Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Morgan Le Fay

An Enchantress in the Arthurian Legends who takes the primary role in opposing Arthur's actions and destroying him and his kingdom. She is an enigmatic figure who maintains her Fairy origins throughout the legends, despite attempts to Christianize her.

Although by the time of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur (1485) Morgan has become an evil character, seeking Arthur's death, when she was first incorporated into the cycle, in the Vita Merlini (?1155) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, she was portrayed as the head of a sisterhood who lived on the Isle of Avalon and had special healing powers. This image remains, somewhat enigmatically, at the end of Le Morte Darthur when she and her sisters take Arthur's dying body away to Avalon; because of her past actions, though, this final event takes on a more sinister aspect. Throughout the medieval Arthurian romances Morgan is testing and obstructing Arthur and his knights. The beheading-match challenge (see Gawain) in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century) is contrived by Morgan to test the resolve of the Round Table. In Le Morte Darthur she creates a false Excalibur in the hope that her lover, Sir Accolon, will kill Arthur with the real one, but when that fails she steals the scabbard (which conveys the power of Invulnerability).

In Malory, Morgan is the half-sister of Arthur, and the sister of Morgause (and thereby the aunt of Gawain, Gareth, Gaheris, Agravain and Mordred/Modred). She married Urien, king of Rheged, and is the mother of Owain. These last two are historical kings who ruled at the end of the 6th century, which would make Urien's wife a contemporary of Myrddin Wyllt (see Merlin). The character of Morgan has older Celtic origins, and is probably descended from the Mother Goddess Modron who, as the mother of Mabon, appears in the earliest surviving Arthurian story, Culhwch and Olwen (11th century). She also earned the title the Mórrígan, under which name she often appears in more recent Arthurian fiction.

Morgan's role as Queen of Avalon extends beyond the Arthurian canon into other Story Cycles. She appears in the anonymous 13th-century chanson de geste called Ogier le Danois ["Ogier the Dane"], where she falls in love with Ogier, a knight in the court of Charlemagne. When Ogier reaches 100 years of age she carries him off to Avalon and restores his youth. He stays there for 200 years before returning briefly to Earth to fight the Saracens. Ogier became Denmark's national hero; his story is told in Holger Danske (1837) by Bernhard Ingemann (1789-1862). William Morris retold the Avalon episode in The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870), and Poul Anderson recreated the legend of Ogier and Morgan in Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953 F&SF; rev 1961). In Italian folklore she became Fata Morgana (fata = fairy), retaining the sinister duality whereby she is both a dispenser of gifts and a ruthless Witch. She is introduced thus in Orlando Innamorato (1486) by Matteo Boiardo (1434-1494). Morgan therefore took on the role of a Femme Fatale, an identity she has retained into modern fiction.

T H White brought Morgan into modern fiction in The Sword in the Stone (1938) and made her the central character in The Witch in the Wood (1939). A mystical interpretation was presented by Dion Fortune in The Sea Priestess (1938) and its sequel, Moon Magic (1956), which feature Miss Le Fay Morgan, a modern-day acolyte of the ancient goddess.

A more human presentation is made of Morgan in both The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley, where she is the storyteller, and in the Daughter of Tintagel sequence by Fay Sampson, which follows Morgan's life. She also features in the children's books On All Hollows' Eve (1984) and Out of the Dark World (1985) by Grace Chetwin. The image of Morgan as a saviour of the elder world reappears in The Night of the Solstice (1987) and its sequel Heart of Valor (1992) by L(isa) J Smith, where she battles to save our world from the evils of the Wildworld. She is a central character in Excalibur (1981). [MA]

further reading: Herself (1992), the last of Fay Sampson's Daughter of Tintagel series, ostensibly a novel but contains extensive discussion – as by Morgan – of the range of relevant literature and of changing ideas about her.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.