Jill M. Hebert. Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter. Arthurian and Courtly Cultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Reviewed by Misty Schieberle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter celebrates the ambiguity, inconsistency, and resistance to patriarchal control in literary representations of Morgan and Morgan-like figures. As Hebert explains in her introduction, for her, “the term ‘shapeshifter’ is both a denotative and a connotative term signaling Morgan’s ability to change ‘shape,’ to evade being shaped by others, and to manipulate the shape of others such as the knights with whom she interacts” (5). Thus, the book’s focus also shifts, depending on the texts under consideration. The book ambitiously surveys Morgan le Fay’s appearances from early Latin chronicles and medieval literature through the Early Modern, Romantic, and Victorian eras to finally explore Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, and selected contemporary fiction. It will be a useful reference for students and Morgan enthusiasts for its sheer ability to synthesize so much prior scholarship and provide intertextual readings of a wide range of Arthurian literature.
The project is necessarily broad in scope to trace general similarities and common issues, with an eye to reconsidering the binaries of “good” and “evil,” with regard to Morgan’s character. Readers who are searching for evidence of Morgan as a potentially positive character who challenges patriarchy or instructs Arthur will find much material to enliven their perspective; skeptics, however, may require more convincing because often coverage takes precedent over textual detail and context. Nevertheless, readers should find Hebert’s account a useful narrative of how authors and readers of various centuries viewed Morgan’s relationship to Arthur, her access to power and challenges to stereotypes of women (and the discomfort she caused many male writers), and her character itself, including the perhaps surprising self-doubt that plagues her in more recent works.
The first chapter examines selections from four Latin sources – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Etienne de Rouen’s Draco Normannicus, and, very briefly, both De Instructione Principis and Speculum Ecclesiae by Gerald of Wales. Hebert challenges the scholarly consensus that Morgan is represented as a caring, wholesome figure in these works, before the later romances constructed her as a malicious force. She also addresses Celtic goddess figures, primarily the Morrigan, whose ambiguity and complex character she identifies as an influence on early Latin sources. Then she asserts that in each Latin text, the positive descriptions of Morgan as healer or loving sister are undermined by various possible interpretations of certain surrounding textual elements. These assertions often turn on interpretations of single words or phrases, for example, when the Vita uses a Latin word (medicamen) that might mean both antidote and poison to describe Morgan’s “healing” (29), or when the Draco’s reference to Arthur’s fatalia iura is taken as a link to Morgan as fay (32). Still, such readings encourage the reader to reinvestigate the text and reconsider the possibilities for Morgan’s character.
Chapter two treats episodes that feature Morgan in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycle and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it also connects Morgan to loathly lady and fairy mistress narratives including Thomas of Chestre’s Launfal, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and Parzival. Given that many of these narratives occur at least partially in the forest rather than in a courtly setting, this exploration leads to one of Hebert’s most persuasive arguments: knights’ experiences in the forest require them to reevaluate courtly social norms and expand their realm of knowledge. Women and the notion of knightly submission to women’s knowledge are central to this educational experience, and Hebert finds parallels to Morgan in all the women who advance a knight’s education.
The third chapter examines Malory’s Arthur through the lens of Geoffrey de Charny’s early fourteenth-century chivalric manuals and argues that Morgan’s character calls attention to the imperfections that make Arthur an unworthy king (70). Ambitiously, Hebert reads Morgan as “Arthur’s backbone” and as a political counselor who tries to force her brother to deal with private issues such as Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair and knights’ disloyalty (72). To do so, Hebert must gloss the Accolon and 'poisoned mantle' episodes as instructive for Arthur and not meant to do genuine harm, which is a difficult task, since characters’ intents are elusive in Malory. Hebert attributes Morgan’s failure as such a counselor to Arthur’s willful ignorance and repression of her lessons, not to the fact that her attempts are manifested through oblique tests that men can dismiss all too easily as trivial or malicious, rather than through direct speech or counsel. Yet the notion that Malory means to critique the court or chivalric values through Morgan is ultimately persuasive, as is the reading of Excalibur’s scabbard (Latin: vagina) as representing the court’s underestimation of women’s potential to help or harm the court.
Chapter four explores the widest range of material yet, some of which only feature echoes of Morgan, constituting what Hebert calls “presence-in-absence”: Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590s); Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1884); Pre-Raphaelite art; literary works by minor authors Benedict Naubert (1826), Mrs. T. K. Hervey (1863), Diana Craik (1853), and Madison J. Cawein (1889); the folk ballad “Thomas the Rhymer” (1802); and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885). Although Morgan does not appear in the Faerie Queene, Hebert argues that Spenser, indebted to Malory, distributes Morgan’s abilities across the negative characters Argante, Acrasia, Duessa, and Malecasta. Hebert then shifts to the Romantic and Victorian eras, considering social views of the fallen woman and the Angel of the House archetype. In this light, a Morgan character proves problematic for the various writers who attempt to reduce her complexity and impose restrictions on her. Hebert’s reading of Tennyson’s Vivien as an ignored advisor recalls her reading of Malory’s Morgan and suggests that Vivien fails because she is a woman and not trusted by men. This is at least partially true, but, of course, Tennyson also shows Vivien openly lying and manipulating the truth (as in her two different versions of her parents’ deaths), indicating that her gender may not be the only problem with her character. The chapter is especially noteworthy for its treatment of the less canonical writers, such as Hervey, whose Guenevere impressively defends Morgan against men’s misrepresentations in a show of women’s solidarity, and Craik, who offers a more conservative defense, while more familiar or traditional depictions provide a broader literary context.
The final chapter addresses Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee (1889), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1982), J. Robert King’s Le Morte d’Avalon (2003), and Nancy Springer’s young adult novel I Am Morgan le Fay (2001), with a general focus on feminine power. For Hebert, Twain’s Hank Morgan and Morgan le Fay share similar values, but she is also someone he must displace as he gains power. Analysis of Bradley’s Mists complicates the notion of power due to the “overlapping power structures of masculine, Christian, and Celtic priestess society” (12), and Hebert convincingly challenges the notion of Mists as a feminist revision. Rather, she demonstrates how that view is undermined by the many moments of doubt and insecurity Morgan experiences that lead to destruction instead of success. The two more recent novels, though for different audiences, equally show a Morgan filled with self-doubt whose rebellion causes only destruction, which prompts Hebert to rightfully express concern that the still-dominant message delivered is that a talented woman’s challenges to patriarchy can result only in personal and social tragedy.
As this book illustrates, Morgan’s character is complex, elusive, and ever-shifting, and Hebert achieves a monumental task in bringing together such a variety of sources. One of the book’s impressive features is Hebert’s widespread reading in both Arthurian literature, including Welsh, French, and German texts that she references in addition to her main texts, and scholarship. She cites a wide array of sources, including folklore studies, feminist readings, historical analyses, art history, and academic and trade books from early 1900s to present publications, even unpublished dissertations and B.A. theses. Hebert clearly challenges some consensus views, but the impulse to cover so many texts frequently leaves little room for extensive analysis. As a result, Hebert’s survey is often insightful but sometimes uneven. For instance, she elides the many variations among the English 'loathly lady' tales, without considering whether the lady has control over her own shapeshifting (as in Chaucer) or not (as occurs more typically), which would complicate the questions regarding both female power and whether the fay analogue in the story is the loathly lady or the stepmother who enchanted her. Hebert thus opens suggestive avenues for interpretation, but the number and variety of texts covered prevents her from fully engaging more developed intertextual readings.
Even though at times I found myself desiring more details, Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter regularly inspired me to want to turn to the texts or delve into the issues and questions Hebert raises. I have no doubt that the book will spark further investigations into the character of Morgan and her changing status during various eras of Arthurian literature.
University of Kansas