Morgan Le Fay, The Arthurian Witch And Shape-Shifter

Morgan Le Fay, The Arthurian Witch And Shape-Shifter
Copyright © Photograph by Katrine

Making her debut in English Arthurian literature as the shape-shifting “Queen of the Island of Apples,” Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote Morgan le Fay1 into legend in the somewhat obscure ‘Vita Merlini’ around 1150. Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us she lives far from mortal men in an enchanted realm of plenty where nine sisters rule by just law, but the beautiful Morgan le Fay is “first among them has greater skill in healing.2” In addition to her extensive knowledge of folk medicine, Morgan le Fay “knows, too, the art of changing her shape, of flying through the air, like Daedalus, on strange wings.” This beautiful enchantress is entrusted to restore health to King Arthur, “if only he stayed with her for a long while and accepted her treatment.” Though she may heal the King, as a female practitioner of magic, Morgan le Fay may just as easily poison him. As a woman, her supernatural knowledge is suspicious, perhaps even dangerous to a medieval audience. With this inherent ambiguity built into her character, Geoffrey of Monmouth begins a tradition of Morgan le Fay as a complex magical figure, as beautiful as she is powerful, eternally shrouded in mystery.

Although she is most commonly depicted as King Arthur’s treacherous half-sister and a dark sorceress determined to bring down Camelot with diabolical enchantments, Morgan le Fay was first conceived by Geoffrey of Monmouth as a fanciful character, seemingly plucked from legend. Given his background as a Bishop and a historian with access to Christian writings that began to cast suspicion onto female magicians, it perhaps would have been more likely for Geoffrey of Monmouth to envision Morgan le Fay according to early clerical constructions of the witch; but Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Morgan le Fay seems to transcend even the earliest medieval witch-stereotypes. The range of Morgan le Fay’s magical abilities, especially her mastery of transfiguration, flight, and her pronounced role as a healer belies Geoffrey of Monmouth’s familiarity with English and Welsh sources that preserved ancient traditions of Pagan magic. With few surviving texts that record English traditions of magic from a pre-Christian era, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Vita Merlini’ is an invaluable text that acts as a window into the medieval past. As a work of literature intended for a private audience, with magical components inspired by myths, folklore, and fairy tales, the ‘Vita Merlini’ affords this study the opportunity to penetrate the imagination of Geoffrey of Monmouth and to uncover how his whimsical conception of Morgan le Fay reflects an ambivalent view towards magic present in twelfth-century United kingdom. With her mysterious beginnings and the power to alternatively heal or poison King Arthur, this chapter will first consider what magical prototypes inform the earliest appearance of Morgan le Fay in English Arthurian legend and then determine how she corresponds to the hazy image of the “witch” that arises by the end of the twelfth-century.

Anglo-Welsh Bishop and historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth is most famous for being the first to record a biographical account of King Arthur in ‘Histories of the Kings of Britain’ (2007). In his later work, the ‘Vita Merlini,’ he elaborates on the life of Merlin and introduces Morgan le Fay. The Latin poem focuses primarily on Merlin, but near the end of his text Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces the potent idea that King Arthur does not die in his final battle, but rather is transported by barge to an enchanted island where the beautiful and talented Morgan le Fay will heal his mortal wounds and perhaps one day return him to the land of men. Based on oral traditions of Merlin-figures from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and North Britain, the ‘Vita Merlini’ depicts the illustrious wizard as an eccentric prophet, cursed with fits of madness that periodically drive him to abandon the corruption of man and civilization to seek solace in the wilderness and the companionship of animals3. Morgan le Fay herself appears only briefly at the end of the poem, emerging as a fully imagined yet mystifying figure.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, she lives far from mortal men on the paradisal Island of Apples, also called “‘The Fortunate Isle’ from the fact that it produces crops in abundance and grapes without help; and apple trees spring up from the short grass of its woods” and perhaps even more miraculous, “men live a hundred years or more.4” Geoffrey of Monmouth’s island paradise would later become known as Avalon, with soil that reaps and shows itself and where mortals enjoy everlasting youth, a realm that echoes ancient Celtic motifs of the otherworld and the feminine domain of the fey. In this enchanted land nine sisters “exercise a kindly rule over those who come to them from our land,” but the beautiful Morgan le Fay is “first among them has greater skill in healing She has learned the uses of all plants in curing the ills of the body.” While her talent as a healer is particularly foregrounded Morgan le Fay “knows, too, the art of changing her shape, of flying through the air, like Daedalus, on strange wings.” By her will, she travels great distances and glides down from the sky to visit Chartres and Pavia, established areas of ecclesiastical learning, which may explain how she learned mathematics and astrology well enough to teach her nine sisters5. This beautiful and learned enchantress is attributed with the knowledge to restore health to King Arthur after he was mortally wounded in the Battle of Camlann. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text, the legendary King is transported by barge to Morgan le Fay’s island paradise of plenty, with the Celtic sea god Barinthus as the “steersman because of his knowledge of the seas and the stars of heaven.6” Morgan le Fay received King Arthur “with due honour” and “put the King in her chamber on a golden bed, uncovered his wound with her noble hand and looked long at it.” His prognosis is uncertain, however, as “at length, she said he could be cured if only he stayed with her a long while and accepted her treatment.” Within the ‘Vita Merlini,’ Morgan le Fay holds King Arthur in her far-off realm to heal him, echoing motifs found in both Celtic and Greco-Roman mythology of beautiful sorceresses capturing travelling heroes on their journeys, sometimes indefinitely delaying their travels. In perhaps the most renowned classical example, Circe turns Odysseus’ men into swine and holds the epic hero for a year and a day, promising her aid in his journey home, in exchange for his love7. Fairies too, of Celtic folklore typically capture mortal men they lure into the fairy mounds, where they are trapped in a land of eternal feast and song. Though there is no scholarly consensus on the intellectual origins of Morgan le Fay’s magical prototype, it clear that Geoffrey of Monmouth was indebted to an array of classical and Celtic sources to imagine King Arthur’s enchanted otherworldly healer, as she is most often named as the literary descendant of a Celtic goddess mixed with attributes borrowed from the Greco-Roman sorceress.

Considering Geoffrey of Monmouth Anglo-Welsh heritage and his status as the Bishop of Saint Asaph’s in North Wales as he composed the ‘Vita Merlini,’ historians must first consider the potential Celtic influences on the text and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s early conception of Morgan le Fay. While many scholars have doubted the direct connection between Morgan le Fay and Celtic prototypes, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin is firmly rooted in a mythic past. Whereas Merlin’s role remains limited in the pseudo-historical ‘Histories of the Kings of Britain,’ Geoffrey of Monmouth paints a fuller portrait of the famous wizard in the ‘Vita Merlini’ and draws on Celtic traditions to inform Merlin’s magic, personal life, and trickster identity. Stephen Knight describes the ‘Vita Merlini’ as a work of fiction, its style resembling that of a composition of creative design rather than an academic study, incorporating popular traditions of English magic and mythic prototypes. He emphasizes the connection between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin and the Welsh figure Myrddin, a legendary prophet and madman who survived in popular local folklore8. Myrddin informs Geoffrey of Monmouth’s depiction of Merlin as a great king that is driven mad with grief after seeing his companions killed in battle, forever cursed with fits of prophetic madness that often drive him into the wilderness. Undoubtedly, Merlin is a descendant of the Welsh Myrddin and the folkloric wildman in the woods that was a widespread myth throughout Europe and the British Isles9. As a peripheral character in the ‘Vita Merlini,’ it is more difficult to trace the roots of Morgan le Fay to a Celtic past, but the clear connection between Merlin and Myrddin makes it reasonable to turn to Celtic motifs and Welsh sources to explore the origins of Morgan le Fay’s magical prototype.

While some critics have expressed doubt that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Morgan le Fay is derived from Celtic sources, many still look to the dual nature of Celtic deities and folkloric women to explain the complexity of her character throughout Arthurian legend. Within the ‘Vita Merlini,’ Geoffrey of Monmouth only invokes Morgan le Fay near the end of his tale as King Arthur’s otherworldly physician, and though she is fully imagined as the beautiful mistress of an enchanted island, and a knowledgeable healer that is capable of flight, transfiguration, and divination, the source of her powers is never explained. Jill Herbert has most recently asserted that while Greco-Roman influences can be seen in the ‘Vita Merlini,’ “Geoffrey is probably most indebted to Celtic sources in granting Morgan the ability to change shape and fly10.” She further notes the connection between Morgan le Fay and the Celtic Morrigan, one figure in a triad of goddesses including Badhb and Macha who are traditionally associated with battle, warrior patronage, shape-shifting, fertility, and death. Although the etymological connection between the two is tenuous, a clear personification of the Irish Morrigan, her erratic patterns of behaviour, and magical powers are recorded in the Irish epic of Cuchulain of Muirthemne.

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