Last week I finished teaching a short “Wizards and Enchantresses” course for Sewanee’s Lifelong Learning program and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Having already talked about my class on Merlin (see here, here, and here), today I share what I had to say about Morgan Le Faye and her successors.
With Morgan, we looked at how various storytellers have used her to get a handle on, and in some cases attempt to contain, female power. Like Merlin, she has pagan roots, and Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1090) depicts her as a kind of fertility goddess:
The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she will she slips down from the air onto your shores.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written 300 years later, Morgan is a puppet master, sending out the Green Knight and setting up various temptations in order to expose Camelot. As I read the story, she is signaling Christian culture that it cannot cavalierly ignore its connection with the natural world, including with sexuality and the desire to live. She is paired with a temptress, combining age-old wisdom and sexual allure.
In the following century, Sir Thomas Malory had ambivalent feelings about Malory. On the one hand, he saw her as a sexually voracious woman intent upon overthrowing her half-brother Arthur and reigning with her lover. At one point, she even sends Arthur a poisonous coat. Yet she also cares for him when he’s dying, taking him to her magical island, which has now become Avalon:
Then Sir Bedivere took the king upon his back, and so went with him to that water side. And when they were at the water side, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen [Morgan], and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur. Now put me into the barge, said the king. And so he did softly; and there received him three queens with great mourning; and so they set them down, and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And then that queen said: Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold. And so then they rowed from the land, and Sir Bedivere beheld all those ladies go from him.
A misogynist medieval monk described woman as a palace built above a sewer, and the imagery continues on through the Renaissance and into the 20th century. The sewer is a reference to women’s sexuality (“blood coming from wherever,” in Donald Trump’s immortal phrase), and it shows up often in images of dragons and snakes. One finds it in Edmund Spenser’s Duessa (Faerie Queene,1590), Tennyson’s Vivien (Idylls of the King, 1859), and C. S. Lewis’s Lady of the Green Kirtle (Silver Chair, 1953).
Tennyson’s depiction of Merlin’s seductress was written at about the same time that Coventry Patmore was lauding “the angel on the hearth.” But even as the Victorians were trying to transform women into precious china objects whose main job was to submit to and nurture their husbands, they were also imagining just the opposite, powerful women who could emasculate even the most powerful. Note the use of snake imagery as Vivien takes down Merlin:
"O Merlin, do ye love me?" and once more,
"Great Master, do ye love me?" he was mute.
And lissome Vivien, holding by his heel,
Writhed toward him, slided up his knee and sat,
Behind his ankle twined her hollow feet
Together, curved an arm about his neck,
Clung like a snake; and letting her left hand
Droop from his mighty shoulder, as a leaf,
Made with her right a comb of pearl to part
The lists of such a beard as youth gone out
Had left in ashes…
Lewis’s sorceress shows her true colors in a scene which gets at Lewis’s own anxieties about powerful women. Perhaps he was put off by the self-sufficiency that women had claimed during the World War II years:
The instrument [lyre] dropped from her hands. Her arms appeared to be fastened to her sides. Her legs were intertwined with each other, and her feet had disappeared. The long green train of her skirt thickened and grew solid, and seemed to be all one piece with the writhing green pillar of her interlocked legs. And that writhing green pillar was curving and swaying as if it had no joints, or else were all joints. Her head was thrown far back and while her nose grew longer and longer, every other part of her face seemed to disappear, except her eyes. Huge flaming eyes they were now, without brows or lashes. All this takes time to write down; it happened so quickly that there was only just time to see it. Long before there was time to do anything, the change was complete, and the great serpent which the Witch had become, green as poison, thick as Jill’s waist, had flung two or three coils of its loathsome body round the Prince’s legs. Quick as lightning another great loop darted round, intending to pinion his sword-arm to his side. But the Prince was just in time. He raised his arms and got them clear: the living knot closed only round his chest—ready to crack his ribs like firewood when it drew tight…
T. H. White, a repressed homosexual who was haunted by his sadomasochistic fantasies, doesn’t use snake imagery, but he exhibits a similar horror of female sexuality. In Sword and the Stone (1938), Morgan’s voracious sexuality is coded as gooey food (this is a children’s book, after all). To defeat it, Arthur needs a manly iron blade:
They plodded over the filthy drawbridge—a butter one, with cow hairs still in it—sinking to their ankles. They shuddered at the tripe and the chitterlings. They pointed their iron knives at the soldiers made of soft, sweet, smooth cheese, and the latter shrank away. In the end they came to the inner chamber, where Morgan le Fay herself lay stretched upon her bed of glorious lard. She was a fat, dowdy, middle-aged woman with black hair and a slight moustache, but she was made of human flesh. When she saw the knives, she kept her eyes shut—as if she were in a trance. Perhaps, when she was outside this very strange castle, or when she was not doing that kind of magic to tempt the appetite, she was able to assume more beautiful forms.
To cite one more example before moving on to a healthier perspective, in Disney’s Little Mermaid, an emasculating sea witch shrivels King Titan and provides Ariel with a terrible role model if she is to become an acceptable wife to the prince.
Not until women authors begin rewriting the Morgan story does she become less than a nightmare projection of insecure men. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1983), written in the wake of 1970s feminism, goes back to early versions of Morgan, depicting her as a Celtic fertility priestess at war with Christian patriarchy.
Celtic paganism experienced a revival in the 19th century, but in the late 20th century it took a definitely feminist turn. With Morgan no longer just a shadow figure, the doors has been opened for much more positive readings of any number of the female figures associated with Arthur, including Mercedes Lackey’s Gwenhwyfar, a warrior princess trained by Morgan.
And then there’s Nita Callahan (from So You Want To Be a Wizard), Hermione Granger, and a host of other empowered female wizards-in-training. Give women the pen, as Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot points out, and suddenly the stories look very different.