Morgan Le Fay (alternatively known as Morgaine le Fey, Morgane, Morgain, Morgana, Fata Morgana, and other variants) is a powerful sorceress and antagonist of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in Arthurian legend. Although always depicted as a practitioner of magic, over time her character became more and more evil until she began to be portrayed as a witch who was taught the black arts by Merlin.
The early works featuring Morgan do not elaborate her character beyond her role as a fay (fairy) or magician, although she became much more prominent in the later Old French cyclical prose works such as “Lancelot-Grail” and the Post-Vulgate Cycle. In these works, she is said to be Arthur’s half-sister, daughter of Arthur’s mother, Lady Igraine, and her first husband, Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. She has at least two older sisters, Elaine and Morgause, the latter being the mother of Sir Gawain, the Green Knight, and the traitor, Mordred. As a fairy later transformed into a woman and King Arthur’s half-sister, she became an enchantress to continue her powers.
Inspiration for her character may have come from earlier Welsh mythology and literature, and she has often been compared with the goddess Modron, a figure derived from the continental Dea Matrona, who is featured with some frequency in medieval Welsh literature. She is also sometimes connected with the Irish goddess Morrígan who was associated with prophecy, war and death on the battlefield.
Morgan first appears by name in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Vita Merlini”, an account written in about 1150 of the wizard Merlin’s later adventures, elaborating on some episodes from Geoffrey’s more famous earlier work, “Historia Regum Britanniae”. In the “Vita Merlini”, Geoffrey describes Avalon, the Isle of Apples, where Arthur is taken to be healed after being seriously wounded at the Battle of Camlann, and specifically names “Morgen” as the chief of nine magical sisters who dwell there (a role as Arthur’s otherworldly healer Morgan retains in much later literature, such as that of Chrétien de Troyes).
Medieval Christianity, however, had a difficult time assimilating a benevolent enchantress. She gradually became more and more sinister, until eventually she was portrayed as a witch who was taught the black arts by Merlin, and who was a bedevilment to Arthur and his knights, with a special hatred towards Queen Guinevere.
Morgan’s role is greatly expanded in the 13th Century French “Lancelot-Grail” (also known as the Vulgate Cycle) and the subsequent works inspired by it. In these stories, she is sent to a convent when Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father) kills her father and marries her mother, Igraine. She begins her study of magic there, but is married by Uther to his ally Urien. She is unhappy with her husband and takes a string of lovers until she is caught by a young Guinevere, who expels her from court in disgust. Morgan continues her magical studies under Merlin, all the while plotting against Guinevere.
In his book, “Le Morte d’Arthur”, published in 1485, Thomas Malory mostly follows the portrayal of Morgan in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles, although he expands her role in some cases. Through both magic and mortal means, she tries to arrange Arthur’s downfall, most famously when she arranges for her lover Sir Accolon to obtain the sword Excalibur and use it against Arthur in single combat. When this ploy fails, Morgan throws Excalibur’s protective scabbard into a lake.
The modern image of Morgan is often that of a villain, a seductive, megalomaniacal sorceress who wishes to overthrow Arthur, sometimes assigning to Morgan the role of seducing Arthur and giving birth to the wicked Mordred, although traditionally Mordred’s mother was Morgan’s sister, Morgause. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” presents a different view of Morgaine’s opposition to Arthur, depicting her actions as stemming from her fight to preserve the native Pagan religion against what she sees as the treachery and oppression of Christianity. She has also been widely portrayed in comic books and other more or less speculative novels and movies.