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Knights, Wizards, Enchantresses: The World of Arthurian Fantasy

By Minjie Su

To celebrate the Tolkien Exhibition and as part of the Oxford ‘summer of fantasy’, the Oxford University’s English Faculty hosted a three-day summer school on fantasy literature. Titled ‘Here Be Dragons’, the summer school invited speakers from Oxford and across the UK to discuss the genre, the major writers, and dominant themes.

One of the major topics is fantasy literature’s roots in and close connection with medieval literature and the medieval world at large. Among its wars, legends, and fantastic beasts that inspired generations of fantasy writers, it comes as no surprise at all that at least one session shall be devoted to King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the enchanters/tresses.

How Morgan le Fay Gave a Shield to Sir Tristram, Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration for Le Morte d’Arthur (1870)

Morgan le Fay & Merlin

The session started with a mini lecture on Merlin and Morgan le Fay, delivered by Carolyne Larrington, author of King Arthur’s Enchantresses; she traces the history of the two most important, best-known enchanter/enchantress in the Arthurian world.

For those who have enjoyed T.H. White’s The Once and the Future King and Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, Merlin is a familiar friend. Commonly portrayed as a wiseman and prophet, he is instrumental to Arthur and sponsors his rise to kingship. One of the major sources of Merlin’s story is Vita Merlini (‘Life of Merlin’), composed around 1150 by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the same guy who wrote Historia regum britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain’). Here, based on the Welsh tradition of Myrddin Wyllt (Myrddin the wild), Merlin is introduced as a wild man in the woods, having gone mad after the battle of Camlan and the death of his king. When he finally recovers from what seems to be PTSD, he returns to Ganieda, his sister, wife to king Rodarch. Yet Rodarch does not believe in Merlin’s power; to test his brother-in-law’s power, Rodarch sends a boy in three different guises, asking Merlin how (s)he will die. Merlin predicts a triple death, a theme frequently seen in Celtic and Germanic mythology: the boy will fall from a rock, hang, and drown. Rodarch thinks Merlin mad, but the boy later falls from a rock, gets caught in a tree, and drops into a lake. Merlin, of course, is right.

Interestingly, Vita Merlini is also the first source where Morgan le Fay makes her appears. When Ganieda enquires about King Arthur’s whereabouts, Merlin reveals that, after the Camlan, he sends the severely wounded king to the Fortunate Island (not Avalon yet) so he may be healed by Queen Morgan, one of the seven sisters who ‘exercise a kindly rule over those who come to them from our land’. Although here Morgan is benign and by no means related to Arthur, she has been established from the beginning as the person who oversees Arthur’s passing from this world to the other, therefore associated with Arthur’s death. It is not until Étienne de Rouen (Draco Normannicus, ca. 1168) that Morgan becomes Arthur’s (half) sister. The tradition is picked up by Chrétien de Troyes in Erec and Enide and, from there, Morgan is slowly inserted into Arthur’s family and eventually becomes Mordred’s mother. In Arthurian romances, Morgan always appears as standing outside the tradition of chivalry, frequently functioning as a critique to it.’

Arthurian Fantasy

Then, David Clark assumed the mantle and took us forward to Arthurian (fantasy) literature in the present day. After a brief review of the medieval sources, he ventures into the more recent, with an emphasis on continuity. There is no one Arthur, and there are always gaps to fill – perhaps this is why the Arthurian materials are always so fascinating and inspiring for both medieval and modern writers.

One of the works that Clark chooses to elaborate is Here Lies Arthur, a young-adult novel written by Philip Reeve and published in 2007. Having won Reeves the annual Carnegie Medal, Here Lies Arthur plays with the very concept of fiction vs. historic truth. The title has double meanings: does Arthur simply ‘lie’ there as dead, or does he lie? Reeve builds his story based on fragments of the existing versions, full of references to medieval sources, yet he also reconstructs the whole Arthurian myth. The story revolves around a young girl called Gwyna who, under the bard Myrddin’s tutelage, witnesses how Myrddin transforms Arthur the man into Arthur the legendary king in hope to unite the land against the Saxons. Instructed by Myrddin, Gwyna successfully plays the part of the Lady of the Lake and gives Arthur the sword Caliburn; then she is dressed up as a boy and follows Arthur’s warband as a servant.

The clash between truth and fiction becomes more and more intense as the story develops. Gwyna’s homeland is destroyed by Arthur in the endless wars waged among the warlords across the land. As she travels with the band, she experiences Arthur’s brutality and immorality first-handed. In one word, she knows Arthur as a man, no lesser, no greater, ‘just a little tyrant in an age of tyrants’. On the other hand, however, she also witnesses the shaping of the Arthur in Myrddin’s stories: ‘it started to seem that there were Arthurs: the hard man who had burned my home, and another one who lived in Myrddin’s stories and spent his time hunting magical stags and fighting giants and brigands.’

Which Arthur do you like? Which one is ‘truer’? Or does it even matter? Myrddin is no magician, but he ‘transforms’ both Arthur and Gwyna into something different. The kind of magic that Myrddin does is the magic of story-telling.

Perhaps this is the only kind of magic, the only one that really matters – after all, in the very end, what are we but stories?

Click here to see the full program of Here Be Dragons: the Oxford Fantasy Literature Summer School

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

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