wants her to be kept safe, not because she was unfaithful to him.  There are many more instances like this throughout the novel, including those involving Morgan, Excalibur, the Orkney brothers, and Lancelot’s exile.  Overall, the author takes many well-known events from the legends and retells them as more plausible occurrences.

The one aspect I didn’t like as much was the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere.  I did like that though they loved each other, they were never truly lovers, as their love for the King surpassed their temptations to be unfaithful to him.  However, the romance between them developed far too quickly and never made much sense to me.  I especially found it hard to believe that after Guinevere marries and falls in love with Arthur, she still had any feelings of that sort left for Lancelot.  But I suppose this part of the plot was too ingrained in the legend to be ignored completely, and I am grateful that Guinevere ultimately remained faithful to her husband.

Guinevere herself has always fascinated me as a character.  I really enjoyed her development in this novel, though there were a few things about her that annoyed me at times.  I actually enjoyed her more in the first half of the book, which begins when she is a child and ends not long after her marriage to Arthur.  I thought her good qualities appeared much more in this section; her generosity, humility, honesty, innocence, inner strength, and courage.  Her ability to be a queen and companion to Arthur was definitely developed in this stage.  However, in the second part of the novel I didn’t detect these qualities as much in her actions and thoughts.  This might have been because she seemed completely dependent on both Arthur and Lancelot.  However, there was much about her that was still admirable, especially her desire to be the best companion possible to Arthur and share in his sorrows and joys, just as he shared in hers, and her courage to speak her mind in a world when men dominated society and politics.

I did like the development of her relationship with Mordred.  He was almost as noble a character as Arthur, which is certainly unexpected.  Her desperation and despair at not being able to conceive a child was well developed, and so her bittersweet, motherly love for Mordred fit in perfectly into her need for a child.  The tragic fate that befell him worked out better than I expected it to, aided by a large misunderstanding.

Despite the fact that this was the story of Guinevere, I thought in some cases it was definitely Arthur’s story as well.  A king who was able to unite Britain after centuries of conflict, and whose legend has been passed down through hundreds of generations, certainly must have been an extraordinary person.  McKenzie portrays him as someone who could inspire the love and devotion of all his subjects, despite their prejudices and conflicts.  His humble upbringings allow him to rule without abusing his power.  His inner strength and calm diffuses into those around him.  He truly was a character worthy of the legends and stories about him, and found his perfect match in Guinevere.

I was very impressed by this novel.  McKenzie took a character who has been widely and often unfavorably interpreted through legend, and crafted her into a brave, beautiful, sensitive woman who was capable of ruling alongside such a great figure as King Arthur and ultimately affecting Camelot and all of Britain.

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