What does it mean, to be a witch?

Witches are staples in fiction. We all know Hermione from Harry Potter, Melisandre from A Song Of Ice And Fire, Willow Rosenberg from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the White Witch from Narnia. However, you don’t need awesome magical powers to be labelled as a witch. Throughout history in places such as Salem, England and Germany, people have been accused of witchcraft.

These historical events have been represented in literary works such as The Crucible. Yet there is one witch I’ll always come back to: Morgana Le Fay (in some versions, she is referred to as ‘Morgan Le Fay.’)

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Morgana Le Fay is as mysterious as she is dangerous. The powerful enchantress from Arthurian legend twists men, and sometimes women, around her finger. She’s well versed in the magical arts, an apprentice of Merlin and perhaps the youngest daughter of King Arthur’s mother, Igraine. But who exactly is Morgan Le Fay? And why is she important?

To answer these questions, we can look at the many adaptions of Arthurian legend. After all, some artists depict her as ‘good’ whilst in others, she is an evil foe. The problem with focusing on narrow interpretations is you may dismiss the total richness of the character. However, you can focus on Morgana Le Fay through the lenses of archetypes, not ‘good or evil.’

In this article, I will argue that Morgana’s presence in culture extends well above ‘Arthurian legends.’ You can find Morgana-like characters in media ranging from Mean Girls (2004) to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is because Morgana is an archetype, and thus, she has presence in many fictional characters.

Medieval Matters

Vienna, Austria – May 20, 2017: An ancient tome with miniature illustration, open inside a display case of the Austrian National Library, famous historic library of Vienna, on may 20, 2017

Morgana Le Fay is a frequent character in many Arthurian legends in a variety of languages (including Old French, Old Occitan and Middle English). Often, readers associate the Arthurian legend with medieval magic, knights, Camelot, distant kingdoms and far-away lands. However, Arthurian legends thrived because of their universal themes of power, knightly honour, chivalry and love. But they also offered escapism and fantasies of knights and new lands.

Unlike say, religious medieval literature, which is drier and more formal, the Arthurian legends allowed both writers and readers to explore concepts of love and power, and more importantly, to have fun.

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Whether we are discussing the interpretations from Thomas Malory to Marie de France, Morgana Le Fay is both a sign of medieval history as well as a universal image of power and magic.

Witch, Sorceress, Good And Evil? Her complex nature

An interesting discussion regarding Morgana Le Fay is whether she is ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ Certainly, in modern pop culture, there are differing interpretations. From the BBC series Merlin, Morgana is a villain, but also doomed and human in many regards. On the other hand, in Sarah Woodbury’s series of historical novels, mainly ‘The Lion of Wales’, Morgana is more heroic. Numerous writers do not bother with such distinctions of morality, and instead portray Morgana Le Fay as ‘grey’ in her complexity. In The Book of the Cross by Peter Roman, Morgana Le Fay straddles categorisation.

It’s this nuance that attracts readers, century after century, to Morgana Le Fay. This disagreement among writers and readers breathes new life into the Arthurian legend, reminding us the dangers of simplistic categorisation.

Recommendations For Characters Like Morgana Le Fay

As said earlier, a character can fulfill the ‘witch’ and ‘sorceress’ archetype without having magical powers. In this section, you will learn about three female characters who are witches not because of any powers, but because of their personalities and actions.

Eve (The Bible, Paradise Lost)

The classic story of Adam and Eve has a massive historical impact, shaping perceptions about dishonesty, loyalty and deceit. As Adam and Eve take fruit from the tree which God forbids (as the snake demands), humanity grapples with the ongoing battle between good versus evil. Eve is a dynamic character in her own right, (perhaps more so than Adam). She is often portrayed as a deceiver and a liar. During early modern history, the epic poet John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, where Eve is nearly as important as Satan. She is vulnerable and weak, but also rebellious and vain.

Those four words: vulnerable, weak, rebellious, vain, sum up numerous interpretations of Morgana. Although Eve predates Morgana Le Fay by thousands of years, (she is from the biblical book of Genesis)

Cersei Lannister (A Song Of Ice And Fire)

Cersei’s name is reminiscent of Circe, from Homer’s The Odyssey. A complex character who turns Odysseus’s companions into pigs, Circe may be the first ‘witch’ in literature. Now, in the 21st century, another ‘Circe’ exists in the form of Cersei Lannister. Although she has no magical powers (but is featured in prophecies, uses wildfire and various poisons) she is cunning and cruel. But, like Morgana and Circe, the lioness of the rock is also human.

What George R.R Martin does rather well is display Cersei’s strengths and flaws in a realistic and captivating way. Although she is a villain, and you might be horrified by her pettiness and cruelty, there is no denying how interesting she is. She clearly fulfills the trope of ‘devious woman’ but subverts it through character depth and interesting motivation.

Lady Macbeth (Macbeth)

Lady Macbeth is instantly magnetic: out of all the characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy, it is Lady Macbeth who is referenced time and time again. For a good reason. Lady Macbeth is cunning, opportunistic yet tragic. She meets a tragic fate that only her could’ve devised. She pushes Macbeth, her husband, into brutal murder (although he’s certainly not blameless) and chaos.

There’s magic in Macbeth (prophecies and witchcraft) but Lady Macbeth herself is not ‘magical.’ But, considering ‘magic’ is about getting what you want through manipulation, it’s easy to see how Morgana Le Fay would’ve influenced such a character.

To conclude, Morgana Le Fay doesn’t fit neatly into a ‘solely evil’ box. Although she’s a witch, and many depictions lean towards the devious and chaotic, she is predominately a human character, with flaws and a personality unique to her.

What are your thoughts on Morgana Le Fay? Have you seen any depictions of her in pop culture? Comment below!

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