The Arthurian Realm: Morgan le Fay – Healer, Witch and the Woman Question.

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com on November 29, 2018, titled British Legends: Morgan le Fay – Magical Healer or Renegade Witch? written by zteve t evans

Introducing  Morgan

In Arthurian tradition, the elusive sorceress Morgan le Fay becomes one of King Arthur’s most dangerous foes, breaking traditional family bonds and working to undermine and bring down the strict patriarchal system and chivalric order of the Arthurian world. Morgan is an enigma: despite attempting to kill King Arthur and usurp his kingdom, she takes him into her care after he is severely wounded by Mordred in the battle of Camlann, which brings an end to his kingdom. This work draws mostly from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, and Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, with influences from other texts, and looks at how Morgan’s character changes from benevolent, to malignant and then back to benevolent. To do this, we look at her early life, how she used Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur against him and stole its scabbard, and the disaster this would cause. This is followed by a discussion on two important topics that had a considerable influence on medieval society: the Querelle des Femmes or The Woman Question, and witchcraft, before concluding with Morgan’s return to Avalon.

As Ruler of Avalon

Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces Morgan into Arthurian literature in Vita Merlini, as ‘Morgen’, presenting her as the leader of nine benevolent sisters that rule the island of Avalon. She is the most beautiful, the most knowledgeable and the most powerful of the sisters. As well as being a skilled healer, she can fly or transport herself at will from place to place, and she has shape-shifting abilities.

It is not clear whether these ‘sisters’ are family, or members of some kind of religious or mystical order. In the work of some later writers, she becomes either the step-sister or full elder sister of King Arthur, but a radical change happens with her character. As Arthur’s elder sister, she breaks the traditional bond of love between brother and sister and the nurturing role so often associated with the elder sister towards their younger brother. Furthermore, instead of the wise and benevolent sorceress, she evolves into a malign, sexual predator, hating her brother and his wife Queen Guinevere, and forsakes her place at the center of the Arthurian establishment, moving to its periphery and becoming a renegade attacking the established order. She targets the Knights of the Round Table, especially Sir Lancelot, weaving dark spells and plots to trap them. Eventually, she becomes nothing less than an enemy of the state and, arguably, its most dangerous adversary, until Mordred emerges to usurp the crown, resulting in the battle of Camlann.

Morgan’s Early Life

In Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Morgan the youngest daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Igraine. When the King of the Britons, Uther Pendragon, first set eyes on Igraine, he became wildly infatuated with her. Unable to contain his lust, he attacked Cornwall to take Igraine for himself. Gorlois sent his wife to his safest stronghold of Tintagel while he confronted Uther’s troops in battle. While the military confrontation took place, Merlin, using his magical arts, transformed Uther into the likeness of Gorlois to allow him to gain access to Igraine at Tintagel. The guards, believing it was Gorlois, let him enter the stronghold. Believing he was her husband, Igraine lay with him, and that night Arthur was conceived.

While this was taking place, Gorlois was killed battling Uther’s army. After satisfying his lust, Uther returned to his troops and, on learning of the death of the duke, took Igraine to be his wife. He married her eldest daughter, Morgause, to King Lot of Lothian and the next eldest, Elaine, to King Nentres of Garlot. Morgan was the youngest and he sent her to a nunnery.

Morgan hated Uther because she knew what had happened the night her father died, and deeply resented Arthur as the product of his lust. At the nunnery, she was introduced to astrology, the dark arts of necromancy and the skills of healing, becoming highly adept in this field. As her skill and knowledge grew, people began to call her Morgan le Fay in acknowledgement of her abilities. Eventually, she joined Arthur’s court and became a lady in waiting to Queen Guinevere.

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Brazilian Folktales: Domingo’s Cat

 

Magical Animal Helpers and Tricksters

Humans have always had a long and beneficial association with animals and animal helpers appear in many fairy tales from around the world.  Sometimes they are tricksters as in this story and sometimes they are teachers or guides that take the hero through difficult situations and very often they are magical.  Presented below is a retelling of a Brazilian fairy tale from Tales of Giants from Brazil, by Elsie Spicer Eells, illustrated by Helen M. Barton, called Domingo’s Cat and has much in common with Charles Perrault’s “The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots, from the 17th century.”

The Story of Domingo’s Cat

The story begins with a man named Domingo who fell upon hard times and had to sell everything he owned just to buy enough food to keep from starving.   After all his possessions had finally been sold he had nothing left in the world except his cat which he loved dearly.  He vowed that come what may he would never sell his cat and that he would rather starve before he let any harm come to it. As it sat upon his lap he told it,  “Have no fear my only friend, I will never let you go or let harm come to you, I will die of starvation first.”

The cat rubbed its head against him and replied, “My good master Domingo, while you have me I will never let you starve.  I am going to go out into the wide world and find both our fortunes. You must put your trust in me.”

Treasure for the King

With that Domingo’s cat jumped down from his master’s lap and ran off into the jungle.  Presently, he stopped and began digging a hole in the ground with his fore paws. He dug furiously throwing up the earth all around and mixed in with the earth were many silver pieces. He gathered some of these up and took them home and gave them to Domingo to buy food.  Then he went back to the jungle collecting the remaining silver pieces and took them to the king.

The next day the cat went out into the jungle and began digging more holes  and this time mixed in with the dirt were pieces of gold. He gathered these up and took them to the king who again was very pleaded with it.   The following day the cat went out into the jungle and again began digging a hole but this time the earth was mixed with many shiny diamonds which he took along to the king.  Again, the king was surprised and very happy with the cat and asked him where he was getting all these riches from.

“It is not me, it is Domingo my master,”  replied the cat.

The Wedding

The king was very impressed and thought that Domingo must be very rich.  Indeed, he thought he must probably be richest man in all his kingdom and therefore just the man to marry his beautiful daughter whom he had been looking for a suitable husband for. Therefore, he suggested to the cat that his master may like to marry her. The cat took the news back to Domingo who agreed he would like to marry the king’s daughter but pointed out that he did not have any clothes anywhere near fine enough to wear to a wedding let alone as the bridegroom to the king’s daughter.

“Don’t worry about that or anything else,”  the cat told him, ” I will take care of everything and make all the necessary arrangements.  Just leave it all to me.” 

The Wedding Suit

The cat ran back to the king and said,  “Your Majesty, I have bad news.  A terrible fire broke out in the tailor’s shop where my master, Domingo was having his wedding suit made and the tailor and his assistants were all burnt to death.  Now everything in the shop is nothing but ashes including Domingo’s wedding suit. I wonder if perhaps you could find him something suitable for such a grand wedding from your own wardrobe.”

The king readily agreed and himself chose the finest clothes and sent them with a servant to Domingo.   After Domingo had put the clothes on he looked very smart and perfectly dressed for such an important wedding but he realized there was a problem.

“I look very fine but I have no splendid palace to take my wife home to after we are married,”  he told his cat.

“Leave it to me,” said his cat, “I will see to it at once.”   and ran off into the jungle until he came to a huge and magnificent castle where a great giant lived.  He banged on the door until the giant came and answered it and then said, “Great giant, will you lend your castle to my master Domingo, please, just for a while?”

The giant snorted and shouted angrily “What me lend my castle to that pauper Domingo? Certainly not!  Go away!”

“I will not go away and I will have your castle,” said the cat and in the blinking of an eye changed the giant into a mouse and pounced upon it and ate it.

The Giant’s Castle

The giant’s  castle was indeed very wonderful and had a beautiful and stately palace. There were rooms marvelously decorated with wonderful words of art and adorned with gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds and rubies and much, much more.  Outside the palace, inside the castle walls, was a beautiful garden filled with wonderful flowers and singing birds and it was indeed a most fitting place for Domingo to bring his new bride home to.

After the wedding a stately carriage took Domingo and his wife to the caste and when they arrived they saw his cat sitting in the window watching for them, but that was the last they ever saw of him because he disappeared into the jungle to look for another kind, penniless master to make rich.  Maybe one day he may find you and then – well, who knows?

© 22/8/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 22nd, 2018 zteve t evans