Pérez, Kristina, The Myth of Morgan la Fey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp. 262.
Reviewed by Kristi J. Castleberry (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Morgan la Fey is a slippery, shadowy figure. She hurts Arthur and she heals Arthur; she is the enemy of the Round Table and she is the only hope that it may return. She is beautiful and powerful and terrifying. Kristina Pérez's The Myth of Morgan la Fey takes on the ambitious project of grappling with Morgan in myth and text and film and popular culture, easily moving between ancient and medieval and modern sources in the process. Pérez states in her preface that, "[b]y exploring the shifting portrayal of Morgan from Celtic Sovereignty Goddess to cartoon super-villain, we will find that real meanings and definitions are located in the place between two extremes," and she does keep well to this purpose throughout the book (xii). The historical breadth of the project renders it particularly appropriate to the topic of medievalism, since it gives such a thorough account of both the medieval stories and how those sources have been reimagined by later periods.
The preface features a strong authorial voice. Pérez discusses her first encounter with Morgan la Fey when she was an insecure thirteen-year-old who discovered Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. She mentions that, as a medievalist, "the admission that you might have first developed a love for your subject from a fantasy novel ... is a guilty secret that many of us share" (xi). By sharing that secret with us, Pérez creates a personalized tone that is rare in scholarly monographs. This breakdown between the professional and personal seems particularly appropriate for a work that concerns the limiting binaries forced upon Morgan and other female figures. She explains that her goal is "to make an original contribution to the academic scholarship surrounding this transformative character and to bring Morgan la Fey to a wider audience of Arthurian students and enthusiasts alike" (xiii). She thus frames the book for an audience both within and outside of academia. Because the sense of Pérez herself is so strong in the preface, I was surprised that the "I" didn't continue in the rest of the book. The tone becomes, from the introduction until the end, much more formal and distanced, shifting to the third person and plural first person. The preface creates such a strong sense of who the author is that I missed that personal voice as I continued reading.
The book's introduction begins with the end of the story—Camelot has fallen and "Morgan la Fay is the last one standing" (1). Whether or not she is described as an enemy to Arthur and the Round Table, Morgan is still a figure of healing and hope in the end. Pérez traces this complicated characterization back to the figure of the Celtic Sovereignty Goddess whose "dual function as kingmaker and death-dealer" the rest of the book explores (2). The introduction does a nice job of laying out a complex history of both Morgan specifically and the sovereignty goddess more generally, and the deft way with which Pérez moves between a wide range of material is impressive. The introduction also sets up the psychoanalytical framework that will be the primary lens of the book. She explains that "[i]n the same way as pioneering psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung turned to myth to inform their understanding of interpersonal relationships, we will use psychoanalysis to understand myth itself" (9). This statement seems a bit cyclical, and I found myself wanting more explanation about why this methodology is useful. What can psychoanalysis offer myth in particular? The first two chapters attempt to answer this question.
The first chapter convincingly argues that the split between Morgan la Fey and the Dame du Lac comes from the inability to reconcile the different aspects of the Morgan figure (mother and lover, healer and destroyer). The chapter introduces psychoanalyst Melanie Klein's concept of the "Oresteian Position," which becomes a central idea for the remainder of the text. As Pérez explains, "[a]ttempts by our heroes to contain their Oresteian Mothers result in either perversion (a defense against her), or psychosis (the full negative impact of the Oresteian Position)" (16). In some ways the book becomes more about the masculine anxieties about women than about Morgan herself, but perhaps that is what makes the subject so relevant.
The second chapter introduces Slavoj Žižek's concept of "courtly masochism," which "attempts to compensate for the reduction of Woman to phantasy" (35). Pérez argues that Sovereignty Goddesses and Fairy Mistresses from Celtic and Breton sources complicate this notion because in these cases "the Woman literally is a phantasy figure" (36). This chapter, like the first, is more focused on setting up the book’s psychoanalytic framework than on Morgan herself, but it does define the terms with which the book will discuss Morgan.
With chapter three the book begins to delve more directly into medieval materials. This chapter discusses Morgan as a monstrous mother and connects her to the Mélusine tradition, since Mélusine "remains the image of monstrous motherhood par excellence, and because she and Morgan share common Celtic origins" (55). Pérez shows us how Mélusine transforms back and forth between two different forms, while Morgan "is cut into two separate personages" (59). The examples of these figures in the chapter show how tensions between the roles of mother and lover result in literal splitting. Instead of recognizing more complex possibilities for identity that allow for women to be both mothers and lovers, the traditions of both Morgan and Mélusine attempt to reassert the desired split categories.
After the chapter on monstrous mothers, it makes sense that the fourth chapter concerns divine mothers, and it explores the Dame du Lac and the Virgin Mary in relation to Morgan. Since the Dame du Lac is a mother to Lancelot without having given birth to him, she is allowed to be a mother without having been compromised by sexuality and childbirth: "she is whole, like the Virgin Mary" (75). The Dame du Lac is thus the good mother to Morgan’s bad one. Since Morgan also heals Arthur and the Dame du Lac also traps Merlin, I am unsure about the simple dichotomy of Morgan and Dame du Lac as bad and good mother respectively, but Pérez does acknowledge that depictions of the Dame du Lac trapping Merlin ultimately complicate her role. I would have liked to hear even more about the implications of the Dame du Lac being a bad mother as well as a good one, but Pérez nonetheless shows that the primary focus on each of these figures tends to reinforce that splitting between bad and good mother.
The fifth chapter shifts focus to examine Gawain and the perennial question of what women want. The chapter begins with Mary's role as intercessor, which connects back to the chapter on divine mothers and leads nicely into a discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The pull between the power of Mary and Morgan in the poem fits nicely with the category of Oresteian Mother, and the chapter provides a new understanding of the complex binary between Morgan and the Dame du Lac as well, since even Mary's role is complicated in Gawain and the Green Knight. After all, Gawain's prayer for shelter reveals the very castle where Morgan resides and plans to test him, and thus "they are both agents of Gawain's testing" (115). Again I would like more analysis of the contradictions, though I think that the sheer breadth of material covered by the chapter (and the book) makes it inevitable that some moments will leave readers wanting more.
Chapter six takes on Morgan's role in the next major Arthurian text, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, where “Morgan la Fey reaches her zenith as a nefarious figure determined to destroy Camelot" (137). Yet, as the chapter also points out, Morgan remains the one to conduct Arthur to Avalon. Since the mother/lover opposition has been important to Pérez's framework, there could have been more explicit discussion of the dichotomy between this healer aspect and Morgan's sexual assertiveness. The chapter does a wonderful job of connecting both her sexual advances toward men (and the way in which women give and take swords such as Excalibur) back to the sovereignty goddesses discussed earlier. The chapter also makes clear how Morgan and Nymue both function as part of this tradition. Though they work against each other, they also serve similar roles in the text. Pérez addresses in detail some of my questions about the Dame du Lac from chapter four when she discusses Nymue's imprisonment of Merlin. Nymue may be Morgan's opponent, and she may work for Arthur more than against him, but she and Morgan both hold similarly powerful positions in the text.
Chapter seven, which discusses how the tradition developed in the Victorian period, explains how Nymue became Vivien. Tennyson depicts Vivien's entrapment of Merlin as an illustration of the dangerously sexualized and educated woman. Pérez explains that there was not only a dichotomy between good and bad women in Victorian society, but also between the Fallen Woman, “depicted in Victorian society as a passive victim,” and the femme fatale, “an active subject, a perpetrator” (163). The chapter argues that Vivien “retains her origins as the femme fatale: the Sovereignty Goddess in her death guise” (164). The discussion of Pre-Raphaelite artists, accompanied by helpful black-and-white images, adds further complexity to the chapter. These artists often chose working-class women and even prostitutes as models, subsequently trying to educate and rehabilitate them. This background gives us examples of male artists directly engaging with real women as they worked through their troubled responses to the characters and stories explored throughout the book.
Chapter eight takes us up to modern culture and notes that "Morgan la Fey has reappeared during the past two centuries at moments of cultural change in the definition of Woman, female sexuality, or motherhood—and their corresponding legal ramifications" (183). This chapter brings the book full circle to the ways in which contemporary anxieties shape modern depictions of Morgan, thus reinforcing how vital the topic remains. The discussion of T.H. White’s Once and Future King works particularly well within the book’s psychoanalytical framework. Pérez discusses White’s problems with his own mother, Constance White, whom he freely admitted was one of the inspirations for his characterizations of Morgause (188). I had been wondering why the book had not discussed Morgause’s role in the tradition earlier, but it makes sense to bring her in here with analysis of White. A mention that she would be discussed in more depth later would have been useful, but this chapter does a good job looking at her transformation in the literature from the Vulgate Cycle to Malory to White. The chapter then gives a tour of modern literature, film, theater, television, and comic books, concluding that “ambivalent feelings toward maternal and feminine power (especially over men) are as pertinent in cultural production today as a thousand years ago” (206).
When reading the first chapters of the book I was concerned that statements about "the subjectivity of all men" seem to universalize male anxieties and gender roles (55). But what becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses is not that specific roles or feelings remain unchanged, but rather that Morgan repeatedly functions as a touchstone for anxieties about women. The book takes on such a complex topic and deals with such a wide range of materials that it’s inevitable that individual readers will crave more in certain areas. And I would have loved signposting to let readers know when something mentioned in passing would return for further discussion later. Overall, though, Pérez brings together Celtic myth and comic book with ease, showing us the ways in which Morgan herself is a once and future queen. The wide scope of the book will make it appealing to scholars of the medieval and medievalist alike. The level of psychoanalytical theory might make it difficult at first for the enthusiast, but the richness of Pérez’s study would reward anyone interested in Arthurian literature, gender studies, or Morgan la Fey.
Kristi J. Castleberry
University of Rochester