Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte Darthur” is a major Arthurian text dated before the modern age. Its context, particularly matters affecting Morgan le Fay, the Iseult, date back to a time when female characters actively engage in witchcraft. It was during the period of “the Woman Question” where the societal role of women and sexes relationships were under review. Women underwent exclusion from religion, politics, and economy. Although females were associated with wicked faults, misogyny, and experienced high disregard, some people advocated for appreciation of female roles in society. The Arthurian text focuses on magic and essential characters to use it. Women were often linked to magic especially the bringing of life and healing of the body. The demonization of magic furthered the medieval misogynistic discourses with witches appearing as the embodiment of an anti-paradigm of a virtuous female. Witchcraft emerged as a threat with the attitude creating a dichotomy of evil or upright power. The portrayal of Morgan is as an evil woman uses magic to challenge the status quo in chivalric culture. The society condemns independence as a lack of morality and virtue, and as such the women underwent a hard time.
The Arthurian literature considers Morgan le Fay as a pivotal character, best known as Arthur’s half-sister and an essential enchantress of the tradition. She is a skilled healer who uses her abilities and powers for a noble course, and rules above her sisters on the island of Avalon. Changing circumstances see the Iseult retreat from Arthur’s court to become an imminent threat to it. Her praises change, and she undergoes demonization according to Arthurian tradition. The Iseult’s reason for betraying her brother was Guinevere’s nephew, Accolon disapproving their relationship, Guinevere sends her nephew away, an action which breeds hatred between Morgan and her sister-in-law. Morgan seeks vengeance by exposing Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot and attempts to kill her. The betrayal further develops into a hatred for Arthur, seeing Morgan break the sister-brother bond, and try to kill her brother. Morgan moves to the margin of the realm, becoming queen there and continues to destroy Arthur. Morgan’s personality sees her develop into an active character in a world where there was the marginalization of women.
Kin relationships had a high value with a brother-sister bond being considered significant. Malory (52) states, “So aftir, for grete truste, Arthure betoke the scrawberde unto Morgan le Fay hys sister.” Morgan’s readiness to betray her brother shows her intentions to break the sacred bond. Arthur trusts Morgan and relies on the loyalty that comes with the nature of their relationship. Sisters were responsible for nurturing their brothers, while the latter would protect the former’s honor. The bond trespassed marriages, with marital obligations only acting as a way to foster political alliances. Before becoming Arthur’s sibling, Morgan was a good enchantress and a healer who helped Arthur and heals him. By becoming Arthur’s sister, Morgan is expected to be loyal and nurturing. Morgan becomes Arthur’s most trusted person and is married to Uriens, a marriage which aids Arthur in maintaining his domain. Morgan’s first disloyalty comes when she betrays Queen Guinevere. By continuing to betray Arthur, she breaks a sacred Chivalric society bond, treason that sees her expelled from Arthur’s court.
Upon betraying her brother, Morgan attempts to kill him employing his own chivalric rules. She uses her lover, Accolon, as a champion who fights for her and willingly follows her plan to murder Arthur then rule together with her. Since Morgan cannot fight, she utilizes male power embodied by her brother, turning his system against him. Arthur entrusts his sister with an Excalibur, expecting to secure his protection, but her sister forges a sword resembling the Excalibur and replaces the existing scabbard with a non-magical one. Furthermore, she plans to stage a sibling dispute, making Athur appear treacherous and Accolon as the right one.
Although the king appeared to be amongst the losing party, Malory highlights, “he was in full knyghthode that he endured the payne” (Malory 88). He realized the deception and that Accolon had the real Excalibur. With the help of the Lady of the Lake enchants, Accolon loses the sword, allowing Arthur to defeat him. Accolon reveals he is Morgan’s lover and confesses the hate she has for his brother. Her hatred for him was due to the pressure that he had put for those around him, forcing his subjects to bow down and worship him. She refused to bow down or accord him respect, and this led to the discovery of the fact that she was behind the plan to assassinate him (Malory 90). There is a revelation of the heightened level of betrayal and deceit.
Upon learning his sister’s betrayal, Arthur is enraged and resolves to take revenge. However, he also admits he loved Morgan the most saying, “God knowyth I have honored hir and worshipped hir more than all my kyn, and more have I trusted hir than my wyff and all my hyn aftir” (Malory 90). When Accolon dies, Arthur sends his body to Morgan who mistakes it for her brother and thinks Accolon won. However, she later learns that Arthur is still alive, making her sorrowful. “She was so sorrowful that nye hir herte to-braste” (Malory 93). The genuine grief Morgan has for Accolon reveals that she is not entirely evil as she loved her truly. The change in her character, from a heartless woman to one who cares for those around her undergoes exposition in this part, which shows the need to understand the reasons behind her behavior and the way that she had led her life.
Despite being younger, Arthur rightfully became president after the tragic death of Morgan’s father. Morgan was married off to a person she did not love as her younger brother inherited the whole kingdom. By putting Arthur as the treacherous brother and forcing him to fight as his champion to save imprisoned knights, while Accolon appears as the rightful brother, Morgan exemplifies her desire to receive more authority and power as the older sister. She believes she was denied what was rightfully hers and did not hesitate to try and take it back.
The events force Morgan to disappear from the court, where there is the clouding of her memories with hatred. She undergoes marginalization from society, mainly because she attempted to challenge the status quo. Not only did she attempt to kill the king, but also disregarded the chivalric love ethics by taking a lover and trying to kill her husband. The marginalization of Morgan acts as a tool to denote undesirable feminine characteristics. It shows that it is wrong for a woman to try and break the status quo, with banishment serving as a suitable punishment. The punishment sounds a warning to other women in society. The current traditions that were in place disregarded the place of women and revolved more on undermining their abilities while allowing the men to flourish more in different areas. Women underwent exclusion from politics, economy, and religion, and when she went against this, had to be disciplined to serve as a deterrent to other women in society.
Morgan undergoes portrayal as a lady who takes direct action and works tirelessly to realize her intentions. Although she does not fight using a sword, she summons her power and uses all means to wage the battle. She is a woman who can employ vast strategies to achieve her goals. She attempts to kill Arthur using Accolon, sends a magical horn to Camelot but it wrongfully goes to Mark’s court, and she also sends a sword to unravel Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair. Though her first attempt failed, Morgan does not give up and she sends his brother a damsel as an attempt to make peace saying, “your sister sendyth you this mantel and desyryth that ye sholde take this gyfte og hir-and what thynhe she hath offended, she wol amende hit at your owne pleasure” (Malory 95). The king is glad of her sister’s repentance, but a lady of the lake warns her against the dangers of the damsel. She offers to wear it instead, an action that sees her burn into ashes. Morgan’s actions show a woman who is willing to do anything to attain her wishes.
Although Morgan appears similar to other aristocratic women, she learned her magic in the nunnery, unlike traditions where the learning of magic was from Merlin. As a result, her powers are independent of men. Morgan abandons her feminist roles and takes on more masculine ones. Moreover, she channels her resources and manipulates people using magic and the chivalric love rules. She takes court love to the extreme by not only using her lovers to fight the physical battle but also having sexual intercourse with them. Once attracted to a man, Morgan is not shy to approach them. However, she truly loves them, showing Morgan is neither demonic nor heartless, but only human.
Morgan defies the union of marriage by not only having affairs but also attempting to murder her husband. Her actions show how males in the medieval age feared female power. Independent women ought not to be trusted, and Morgan’s son rejects her due to her actions. Morgan attempts to free herself from the marital bond by trying to kill her husband. She hopes that by doing so, she gets to live with Accolon and gains more power as a widow. Although she is unsuccessful, Morgan is the queen of the castle given to her by Arthur. She defends the castle and has sworn men who become her loyal servants. The economic and political power held in the castle where she is queen makes her a constant threat.
Morgan is present in the boat that carries Arthur to Avalon. She acts as a comforting presence for Arthur who is dying after his last battle. Although the two never made peace, Morgan shows repentance for her actions and decides to accompany her brother during his final moments. There appears to be the mending of the sister-brother bond as Morgan takes her role as a nurturing and caring older sister. Morgan seems to forget her acts of hatred and is sincerely concerned that her brother is dying. Likewise, Arthur feels comforted that Morgan was present after his last battle. Morgan regrets the hostility she had created, choosing to be by her brother’s side.
Morgan’s role and personality in changes from a healer to a nurturing sister, then to an evil woman. Morgan’s betrayal sees her marginalized from society. However, the marginalization does not hinder her from posing an imminent danger to her brother. She actively attempts to murder her brother and disobeys his rules. She manipulates the system to turn it against him while using magic for personal gains. Morgan’s use of magic undergoes demonization since it is against the patriarchal structure. However, Morgan acts as a character of female empowerment. Although the society views her actions as evil, it is as a result of the misogynistic way that the tradition views empowered women and prosecution of witchcraft as a danger to the existing social structure. Although Morgan has used her powers manipulatively, she is a true lover. She loves Accolon and is angered to learn that he is dead. She rejects marriage rules and breaks her marital bonds to be with the man she loves. Morgan’s decision to accompany Arthur in his dying moments shows repentance and love. Although she had previously betrayed her brother, Morgan returns to him and shows she cares. Despite her negative influence, Morgan shows that women are powerful and ought to be accorded equal privileges as men.
Malory, Thomas, Sir. Morte D’Arthur, edited by Stephen H.A. Shepherd. New York: WW Norton & Co, 2003.