Which Witch?: Morgan le Fay as Shape-Shifter and English Perceptions of Magic Reflected in Arthurian Legend
By Cheyenne Oliver
MA Thesis, Florida Atlantic University, 2015
Introduction: The name Morgan le Fay holds many meanings and has appeared in various forms throughout the course of medieval and modern history. Whether she embodies great Celtic pagan goddesses, or an immortal fey using her magic to aid or trick mortals that enter her domain, to many she remains a menacing witch that lurked in that darkest corner of the medieval mind.
Most recognize Morgan le Fay from her frequent appearances in modern media and popular culture. Generally, she is portrayed as King Arthur’s treacherous half-sister and an evil enchantress. In many modern retellings Morgan even seduces her brother in order to sire Mordred, who ultimately brings about the prophetic end to Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table.
Few know or speak of her beginnings, but Morgan le Fay makes her first appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini as the shape-shifting Queen of the enchanted island of Avalon, renowned for her beauty, magical skills, and knowledge of herb lore. Once a semi-divine figure trusted to heal England’s greatest king of legend, over time and several cycles of continental romances, Morgan degenerates into a mortal, whose beauty and character deteriorates as she gains knowledge of the dark arts.
Despite her seemingly sordid reputation, Morgan le Fay is always named as one of the Queens shrouded in black who accompanies Arthur to his final resting place in Glastonbury. According to English tradition, however, Morgan escorts her brother into the healing vale of Avalon where she will mend his grievous wounds and restore him as the Once and Future King.