SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT:
“Bertilak de Hautdesert I am in this land,
through might of Morgan Le Fay, that dwells in my house,
and is mistress of magic, by crafts well learned
the mysteries of Merlin, many has she taken,
for she has dealt in depths full dearly sometime
with that excellent sage, and that know all your knights
Morgan the Goddess
therefore is now her name;
none has such high hautiness
that she cannot make full tame.
She sent me in this same wise to your wide hall
for to assay it`s pride, test if all that were truth
that runs on the great renown of the Round Table.
She worked all this wonder your wits to ravel,
to grieve Guinevere and to bring her to die
aghast at that same ghoul with his ghostly speech
with his head in his hand before the high table.
That is she that is at home, the ancient lady;
she is even your aunt, Arthur`s half-sister,
daughter of Tintagel`s Duchess that dear Uther after
had Arthur upon, who now is your king.
Therefore, sir, I entreat you, come to your aunt,
make merry in my house. My men do love you,
and I wish you as well, man, by my faith,
as any man under God, for your great truth.”
The sinister Morgan Le Fay is popularly known as a sorceress and King Arthur`s nemesis. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was believed to have been written by a 14th century university trained clerk or an official on a provincial estate. It was written in a dialect of Middle English associated with Cheshire or Lancashire, and shows that then, as now, London was not necessarily the national cultural be all and end all.
The poem is written in four parts, of which the above example is from the last; we follow Gawain about his daily errands as he tries to live the good life of a chivalric knight. But there is a substantial fly in the ointment: Morgan Le Fay; her agenda is to tempt Gawain away from his world of courtly love and Godly pursuits towards the Dark Side. Morgan`s hatred for Arthur and his goody-two-shoes court of Camelot, ominously thrums and vibrates through every word like a subterranean harbinger of dread evil. She tests Gawain at every opportunity, even letting him know that she intends to kill Arthur`s beloved Guinevere: the perfect world of Arthur`s Camelot depicted in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is total anathema to the great sorceress; she attempts to place as many rotten apples in her half-brother`s courtly garden of Eden as she possibly can.
Morgan Le Fay is probably Celtic in origin: known under many guises as benevolent fairy, priestess, dark magician, witch, sea goddess, shape-shifter, healer, enchantress, sole occupant of Avalon the Isle of Apples, daughter of Ygraine, half-sister to King Arthur, mother of Mordred, lady-in-waiting to Guinevere, Arthurian sorceress and “….as fair a lady as any might be.”
The possible roots of this lady runs so deep into British mythology as to be untraceable: she comes from a time of mists, spells, witchcraft, human sacrifice to water gods and the cult of severed heads; her persona has undergone a romantic face lift for medieval Arthurian legend, but the source material could have been unimaginably dark and lurid; a veritable smorgasbord of wickedness and blackened evil. But of course, ancient Celtic culture would not have looked unkindly upon a Morgan La Fay; no doubt her knowledge of the natural, and unnatural world would have been important to a people who were psychologically impelled to appease the spirits of the world that existed all around them. No doubt, she would have been respected and also feared for her knowledge and power. By the Middle Ages, she was no longer a dangerous ally to pay homage to and keep the gods and the spirits of place sweet, but an adversary of Holy Mother Church: the Church was the Light that led the righteous to eternal salvation; no other agencies need apply for the job. So Morgan was designated the walk on part of evil sorceress in medieval romantic fiction: an enemy of all that is good, just and sanctified; she had been reduced to one of Beelzebub`s minions. She is used as a threat and an example of what happens to you if you stray off the rails the church has laid down through life for you.
The misogynistic Christian attitude to women easily ensured that Morgan Le Fay`s vaulted reputation as a supernatural woman, pinned her down as a literary metaphor for the devious, manipulative, sometimes evil and mischievious female. Her evolution from sometime water goddess to a fully realised human individual with “wicked” as her middle name, has allowed this to happen.
She has been misused and abused down the centuries, with her character conflated with others, such as John Boorman making her the mother of Mordred in his excellent movie, Excalibur and a number of modern novels. In Thomas Berger`s Arthur Rex, she renounces a life of committed, fastidious evil and becomes a nun; in Sanders Anne Laubenthal`s Excalibur she becomes a force for good.
In what ever shape or form she inhabits, Morgan Le Fay`s protean capacity for rebirth and renewal allows her to live and breath as far into the future as she has travelled from the distant past. The legend lives on.