Morgan of the Fay
There are those who believe that we of the fay are immortal.
They are wrong. We are born, we grow, we die, just like any other living creature. It is true that time moves to a different rhythm in the realm of Annwn but that does not mean we do not know death, as the bards have sung so falsely for so long.
For only those that know they will die can be wise. I have been called many things but of them all, Morgan the Wise is, I hope, the truest.
I was fifteen when I first understood death and fifteen when I first lay with a man, clenching the seeds of his loving deep within me so that another child could sprout into life. Like the two gatehouses of a bridge spanning a turbulent river, the end of one life and the beginning of another mark my passage from child to woman, from sure innocence to uncertain knowledge. And so it is the story of my fifteenth summer that you must know, if you are to understand how I came to be who I am.
I was born Margante, eldest granddaughter of Afallach, lord of Annwn, called by some the Fortunate Isle, for its richness and beauty; by others the Isle of Apples, for its fruit-laden orchards; and yet again, Caer Siddi or the Fairy Fortress, by those who have cause to fear the fay.
Like my home, my name changes according to the namer. Those who love me most call me Morgan, a nickname given me by my youngest sister Thitis when first she began to babble.
There were nine of us, a blessed number to those of our kind. When I was fifteen, Thitis was little more than two years old and the joy of my heart. I do not know if I loved her more at play, squealing with joy, or at night, when I carried her to bed, her downy head nestled against my shoulder. For my mother had died in the bearing of her, and so I was the only mother Thitis ever knew.
You may wonder why it was not my mother’s death that first brought me face to face with mortality. You must realise my mother had born nine daughters in thirteen years. She was worn and tired, and short of temper. She had believed the tales the bards sang, of the Fortunate Isle where death and sickness were unknown, where crops grew without cultivation, and the Tylwyth Teg danced the nights away. She was human, poor thing, seduced from her own people when only a girl herself. My father Owain rode up out of the water, smiling, holding down his hand to her. She took it, laughing as he drew her up before him and galloped back into the misty waters of the lake. Of course, she regretted it afterwards but it was too late then. We of the Tylwyth Teg do not let go easily.
So although I was sorry when my mother died, my grief was not very deep nor lasting, and certainly did not make me understand the fragility of my own life. I was healthy and strong, and busy with my own concerns. For, despite what the bards sing, the gardens and orchards of Annwn do need care. Not as much as the fields of humans, of course. We of the fay do not mind dandelions and clover mingling with our corn and beans, and dislike seeing things laid out in rows and squares, as you humans labour so hard to achieve. We let the wind and the birds and the bees help us in our labour, and sing as we wander amidst the flowers and the trees, and so you think what is done with love and merriment cannot be true work. But all of us have our work to do, even a princess with the blood of gods and goddesses running in her veins.
Always, too, there were my lessons. I was of the Tylwyth Teg and magic was bred in my bones. I was hungry for such knowledge and so at the age of twelve, not long before my mother died, I was given into the care of the druids, to learn what I could.
It was at the druids’ school that I first met Anna, daughter of Uther Pendragon, who had been sent to the Isle of Apples to learn the seven arts. We were distant cousins of sorts, for Anna could trace her lineage back to Llyr of the Sea through her mother Igraine, and Llyr had been married to my grandfather’s sister Penarddun. It may seem strange to you that eleven generations had lived and died between Penarddun and Anna, and only one between my grandfather and me, but that is the nature of time in Annwn. Anna was a tall, fair girl, the tallest and fairest I had ever seen. Beside her I was little and dark, which at first made me hate her. No-one could hate Anna for long, though. She was like a soft white cat with round blue eyes and a satisfied purr. It did not take her long to win me over completely. She admired my grey eyes and nicknamed me Argante, and I called her Ermine for her thick pelt of pale hair.
We were as close as any sister those three years we studied together. I must admit my lessons suffered, for we were always laughing and whispering together at the edge of the grove instead of listening to our teachers. Anna and I told each other everything in those first ardent years of our friendship and so, you see, it was my fault that her brother came raiding upon our shores.
They say I hate Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, and indeed I have reason to. Yet did I not give him Caledfwlch, forged here upon our shores and imbued with the powers of Annwn? And when the magic of the sword was not, in the end, enough to save him, did he not know to call for me and did I not go? Would I have done so if I hated him as I should?
The stories they tell of Arthur, which you listen to with such eagerness, they are like an apple which has been baked with honey and studded with cloves, and hung from a silk ribbon. It no longer looks like an apple or smells like an apple, but cut it open and inside you will find pips. Plant these seeds and an apple tree will grow.
So here is the truth of it, the apple beneath the spices and honey. I hate Arthur for his murdering and plundering, and for the blood he spilt that day, and yet it was because of that blood that I first felt sorrow and terror and joy too, in the flame that can leap between man and woman, and in the painful tenderness that comes with the bringing forth of new life. With this knowledge, I learnt to see beyond the flimsy membrane that separates life and death. If it was not for Arthur I may never have become, in the end, Morgan the Wise.
It was a bright autumn day when Arthur’s ship Prydwen sailed through the mists towards our shores. Belle Garde shone upon its hill like a blue flame, its many-faceted towers glittering where the sun struck. I was playing in the garden with the youngest of my sisters, Vevan and Thitis, while Anna reclined on the grass, being far too lazy to want to toss a ball around.
Suddenly she lifted herself up, pointing. ‘Look, a ship!’
We all stood staring at the boat with its high sternpost and large steering oars, its great square sail painted with some device in red. We were rather surprised, though it was not unknown for strangers to find their way through the haze of mirage that conceals our realm. In those days the doors between the worlds stood ajar and there was much traffic between those of human blood and those of the fay. The doors are all locked now, of course, and only those that have the key may open them. We of the Tylwyth Teg are not so trusting as we once were.
As I stood gazing at the ship, I felt an odd frisson down the back of my neck, as if someone had crept up behind me and blown on my skin. I shuddered and rubbed my arms, although I was not cold.
‘Let’s go down to the dock and see who it is,’ Vevan cried. ‘We aren’t expecting visitors, are we, Morgan?’
I shook my head. ‘Not that I know of. Surely Taidi would’ve let me know if he was expecting anybody?’ I dusted leaves and grass from my skirt and held down my hand to Anna. ‘Coming?’
‘Of course,’ she answered. ‘Miss the one exciting thing to happen here since I got back? Let’s hope it’s a boatload of handsome young warriors who have lost their way. Maybe we can entice them to stay awhile?’
I smiled, though I still felt that puzzling tightening of my nerves. I was not concerned by the impact of unexpected guests on our larder, for we always had the cauldron of plenty to tide us over any need for food, nor was I worried about where to house the travellers, for my grandfather’s castle was vast. I felt no fear, for what could one small ship do against the warriors of the Tylwyth Teg? It was a chill akin to fear that troubled me, however, and being still a child myself, I shrugged it away and went running down through the garden as eagerly as the others.
We were not the only ones to make our way towards the jetty, for we of the fay are always curious and eager for any diversion. Children came running and shouting down the road, men laid down their harps or set aside their tools, and women came wandering out of the forests, many of them with flowers entwined in their hair and their mouths stained red with berries. By the time the ship was dropping her sails and sliding in beside the jetty, there was a jostling crowd waiting for her, all talking and laughing.
‘Look at the red dragon on her sail,’ Anna cried excitedly. ‘That is Arthur’s device! What can he be doing here?’ The animation in her face faded, and she frowned. ‘It is only a month or so since I saw him. I hope nothing is wrong ….’
Then she began to wave and call, for a tall, young warrior was leaning over the bulwark. He leapt down and embraced Anna affectionately. I looked him over curiously, for I had heard a great deal about the young king. He was as big and handsome as Anna had said, his hair and beard near as fair as hers and his eyes as blue. He was not yet twenty, but he was battle-hardened and battle-scarred. He had seen heavy fighting since he won the throne, I had heard, and certainly the guilelessness of his youth had been worn away, I could see that at once.
He met my gaze with his own, bold and raking. ‘So this is your beloved Argante. She is almost as beautiful as you describe, Anna, at least for a fairy. I wonder if she is as clever?’
I felt anger roaring in my ears. I cast him one disdainful glance and said, very distinctly, ‘It would not be difficult, to be more clever than a bone-headed warrior whose ears are still ringing from the last battle he fought.’
King Arthur laughed. He cast me a look of admiration. If I had not sensed the mockery behind it, I might have half-swooned from the warmth of it but I drew myself away, feeling again a shudder of dread. It may merely have been fear at the power such a man might have over me. I do not think so now, however. I am old enough now to recognise the chill breath of foreboding.
A small band of men alighted from the ship, among them a beautiful, slightly built man that I recognised. This was the bard Taliesen, who had once been a peasant boy in the employ of the great seer Ceridwen. One day, stirring her cauldron, three drops of a magical potion spat out and burnt his hand. Sucking the burn, he had tasted the elixir of knowledge meant for her son and at once knew all the secrets of the universe.
Knowing Ceridwen would never forgive him, he fled. He turned into a hare, she turned into a hound. He turned into a fish, she became an otter. When he grew wings and took to the sky, she transformed into a hawk. At last, in desperation, he hid himself in the shape of a grain of wheat. Ceridwen changed into a hen and ate him.
That should have been the end of him but once Ceridwen resumed her usual shape, she found she was pregnant. In time she bore a baby boy who was so beautiful she could not bear to kill him. She trussed him up in a leather bag and threw him into the sea. Two days later he was rescued by a prince who raised the boy as his own, calling him Taliesin, which means ‘Shining Brow’. He grew to be a great bard and seer, though one with little love for the fay.
At the sight of Taliesen, I fell behind, troubled and unsure. All seemed well. King Arthur and his men were looking about them with pleasure. My indolent Anna was the most animated I had ever seen. Everyone was smiling and laughing. Everyone that is, except Taliesen the bard, and I.
The doors of the castle stood open, welcoming light spilling out into the gloaming. My grandfather sat in his throne at the head of the great hall, his nine white hounds lying at his feet. They raised their heads and snarled as King Arthur came in. I was glad to see how the king’s step faltered, though it was only for a moment. He ignored the growling dogs, with their ears and eyes as red as blood, and bowed low over my grandfather’s hand.
I left the men to their polite fencing, and withdrew to my rooms to change for what promised to be a long and tedious night, listening to Anna’s brother boast of his doings and watching her hang on his arm and believe every word.
When I came down, the great hall was set up with tables and trestles, the minstrels were playing, and King Arthur sat on my grandfather’s left hand, my father Owain on his right. On a side table sat the cauldron of plenty, its golden sides gleaming in the candlelight. It was one of the treasures of Annwn, made by Bran the Blessed himself. With pearls all round its rim, it could only be kindled by the breath of nine maidens. It would produce the most delicious food until all that sat at the table were replete, filled with new strength and vigour.
I saw how the eyes of all King Arthur’s men dwelled on the cauldron, but even then I had no true understanding of what they planned to do. I blamed my unease on childish jealousy, and tried my best to suppress it.
My grandfather stood with some effort, for he was many centuries old now. He nodded at King Arthur and his men and raised his goblet. ‘Welcome to my realm, my boy,’ he said. ‘We are glad to meet you at last, for we have heard how you seek to bring peace to the land after a hundred years of bloodshed. We wish you well and are glad of the chance to forge strong bonds with you, who carry the blood of Llyr in your veins, even as we do. It is good that you should know us, for other races and other gods have come and we have been afraid that the old ways would be cast aside. May the Children of Llyr and the Children of Don flourish and stand strong, and may there be peace and plenty in the land!’
Goblets were drained with enthusiasm all round the room, though I noticed the strangers did not drink, just held their cups to their lips and pretended to taste the wine within. I smiled to myself. They believed the old superstitions that to eat or drink when in the land of the fay was to be trapped in that realm forever. What were they to do once the cauldron started pouring forth its bounty?
Except that it did not. When I and my eight sisters held hands and blew gently upon the cauldron, the water within barely trembled. A mutter of shock and consternation rose all round the room.
King Arthur turned on his sister. ‘Are all your tales of the cauldron of Annwn nothing but lies?’ he hissed. ‘We have come all this way for a fairytale?’
‘There is a coward amongst us!’ my father cried at the same moment. ‘The cauldron will not feed the craven.’
‘Or the treacherous,’ my grandfather said softly. He had heard King Arthur’s furious words, even if my father had not. ‘You think I did not notice that you refused to drink my toast? Even such fools as men hesitate to break the law of hospitality. You plan to steal my cauldron? And plunder the riches of my land? Is that the truth of it?’
‘No, no!’ Anna cried. ‘Arthur, you wouldn’t …’ She cast a glance at me and I saw at once that she had been the one to tell him of our treasure, the cauldron that could feed and succour an army. I glared at her in sudden, bitter hatred.
My father had leapt to his feet, catching up his eating knife in one hand. ‘Treachery! You come with foul intent! The cauldron will not serve those with such base ambitions,’ he cried. He was always impulsive, my father, quick to word and blow. He lunged at King Arthur with his dagger, who dodged nimbly, seizing his own knife. There was a quick weave and duck and flurry of blows, and suddenly my father cried out and slumped to the floor. His blood sprayed across my face.
Trestles crashed against the flagstones as men leapt to their feet. All was confusion. My sisters screamed. I fell to my knees, cradling my father’s head. His hair was sticky with blood. My grandfather bellowed and raised his walking stick, lashing King Arthur across the back. He stumbled with a cry, and one of his men struck my grandfather deep in the breast. He fell stiffly, his eyes wide open in shock. His head hit the stone with a clunk. I sat silent, my ears filled with a rushing sound.
All round me men fought, with knife and chair leg and poker and platter. Then Taliesen pulled a horn from his belt and blew it. The sound rang out above the clamour and at once I knew for whom he called. That little ship, bobbing at our jetty. Many warriors must be hidden there. I tried to get to my feet, calling to my grandfather’s men. My men now. No-one heeded me. I struggled to find a way through the heaving, struggling mass, but received such a blow to my head I fell to my knees. That was when Thitis, my dear sweet baby, shrieked and rushed for me.
I swear he did not mean to do it. Even in the horror of that moment, as I saw his blade swing back, its sharp tip slashing across her throat, I swear his shock and grief were as great as mine. For a moment our glances struck across her tiny, trampled body.
Perhaps that is why I cannot hate him, for I saw his face at that moment and knew that he felt the stretching of time and space to very breaking point, just as I did.
I reached for her, gathered her into her arms, felt her head loll back, lifeless. The pain that struck into my chest was so acute it was as if a spear had caught me there. I was struck mute and paralysed. All around me men and fay died, but I could not hear, or see, or move. When my grief came it was as rage, a rage so dreadful flame burst from my hands and cleared a path before me. So I came into my powers, with the blood of Thitis blurring my vision and the shrieks of the dying in my ears.
We prevailed in the end. Of the hundred and fifty men that had crouched in Prydwen’s bilge beside their boy-king, only seven men survived, Taliesen the bard amongst them. We lost three hundred and seventy-three, and our king, and the king’s heir, and my innocence. It was a high cost to pay.
I could have had him executed. I could have fed his entrails to my hounds. Instead, I put my mouth to his wound and sucked out his blood. As he recoiled from me, I went out into the cold starry night and lay down in the embrace of the oak tree’s roots. I slept, I think, a little. My mind wandered in and out of dreams. I flew with a black-winged bird over the shadowed landscape of the future, I listened to the raven’s cry. When I woke in the morning, I knew many things I had not known before. I rose and washed myself clean, and spat the brown dust of his blood from my mouth. I dressed myself as a queen of the fay, and I took from the armoury a sword that had been forged by Gofannon himself, son of Don and master-smith. It too was one of the treasures of Annwn. I took it to him. He was pale, bruised and shaken in his dark cell. He stood up when I came in and faced me with as much of his usual arrogance as he could muster, though he could not help the black dilation of his eyes at the sight of the heavy sword in my hands.
For a moment we faced each other. I stood no higher than his shoulder but I was at least as proud and in no way as frightened. Then slowly I offered him the hilt of the sword.
He took it wonderingly, unable to speak.
‘I have seen what is to be,’ I said. ‘You will need the sword. It is named Caledfwlch. Its blade shall never fail you and its sheath protects you from harm. Go from here and do not return. I shall not be so merciful again.’
‘But why?’ he stammered.
I took a while to answer. I would not let him see the heaviness of my grief, which lodged in my throat like a stone. ‘The tide is on the turn,’ I managed at last. ‘The evil of the future that contains you alive is far less than the evil of a future with you dead. Though I wish I could tear out your heart for the gods you have abandoned, I know you …’ I had to struggle for breath. ‘… I know you are the only one. Take your sword, take your ship, and leave my realm. Know that it is death for you to sail here again.’
But even as I said these words I felt the chill of foreboding down my spine and knew that I lied. I did not tell him so, however, and so he took the sword and for another twenty years or more, he fought and triumphed with it.
But that is a tale for another telling. I have spoken here of death and the tasting of blood, but now it is time to show the bright face of the moon, the story of loving and the making of life. For I saw many things that night I lay in the grove with Arthur’s blood in my mouth. I saw it was time to close the doors between the worlds, else all the things of magic would be lost and broken in the times of change and upheaval that beset us. I saw it was time for me to lay aside my childhood and become a woman and a queen.
So when the ashes of the dead had at last blown away on the wind, I set out with my nine hounds and I went to a place that I knew, where a road of the humans fords the River Alun in the shadow of the Mountain of the Mothers. Such places are often doorways into our world, and so I crossed the threshold and came out into the world of men. I undid my hair, removed all my clothes and sat on a stone, washing myself in the river while my hounds howled about me.
Soon a man came riding along, as I had known he would. This man was Urien Rheged, and though he was not as young and strong as Arthur, he was lusty enough.
When he saw me, dressed only in my long black hair, he sent away all his men and came to me with long, heavy strides and seized me in his hot hands.
‘What are you, witch-woman?’ he said against my neck.
I said, ‘I am Margante, daughter to the King of Annwn, who is now dead. God’s blessing on the feet which brought you here.’
‘Why?’ he asked, and kissed me.
I had not expected his kiss to fire me, and so when I finally answered it was rather unsteadily. ‘I am fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian man.’
He laughed and said, ‘It is far too cold to sit here bathing day after day. Let me see what I can do to help you.’
And so there in the bracken, my son Owain and my daughter Morwyn were concieved, if not in love, at least in eagerness and pleasure. A year later Urien came back to the Ford of Barking and took away my twin babes, that they may be raised in the way of men. This too was a bitter grief to me, and another resentment to store up against Arthur. For I loved my children and would have given much to keep them safe with me behind the locked doors of Annwn.
I knew, though, that the world of humans needed them. Owain and Morwyn carried with them all the gifts of healing, song and merriment that I could give them, as well as the more troubling gift of foresight. In time Owain would fall in love, betray that love, run mad in the forest and befriend a lion, but all of that is yet another tale. It is enough that you know he learnt in the end that love is more important than valour, peace more important than war. For we of the Tylwyth Teg see time differently from you short-lived humans. In the small, black pip of an apple, we see the tree that will eventually flower and bear fruit.
Morgan le Fay is one of the most intriguing and ambivalent figures in Arthurian mythology. She is portrayed as evil sorceress, beautiful seductress, wise healer, queen, priestess, mother, wife, crone. The many echoes of her name show her many diverse manifestations – in Brittany, morgen means mermaid; the mirages in the Straits of Messina are known as la fata morgana; she is also connected with the Irish war-goddess Morrigan and with Modron, the triple-faced mother goddess of the Celts.
Morgan le Fay first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1149) as the ruler of Avalon, a skilled healer and shapeshifter. She is first identified as Arthur’s sister in Chrétien de Troyes’s poem Erec et Enide (c.1168) where she is also described as Morgan la Fee, mistress to Guigomar, Lord of Avalon. In Chrétien’s poem Yvian she appears as Morgan the Wise.
In Layamon’s Brut (c. 1189), the first English-language rendering of Geoffrey’s Historia, she appears as Argante the elf-queen, when the mortally wounded Arthur says: “And I will fare to Avalun, to the fairest of all maidens, Argante the queen, an elf most fair, and she shall make my wounds all sound; make me whole with healing draughts. And afterwards I will come again to my kingdom and dwell with the Britons with mickle joy.’
Giraldus Cambrensis, in his Speculum Ecclesia (c.1216) says ‘after the battle of Camlann, the body of Arthur, who had been mortally wounded, was carried off by a certain noble matron called Morgan, who was his cousin, to the Isle of Avalon.’ He also describes her as ‘a certain fairy goddess … called Morganis.’
It is not until the Cistercian Vulgate Cycle (1220) that Morgan le Fay is stripped of her otherworldly origins and begins to assume the cruel, sinister and incestuous form that we now know best today.
I am most interested in the early tales of Arthur, which are found in their purest forms in the old Welsh tales. The most famous of these Welsh sources is the collection of eleven stories known as The Mabinogion, but there are others, including the Welsh text Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings) which some say is the original text translated by Geoffrey of Monmouth as his Historia Regum Britanniae in 1136.
In particular I have drawn upon ‘The Spoils of Annwn’, a poem in The Book of Taliesen which describes King Arthur’s thwarted plan to carry off the magical cauldron of Annwn. The story of the Ford of Barking is found in a number of Welsh folk tales, as well as in the 13th century Suite du Merlin which Malory drew upon for his Morte d’Arthur. I owe my greatest debt to Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd’s book The Road to Avalon: The True Location of Arthur’s Kingdom Revealed, which examines the early Welsh material in great detail.
This story was first published in The Road to Camelot, ed. by Sophie Masson, Random House Australia, 2002, and republished in Relics, Wrecks and Ruins, ed. Aiki Flinthart, Cat Press, 2021.