In dim samite was she bedight,
And on her hair a hoop of gold,
Like foxfire, in the tawn moonlight,
Was glimmering cold.
With soft gray eyes she gloomed and glowered;
With soft red lips she sang a song:
What knight might gaze upon her face,
Nor fare along?
*Morgan le Fay by Madison Cawien.
Morgan le Fay as noted by Frederick Sandys
In Arthurian legend, Morgan who was an enchantress and shapeshifter, had a goddess like aspect and was known by the epithet "le Fay." Her English name comes from the French Morain le Fee, the fay or fairy and in Italian she is Fata Morgana. She also was a pupil of Merlin, and learned much of her magic from him.
Morgan le Fay was represented as a dark goddess characterized by the powerful earthly qualities of winter and warfare. Some accounts say she could fly with wings and change shape. Her anithesis was Queen Guinevere, wife of Arthur, whose role was that of the 'Flower Bride' and represented spring and growth.
Morgan ruled a castle of maidens near Edinburgh and was also the goddess of an island in the sea called "the Fortunate Isle," more commonly known as Avalon.
In earliest literary accounts she is a daughter of Avallach, king of the enchanted island best known as Avalon. Morgan is thus placed in an otherworldly setting, derived from pagan mythology. Besides Avallach, tradition mentions a second lord of the island. The romancer Chretien de Troyes calls him Gingamor and says Morgan was his mistress. Eventually, both male rulers fade out out of tales. Generally in Arthurian lore, Morgan is lady of Avalon in her own right, with a different parentage and was born to Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall and Igrain. She was sent to a monastery to be educated as a nun, but covertly learned the magical arts. As a political match, she was married to Uriens of Gore, and by him bore Owain, who became one of King Arthur's earliest knights.
In early legends, Morgan is essentially a good fairy. Later stories in the same vein portray her, with attendant fairies, befriending Arthur during his mortal career. At his birth, for instance, they bestow the gifts of strength, dominion and long life. Evntually, the pressure of Christianity drove romancers to make the ex-goddess more human and also, because of her pagan associations, more sinister.
An example of her evil nature is when she is blamed for the fatal disclosure of Guinevere's affair with Sir Lancelot. In one version she brings Lancelot under her own roof, tries unsuccessfully to seduce him, and allows him to paint a mural which betrays the secret of his love to subsequent visitors. In another version she exposes Guinevere's guilt by sending a chastity-testing drinking horn to the court. There is a recurrent suggestion that her malice is due to frustrated passion. Like other fairy-women, she wants to keep a mortal man in a sensual paradise of her own, so she creates a '"Valley without Return'" to entrap her victim.
Morgan adopted many challenging measures to aid Arthur's kingship and she acted as guardian of the land. Morgan le Fay also sent the Green Knight as another test for Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. She created the Knight and sent it to Camelot to frighten Guinevere, her life long rival, and to test Gawain, the son of King Lot of Orkney and the greatest knight until the coming of Lancelot. After slaying the Green Knight, Gawain became the Knight of the Goddess, Morgan's champion.
Morgan le Fay occasionally appears in two aspects, an older and a younger. When she fails to seduce Lancelot she sends one of her damsels, who is, in effect, her second self. The same motif occurs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was often part of the feminine divine nature to have habitual guises as a younger woman and as an older one.
Even though Morgan le Fay was Arthur's enemy in life, she was his protector in afterlife. After receiving his mortal wound during the Battle of Camlan, Morgan took him to Avalon in her magical boat to be healed and to await future call to his country's need.