14.11.17, Hebert, Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter

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Kristin Bovaird-Abbo

The Medieval Review 14.11.17

Hebert, Jill M.. Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter. Arthurian and Courtly Cultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Pp. 240. ISBN: 9781137022646 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kristin Bovaird-Abbo
University of Northern Colorado

Jill Hebert's monograph on the character of Morgan le Fay as she appears from the twelfth century to the modern period is a welcome addition to the study of Arthurian characters as well as to the larger field of medieval gender studies. As the title suggests, Hebert's main premise is that Morgan is changeable, both within texts--often shifting continuously between the roles of healer and destroyer--and across texts. As a result, Morgan is unpredictable, and throughout the centuries, as demonstrated by Hebert, authors and scholars alike respond to the enigma that is Morgan by often attempting to force her into a box, usually along the lines of the "Ave/Eva dichotomy" (2).

In the first chapter, "For the Healing of His Wounds? The Seeds of Ambiguity in Latin Sources," Hebert challenges earlier scholars (such as Carolyne Larrington in King Arthur's Enchantresses: Morgan and her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition or the entry on Morgan in the Arthurian Handbook) who argue for a devolvement of Morgan's character over time from a healer to a malevolent figure. Instead, Hebert cogently demonstrates how Morgan's earliest depictions--through passages from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, Etienne de Rouen's Draco Normannicus, Gerald of Wales's Speculum Ecclesiae, and the De Instructione Principis--already anticipate her later appearances in texts such as Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century Le Morte Darthur. Hebert's main point is that even as early as the twelfth-century Latin texts, Morgan possesses the power to destroy as well as to heal, as demonstrated by Hebert's close reading of the texts. For example, Hebert draws attention to Geoffrey of Monmouth's use of the Latin word medicamine, which she notes can be translated as either "antidote" or "poison" (29), in the Vita to support her claim that Morgan's powers--traditionally cited as solely positive--contain the potential to be destructive.

Hebert also follows the lead of Roger Sherman Loomis and Lucy Allen Paton in connecting Morgan le Fay to the Irish Morrigan. By arguing that the association with a goddess helps Morgan to break away from the Madonna/Whore dichotomy--after all, the actions of goddesses are often inexplicable--the actions of Morgan must not necessarily be perceived as evil. Hebert also considers other Celtic influences on the depiction of Morgan in the Latin sources; for example, Morgan Tud appears as Arthur's doctor in The Mabinogion and may have influenced later identifications of Morgan le Fay as Arthur's healer. Overall, it is this ability to deal with both death and healing in the Latin texts which look forward to Morgan's subsequent appearances in which she becomes Arthur's sister and healer, despite her attempts to destroy him and his knights at various points.

Like the first chapter, the second chapter, "Sisters of the Forest: Morgan and Her Analogues in Arthurian Romance," covers a wide range of texts. Linked by the motif of the forest, the texts discussed in this chapter allow Hebert to demonstrate how the dichotomy of the court and the forest functions as a catalyst to further negatively portrayed female characters who do not fit in at court. At the same time, however, wooded areas become places of learning for knights, and as these same forests also become places of refuge for powerful women such as Morgan, these female characters become teachers to the knights. Morgan and her analogues--particularly fairy mistresses and loathly ladies--thus test and push knights to greater chivalric prowess.

Hebert begins her discussion with the Lancelot-Grail to illustrate the ways in which the forest provides Morgan with a center from which she can challenge and strengthen Arthur's court. For example, Hebert argues that the episode in which Morgan shows Arthur the paintings composed by Lancelot documenting his relationship with Guinevere reveals the forest to be "a safe haven for painful revelation and also as a place to keep the truth hidden from the world" (45). Hebert also connects Morgan to the fairy lady Tryamour in Sir Launfal in that while both characters are associated with Avalon and possess the ability to change their appearances, their most important connection is their instruction of Arthur's knights while revealing the flaws within the court. These motifs are echoed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a text that Hebert argues is all about choice. Even before Gawain must make choices in response to Morgan's test in order to uphold the precepts displayed on his shield, choice has been introduced to Arthur's court in the guise of the Green Knight. That is, Hebert argues that the Green Knight's appearance and offer of a game is ambiguous in that he is peaceful yet threatening simultaneously. Finally, Hebert concludes her chapter by considering a variety of loathly ladies--including Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival--to show how these loathly ladies continue to test and push knights to greater chivalric prowess.

At the center of Hebert's book is her discussion of Morgan in Thomas Malory's fifteen-century Le Morte Darthur, and the placement of the third chapter, "Morgan in Malory," could not be more perfect. Whereas the other chapters span multiple texts, Hebert slows down here, devoting just one chapter to Malory's epic. The preceding chapters all look forward to Malory's treatment of Morgan, and the subsequent chapters constantly look back at the same. Furthermore, Hebert frequently connects her discussion in this chapter to what has come before--for example, Morgan's ability to heal as well as to harm as demonstrated in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini in the first chapter is invoked in the episode involving Alexander the Orphan. The chapter purposefully begins with the identity of Thomas Malory, for like Morgan, Malory too is an ambiguous figure. If we agree, as Hebert does, with P.J.C. Field's identification of the author of the Morte as Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell, then the author is one who was caught up in the chaotic War of the Roses, a historical event that complicated notions of loyalty and chivalry. To help highlight the ways in which these themes are problematized in Malory's text, Hebert uses Geoffroi de Charny's code of knighthood, created a century earlier. That is, both Malory, through his imprisonment, and Morgan exist largely outside of the chivalric system and are therefore in a position to critique it.

The first half of the chapter focuses on King Arthur and his "inability to see the truth" (77). Hebert reads Morgan's gift of the mantle and the theft of Excalibur not as explicit attempts to kill Arthur but rather as attempts to reveal treasons against Arthur while testing Arthur's ability to see beyond surface appearances. Despite Arthur's constant refusal to listen to Morgan, the final scene in which he is taken away in the barge by Morgan and her companions--that is, will he be healed or will he be placed in his grave--echoes the ambiguity found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini. Hebert then turns to some of the major knights, namely Lancelot, Accolon, and Alexander, to illustrate the conflicts embedded within loyalty. That is, each of these knights are conflicted due to their loyalties to their selves, to their beloveds, to the concept of chivalry, to courtly love, and to Arthur. Morgan, through her interactions with each, attempts to reform the knights by showing them the limitations of privileging either their individual honor or their devotion to a woman above that of Arthur and the kingdom. With each knight, too, Morgan attempts to make Arthur see their shortcomings; however, Hebert argues that Arthur continually turns a blind eye to their betrayals.

The final two chapters move beyond the medieval period, and while the diversity of texts considered is laudable, the rapid speed at which Hebert moves through them is not. Much of the fourth and fifth chapters takes the tone of a literature review as Hebert focuses largely on summarizing the existing scholarship rather than analyzing the primary texts. This is due, in part, to the paucity of texts featuring Morgan following the medieval period, but at the same time, given the close readings offered in the first three chapters, the brevity of treatment in the subsequent chapters is jarring.

In Chapter 4, "Morgan's Presence-in-Absence in Renaissance, Romantic, and Victorian Works," Hebert focuses largely on new characters to show the uneasiness inspired in male authors by the specter of Morgan. Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene is the representative Renaissance text, and Hebert effectively demonstrates that several new characters are created who have substantial ties to Morgan. In the medieval texts, the unpredictable Morgan often takes on multiple functions simultaneously: she is a mentor, a sister, a queen, a mother, an enchantress. The historical context in which Spenser's Faerie Queene was composed, however, manifested acute anxiety about feminine behavior. According to Hebert, this is the result of powerful rulers such as Elizabeth I and Victoria. After all, Elizabeth I was a shapeshifter like Morgan, defying both social and gender expectations. Rather than insert Morgan le Fay into his Arthurian allegory and run the risk of losing control of such a willful character, Spenser created multiple new characters, to whom he then assigned only one of Morgan's traditional traits. Less complex characters, such as Argante, Duessa, and Acrasia, could be more easily controlled.

The Romantic and Victorian periods were dominated by the "Woman Question" and the notion of the "Angel in the House," and as Morgan does not fulfill the accepted roles of women during these eras, it is not surprising that few authors took her on. The primary Romantic text considered is John Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" as its heroine fails, like Morgan, to keep her knightly lover with her. The section of the chapter devoted to the Victorian era is much more diverse, and Hebert considers artwork in addition to literary works. Unfortunately, there are no images included in the book, and Hebert's discussion of the artwork requires foreknowledge of the images on the part of the reader. Nonetheless, Hebert draws attention to the diversity of depictions of Morgan and her analogues--including Viviane and the Lady of Shalott--noting that Victorian authors "vary between celebrating her otherworldly nature and subjecting her to narrow ideas of proper behavior for women" (105). Interestingly, Hebert discovers that female Victorian writers, such as Mrs. T.K. Hervey, tend to defend Morgan and offer respect for her due to her vast learning. One female author even places a defense of Morgan in the mouth of Guinevere, her traditional enemy, and Hebert suggests that this reflects a "need for feminine solidarity against the masculine infliction of negative stereotypes" (108). If this is the case, then, Alfred Lord Tennyson's decision to replace Morgan with the femme fatale Vivien in Idylls of the King suggests a "fear of multifaceted (and therefore powerful) women and the potential influence of such literary precedents on a growing female audience" (113). Although Vivien possesses some echoes of Morgan--she attempts to reveal Lancelot and Guinevere's love, for example--she is a single-minded character, devoid of the healing powers that accompany Morgan throughout the medieval period.

Hebert's final chapter, "Imprisoned by Ideology: Modern and Fantasy Portrayals" examines one modern text--Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court--and three fantasy novels--Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, J. Robert King's Le Morte D'Avalon, and Nancy Springer's I am Morgan le Fay. Ultimately, all four texts share a commonality: Morgan cannot escape the restrictive depictions of women that emerged in the preceding century. In Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, for example, Morgan is little more than a malevolent figure; Hebert describes her as "evil, power-hungry, and class-bound" (127). Her primary function is to serve as a foil to the main character, Hank Morgan. Although Hank shares a name and some traits with Morgan, he is far more threatening than Morgan because he has the means available by which he can enact the changes he desires.

Marion Zimmer Bradley attempts to depict Morgan in a positive manner, and like the authors of the twelfth-century Latin sources, she connects Morgan to goddess figures. However, her Morgan continues to be plagued by gender stereotypes. Specifically, Morgan (as well as other female characters in Mists) makes poor decisions throughout the novel, only to realize the best courses of actions once it is too late. Self-doubt perpetually undermines her strength. J. Robert King's Le Morte D'Avalon continues with the theme of self-doubt; however, Morgan's desire to escape masculine power leads her to extreme and destructive behavior. Finally, Nancy Springer in I am Morgan le Fay offers Morgan the binary of good "earth" magic, associated with the feminine, or the negative magic of sorcery, embodied by the masculine figure of Merlin. Morgan chooses the latter, and when her beloved is killed despite her attempts to contain and protect him (which Hebert connects to the episode of the Val Sans Retour in the Vulgate), she becomes the Morrigan and embraces evil. Thus she becomes the frightening female figure of which the men in the book were initially afraid. In each of these modern fantasy novels, Morgan possesses great power and potential, but when she attempts to escape the oppressive patriarchal systems, she becomes a figure of death and destruction; there is neither a middle ground nor a third alternative.

Given the ambitious scope of Hebert's book, it is not surprising that there are moments where the discussion is rushed and unsatisfactory. For example, in the chapter on Malory, Hebert claims that Arthur does not maintain his chivalric prowess, and she uses the encounter with Accolon to illustrate this--but Hebert overlooks Arthur's frequent hunting and participation in tournaments, both of which are means by which Arthur maintains his prowess. Furthermore, Hebert ignores Morgan's explicitly stated hatred of Arthur in order to advance her theory of Morgan as Arthur's teacher. In the fourth chapter particularly, Hebert lapses into variations of "here's another manifestation of Morgan," followed by all-too-brief analysis, and I often found myself wanting more justification of why she connected certain female characters to Morgan specifically and what the larger significance was. Nonetheless, the book as a whole will be useful to Arthurian scholars as well as enthusiasts. Throughout the book, Hebert demonstrates a clear knowledge of the scholarly traditions while offering a closer look at the language (especially in the first chapter) than has previously been offered. The range of medieval texts selected--particularly the diverse depictions of Arthur and Morgan in the Latin texts as well as the innovative pairings of texts in the second chapter--and the effective incorporation of historical contexts work well to support Hebert's compelling thesis about Morgan as a shapeshifter. Morgan is an evasive figure, yet in her monograph, Hebert has established the groundwork needed for subsequent scholars to find Morgan in the forests of Arthurian romance.

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Author Biography

Kristin Bovaird-Abbo

University of Northern Colorado