Presenting Morgan la Fey as the archetype of a number of powerful figures who combine nurturing and sexual roles, Kristina Pérez’s Myth of Morgan la Fey is an engaging study of ambivalent female identity in Arthurian romance. Pérez systematically investigates the perennial mystery concerning the Morgan who both harms and heals King Arthur, and offers insightful readings of such alleged analogues as the Lady of the Lake, Morgause, and the Loathly Lady. Pursuing a subject that has generated such fine work as Lucy Allen Paton’s Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance and Carolyne Larrington’s King Arthur’s Enchantresses, Pérez finds a distinctive voice by making structural use of psychoanalytic theory (particularly that of Melanie Klein) in a survey that ranges from early-medieval Irish mythology to contemporary popular culture.
Directing scholars’ eyes beyond the phallocentric Oedipal Complex to the ‘Oresteian Position’ shaped by the ‘Law of the Mother’ (15), Pérez reads Morgan as a transcendent figure who both allures and unnerves ‘male egos’ by combining the roles of ‘Mother’ and ‘Lover’ (14). To explore the profoundly ambivalent role of Morgan in Arthurian literature, Pérez uses Klein’s concept of the Oresteian mother [End Page 155] as offering both the ‘good’ breast of the ‘nurturing’ mother and the ‘bad’ breast of sexual aggressiveness (18). Pérez opens with excellent analysis of Irish mythology, as she links the Morgan myth with the Celtic ‘Sovereignty Goddess’ (38) whose destructivity and sexuality were linked with rituals of kingship. Pérez then turns to Old French romance, presenting the Celtic ‘Goddess of Death’ as re-emerging in the less ‘lethal’ but still powerful ‘Fairy Mistress’ of the Breton lais (43).
While Pérez sometimes risks being reductive by reading so many powerful female characters, such as Lanval’s ‘Fairy Mistress’ (82) or the Lady of Hautdesert (113), as variants of an originary Morgan, she often generates fascinating insights by seeing the simultaneously savage and sexual Sovereignty Goddess at the heart of Morgan’s myth. After comparing the ‘tormented maternal roots’ (64) of Morgan and the hybrid fairy-serpent Mélusine, Pérez builds a powerful case for a late-medieval splitting of the mythical mother figure who partakes in Mary’s divinity as ‘Intercessor’ (101) into the malevolent Morgan and the benevolent Dame du Lac of the Vulgate texts. Pérez provides intriguing readings of male anxiety concerning women who aim to ‘dominate manly men’ (134) in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Weddynge of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell. In an excellent chapter focused on female desire in Thomas Malory’s work, Pérez imagines mother-figures leaving Alysaundir ‘locked’ in fear of the ‘Oresteian Mother’ (146), and offers a fascinating reading of Arthur’s refusal to honor the Lady of the Lake’s gift-request as transforming Malory’s Morte Darthur into ‘one long death tale’ (148).
Turning to the modern Morgan myth, Pérez powerfully links representations of female Arthurian figures with Victorian anxiety concerning female sexuality and intellectual independence. Analyzing the seminal poetry of the socially conservative Alfred Tennyson, Pérez sets the nostalgic image of his passive Enid against the enticing and predatory Vivien who embodies the legally and culturally liberated ‘New Woman’ (162). After maintaining that the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones’ torrid affair with the sculptress Maria Zambaco drove him to replace his passive, ‘fallen’ Nimuë with the ‘femme fatale’ of The Beguiling of Merlin (170–73), Pérez maintains that the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron deploys Vivien in an act of ‘female re-appropriation’ of the objectifying male ‘gaze’ (176). After suggesting that Aubrey Beardsley presents a more ‘fully realized’ Nimuë who fuses the sexual aggressiveness and mystical aloofness of the ‘Sovereignty Goddess’ (181), Pérez explores modern depictions that range from print to film to video games. Pérez links T.H. White’s portrayals of monstrous female sexuality with his anxiety about his mother, and explores the nostalgic social...