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From The Lady to The Tramp: The Decline of Morgan Ie Fay in Medieval Romance Maureen Fries Morgan Ie Fay's career in medieval Arthurian romance moves from a connector of life with healing in the Vita Mtrlini into a connector of death with illicit sex and wrongful imprisonment in most subsequent works, and produces a more male-friendly variant in the Lady (Ladies) of the Lake - climaxing for both figures in Malory's Morte Darthur revealing male Arthurian authors as increasingly unable to image powerful women in positive terms. (MF) 'The Fortunate Isle' gets its name from the fact [that] it produces all things ofitself. . . [without] cultivation . . . except what nature provides. Ofits own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass . . . and people live there ahundredyears or more.There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set oflaws those who come to them from our country. She who is first ofthem is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty ofher person. Morgen [sic] is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus . . . and when she wills she slips down from the air to your shores. And men say that she has taught mathematics to her sisters.1 The speaker is Taliesin: his primary audience is Merlin; the book is Geoffrey ofMonmouth's Vita Merlini, and it introduces Morgan Ie Fay into Arthurian history. For Taliesin goes on: Thither after the battle of Camlan we took the wounded Arthur . . . [and] arrived there with the prince, and Morgen received us with fitting honor, and in her chamber she placed the king on a golden bed and with her own Arthuriana 4.1 (1994) Arthuriana hand she uncovered his honorable wound and gazed at it for a long time. At length she said that health could be restored to him ifhe stayed with her for a long time and made use ofher healing art.' (85) This initial portrait of Morgan and her realm is a positive and even an androgynous one, combining quintessentially feminine values (such as Earth Motherly fertility- emblemized by the natural fecundityofher Isle ofapples, which flourishes without the male-associated plough, and healing — her reputation as a physician is obviously what drew Taliesin toward her orbit with his kinglypatient) with surprisinglymale-linked ones. Morgan is a teacher, and even a math teacher (she and her sisters having somehow escaped the famous female-linked math block), and she rules by herself, with no sign of even a male consort, over her kingdom. Her ability to fly and to shapeshift was, even in the MiddleAges, not necessarily gender-linked, although already in classical figures such as Medeapotentially implicative ofharmful magic in a woman. But such evil is notyet connected to Morgan in this,Taliesin's speech, the moment of her literary birth. That she is also the family beauty would seem to fit her more for the role ofheroine than for that of counter-hero. Yet female counter-hero she is already in the Vita, and female counter-hero she will remain as her reputation, here at its zenith, plummets from quasi-classical archetype2and possibleavatarofaCeltic goddess^ into misogynisticstereotype in the medieval Arthurian literature which is to follow. Her gradual change (onecan hardlycall itgrowth) from aconnectoroflifewith healing, as mistress ofAvalon, into a connector ofdeath with illicit sex andwrongful imprisonment as she appears in most subsequent romance, indicates the increasing inability of male Arthurian authors to cope with the image of a woman ofpower in positive terms. The female as counter-hero is indeed the most powerful ofthe three roles for Arthurian women I have previously postulated in several articles which fundamentally suggest that role-definition for Arthurian men influenced the sometimes vague and confusing but always secondary functions ofthe other— the second - sex.4 Contrapuntal and tripartite-like the male functions they complement (hero, counter-hero and seer) - these roles include the heroine, the female hero and the female counter-hero. Heroines are essentially...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1539
Print ISSN
1078-6279
Pages
pp. 1-18
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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