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Hey there, Merlinites! (Merlinskateers? Merlinsies? ) Coming Atchya – Clash of the Legends Part 5: Morgan Le Fay (Or Morgraine, or Morgaine, Morgane….) versus BBC Morgana!

Morgan La Fay


Picture: Morgan le Fay, by Anthony Frederick Sandys

Morgan Le Fay first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The life of Merlin (Vita Merlini) , where he states “She who is the first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person” (The life of Merlin, Monmouth 1135-50). She is usually Arthur’s half sister (along with Morgause) and either Mordred’s Aunt, or sometimes Mother. In Monmouth’s account, it is Morgan and Merlin who take the mortally wounded Arthur to Avalon, as his final resting place. Le Fay suggests that Morgan is of Fairy blood, or at least appears other worldly.

Morgan’s role Like most of the characters in the Arthurian Legend, is much larger in the 13th-century Lancelot-Grail stories/ arc and the subsequent works inspired by it. The youngest of Gorlois and Igraine’s daughters, she is sent to a convent when Uther Pendragon kills her father (the battle that Gorlois is at is a fight that Uther orchestrated) and marries her mother. There she begins her study of magic (both by herself, and under the guidance of Merlin), but is interrupted when Uther pairs her to his ally Urien. Morgan is decidedly unhappy with this union, so she takes a string of lovers until she is caught by a young Guinevere, who expels her from court in disgust (ironically). Morgan continues her magical studies under Merlin, while plotting against Guinevere for her betrayal. In subsequent chapters she uses her skills to play with Arthur’s knights, especially Lancelot, whom she alternately tries to seduce and to expose as Guinevere’s adulterous lover. In the Prose Tristan, she delivers to Arthur’s court a magic drinking horn from which no unfaithful lady can drink without spilling, hoping to reveal the infidelity.

Thomas Malory mostly follows this portrayal of Morgan in his book Le Morte d’Arthur, though he expands her role in some ways. Through magic and other means, she tries to orchestrate Arthur’s downfall, most famously when she arranges for her lover (Accolon) to obtain Excalibur and use it against Arthur in single combat. Failing in this, Morgan throws Excalibur’s protective scabbard into a lake. The Fay turns up throughout the High and Late Middle Ages, generally in works related to the cycles of Arthur or Charlemagne. At the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it is revealed that the entire supernatural episode has been instigated by Morgan as a test for Arthur and his knights, and to frighten Guinevere.

In later stories, Morgan becomes more of a figurehead for feminist literature. The mst known work depicting this is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Instead of painting ”Morgaine“ as a distant, one-dimensional evil witch or sorceress, with no real explanation given (or required) for her fall into evilness, Morgaine is cast as a strong woman who has unique gifts and responsibilities at a time of enormous political and spiritual upheaval as she is called upon to defend her indigenous matriarchal heritage against impossible odds. The Mists of Avalon stands as a feminist interpretation of male-centered myth by articulating women’s experience at times of great change and shifts in gender-power. In this retelling, Mordred, or rather, Gwydion, is the legitimate son of Arthur and Morgaine. Morgause, rather that being Morgaine’s sister, is her aunt, and a vain, self absorbed character. Lancelot is Morgaine’s cousin and first love, and Merlin, rather than a person, is an honourary title. One of the Merlin’s , The Merlin of Britain (Kevin) succeeds Taliesin after his death. He is a horribly disfigured hunchback, having been burnt by a fire when he was a child, but can sing like an angel. He becomes Morgaine’s lover and later her worst enemy. Foreseeing the demise of pagan ways, he betrays Avalon – he brings the Holy Grail to Camelot. He is punished by Morgaine, who executes him. Arthur and Morgaine, in this story, truly love each other – and by the end of the book, it is Morgaine who is left to tell the tale of Camelot.

BBC’s Morgana (played by Katie McGrath)

Picture: BBC Merlin Season 1 Morgana

BBC’s Morgana is the daughter of Gorlois (or, so we are told in season 1), who was King Uther’s closest friend. After his death, Uther took Morgana in as his ward. We first see Morgana ,watching in horror as a magic user is executed in the court yard of Camelot, from an overlooking room (the same execution that was Merlin’s first encounter in Camelot). From the moment this Morgana opens her mouth, it is very clear that she has a fiery temperament, and has absolutely no qualms about telling Uther exactly what she thinks of him and his decisions. However, there is a strange loyalty that Uther shows Morgana, sometimes a love more fierce than the love he has for his own son. However, their biggest fights are around Uther’s ideas on magic. She takes him to task the first time we see them together for the execution in episode 1, and this continues throughout season 1, (especially when Gwen’s father Tom is executed for ‘consorting with a magic user’ in To Kill the King) and escalates in season 2 ( “The Nightmare Begins”, “The Witch’s Quickening”, “The Fires of Idirsholas”). Of course, we find out early in season 1, this is because Uther’s dear ward does, in fact, have prophetic dreams( a secret that Gaius, Gwen, and later Merlin know). Later in season 2 (“The Nightmare begins”) Morgana starts to develop more magical powers, and, along with Merlin is suspected of magic by the witch hunter, Aredian (“The witchhunter”). In season 3, Morgana (after being whisked away magically by her sister Morgause, post failed destruction of Camelot attempt) comes back, hell bent on destroying Uther and taking Camelot for herself (and Morgause). In the episode “the Crystal Cave”, she finds out she is Uther’s daughter, not only his ward (as do Gaius and Merlin). She pretends to be Uther’s loving ward, until the episodes The Coming of Arthur parts 1 and 2, when Uther finally sees his daughter for the evil, manipulative witch that she is, and begins to lose his mind from it.

Morgana’s relationship with Arthur is also a complex one. They start off looking like they may be destined to be betrothed, ( S1: “The Dragon’s Call”, “Valiant”, “The Poisoned Chalice”, “A Remedy to Cure All Ills”) but settle into a rather typical love/hate sibling love for each other ( “The Beginning of the End”, “The moment of Truth” are two examples). Morgana cares deeply for Arthur, and encourages him to fight what he believes in, and yells at him when she thinks he is being untrue to himself ( ‘The poisoned Chalice” (s1), “Lancelot and Guinevere” (S2)). However, by season 3, her hatred of Uther has extended to encompass Arthur, or at least she is not afraid to sacrifice him for her ultimate goal. Morgana’s betrayal of Uther and Camelot, however, deeply wounds Arthur, and sends him into an almost catatonic state, which Merlin needs to snap him out of.

And thus we come to Morgana and Merlin. Ying and Yang. While Arthur and Merlin are “two halves of one whole”, Morgana is “the hate to [Merlin’s] love”, as the Great Dragon puts it (s3, “The Tears of Uther Pendragon (Part 2)”). Merlin and Morgana start off as friends. Morgana encourages Arthur to save Merlin when he is poisoned, she teases him about being in love with Gwen, she is completely ready and willing to ride with him to Ealdor to protect it. She helps him hide Mordred (who Morgana has a bizarre attachment to , as seen in s1 “The Beginning of the End”, and s2 “The Nightmare Begins” and “The Witch’s Quickening”). And, eventually, it is Merlin who she confides her magic secret to (“The Nightmare Begins”). Merlin, however, does not reciprocate. He does try to help though. He tells her he will protect her secret, and tries to send her to the druids. He even lies for her ( S2 “The fires of Idirsholas”). He refuses to let her die, despite the dragon’s warnings to (S2, “The fires of Idirsholas”, s3 “ The Crystal Cave”), or even when he poisons her (s2 “The fires of Idirsholas”). He begs her through season 3 not to use magic for evil, but always forcefully stops her when she does not heed him (“The Tears of Uther Pendragon (Part 2)”, “The Castle of Fyrien”). Morgana trust Merlin, but after s2, that trust is broken and she absolutely hates him, seeing him as the boy who tried to kill her. She does not try to ruin him though , interestingly enough (kill him, yes, ruin him, no) , and has no idea that he is magic – so Merlin has the upper ground on that front (as well as technically being more powerful than her).

This Morgana’s evilness appears to stem from Uther’s hatred of magic, and her own fear of being caught and ostracized (although she is a lady of the court). It’s interesting to view this in the light of Merlin’s precarious position, and his sympathy for Uther.

I must admit I don’t understand Morgana’s turn to evil in BBC’s Merlin. I loved her in s1 of the show, being strong willed and hot tempered, but very loyal to those she loves. Then, she became quite one dimensional in my eyes. I love Katie McGrath, and her portrayal – but I miss season 1 Morgana. I’ll guess we’ll see what’s in store for season 4 Morgana!

What do you think? Morgan or Morgana?

Next time – Clash of the legendary Swords! Excalibur versus Excalibur!

Merlin v Merlin:
Arthur v Arthur:
Camelot v Camelot:
Guinevere v Guinevere: