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.


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