Monday, 11 July 2011

Le Fay Dismay

How is it possible to make a television series about Arthurian Legend and get it so wrong?  I guess in the same way that they screwed up the Pre-Raphaelites, but surely the stories of King Arthur and the Knights are fool-proof.  Hell, even Excalibur is good for a giggle.   

And they had James Purefoy.

But here we are.  Mr Purefoy got bumped off in the first episode and my interest level dropped like a stone.  Yes, I am shallow, I regret nothing.

However, the real shame is that Eva Green seems to be under the illusion that everyone is working as hard as her, bringing forth a thoroughly barking mad Morgan Le Fay, upstaging everyone else as she swans about in pretty much nothing but a lot of eye-make up.

 She is chewing the scenery, well done Eva.  Mind you, I have always like Morgan Le Fay, she is a complicated figure in Arthurian legend, and the source for some fabulous Pre-Raphaelite art.

Morgan Le Fay (1864) Frederick Sandys
Take Sandys depiction of Morgan Le Fay, which has to be the best know, if only for the leopard skin.  You can see the Rossetti influence here but I doubt DGR would have taken such a sweeping view of the scene which contains so many bits and bobs you feel she should spend less time in sorcery and more time tidying up. Blimey, I sound like my mother.

Morgan Le Fay represented a wilful, powerful femme fatale, out to seduce and murder her way through Arthurian England, and Sandys depiction of her was described as ‘beauty prostituted to malicious and lustful cruelty’.  Blimey, that’s a bit strong, but hanging around in a leopard skin will get you a bad reputation.

It never used to be like this.  Morgan started life in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, where she was a healer and shape-shifter.  Even Chrétien de Troyes, who established her as Arthur’s half-sister and rival, emphasised her healing power.  She was one of nine sisters, all magical, and Morgan is often described as the ruler of Avalon and one of the maidens who travelled with Arthur back to her isle at the end of his life.  Later romances began to elaborate on her more wicked adventures, taking lovers to enable her to kill Arthur and steal Excalibur.

Morgan Le Fay John Raddam Spencer Stanhope
 Spencer Stanhope does quite well at giving us a woman of dubious mental stability and virtue.  Her coils of hair, which seem to have a life of their own, possibly recall Medusa or Lilith, rather than the classical women her pose seems to echo.  Compared to Sandys proactively evil sorceress, Stanhope’s woman is more like a force of nature, or possible the fairy her name suggests.  There is nothing exotic about her, no leopard skins and knick-knacks, just earth coloured clothes and flowers.

Morgan Le Fay (1862) Edward Burne Jones
 A further step along this road is Burne-Jones’ Morgan-le-Fay.  I didn’t even take the image for a femme fatale as she looks so innocent, which only goes to show how long I’d last in Arthurian England.  However innocent she appears, she toys with a sprig of poisonous daphne, hinting at her true nature.

 Luckily for contemporary viewers, we don’t need to be wary of an innocent maiden with a penchant for poisonous herbs.  Camelot alerts us by way of eyeliner misuse and leather, not to mention liberal nudity that this lass is bad to the bone.  Much like the Victorians, it seems that we cannot stand for ambiguity in our female characters, so she is damned to be the ultimate jealous sibling for the rest of her days.  How about The Defence of Morgan, anyone?


  1. Great article! I do like Eva's outfit--I'd wear that around daily too if it weren't so hot in Arizona right now...

  2. Seems most on-screen versions I've seen stack the cards against Morgan Le Fey and offer little defense. In Excalibur, Morgana is pretty much off her rocker. Merlin's Morgan Le Fey (Helena Bonham-Carter) is also a raving lunatic (not quite Bellatrix crazy, but close). Perhaps an evil character is just more memorable on film?

    Mists of Avalon's version of her is the only one I can recall in which she is a level-headed, strong, likable woman and one you'd not be afraid to dine with!

  3. I think there is a solid audience for an unhinged woman in see-through clothes, rather than a complex, well-thought-out female protagonist with her boobs inside her blouse. Typical.

  4. I agree. Mists of Avalon had the first sympathetic depiction of Morgan Le Fay that I ever came across, as well as interesting depictions of Nimue AND Vivien, two separate characters.


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