After the disappearance of Merlin form the narrative, the power of overarching destiny eases off in the sense that the stories are now more concerned with the celebration of the adventures, tournaments, physical accomplishments and courtly love.
Magic takes up a role of an adventurous encounter which serves as a test of the chivalric virtues and eventually validates or refutes the qualities of a particular knight.
With the exception of Merlin the field of practice in the Arthurian narratives is dominated by female enchantresses. Malory never explicitly identifies the origin of any such enchantress as otherworld but for example the Lady of the Lake who resides in an underwater cave in a “fair place as any on earth, and richly beseen”93 and who gives Arthur the Excalibur is obviously firmly connected with the Otherworld. Nevertheless the origins of their powers remain strongly obscure. They are as ambiguous as Merlin’s character for their actions are positive as well as negative depending upon the crucial difference in their motivation and intention.
The powers of the sorceresses include shape-shifting, illusion, natural magic, foreknowledge and the practice of ‘nigromancy’, “the term most often employed in romance to suggest illicit magical arts.”94 Saunders assumes the definite attitude toward the term as having a Latin origin and thus not suggesting the aid of the dead, as the modern term ‘necromancy’ is understood to signify.95 Malory seems to apply the term in the same spirit, thus differentiating the good and evil kind of enchantment. Its potential demonic nature sets it to the outermost margins of acceptability of magical practice. Although the authors of romances usually do not portray humans as actively involved in conjuring demons or in explicit cooperation with them. Malory is no exception; his depiction of the various practices is even more obscure due to his aforementioned simplification of the supernatural elements in the Morte.
The magical powers of women represent the counterbalance with male physical strength. Where men can defend themselves and carry their will through with physical force, there women can either depend on them or use supernatural kind of force.
One of the female enchantresses appearing in Malory’s narrative is “the chief lady of the lake”96 called Nimue. She is sometimes confused or blended with the Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur the Excalibur, but Malory strictly differentiates these two characters. Nimue (or Niniane) enjoys an expanded field of activity in the Morte since Malory creates unique passages not found in his sources.97 The character of Nimue is in the Arthuriads primarily connected with Merlin. Being his lover and the cause of his disappearance is her notoriously known role. But it is important to examine her character in full scope, for she is by no means generally represented as a malevolent character in the Arthurian legends.
One of the important innovations of Malory is the characterisation of Nimue’s relationship with Merlin not as bind by love, but rather as Merlin’s lustful platonic affection on one side and Nimue’s fearful tolerance of his advances on the other. As S.E. Holbrook points out, Malory’s Nimue is merely an object of Merlin’s sexual desire and not an equal partner in a romantic relationship and “we must admit that the traditional fatal love has diminished into patent lechery.”98 “And he was assoted upon her, that he might not be from her” and “always Merlin lay about the lady to have her maidenhood.”99
In this light the act of Merlin’s entrapment under a stone can be viewed as done in self defence, “for she afeared of him because he was a devil’s son, and she could not beskift him by no mean.”100 Merlin would not let her alone and therefore once she had learned all his crafts there was no other way how to be rid of him. Somewhat benign intention is reflected upon the fact that she used rather nonviolent means for Merlin’s elimination. She did not try to kill him or cause him unnecessary harm. He is not said to suffer any pain. The effect of Malory’s treatment of their relationship is that the reader’s sympathy is thrown upon Nimue and her actions correspond with the medieval romantic ideal of protection of woman’s chastity. Moreover when one considers the role of destiny in this story, the inevitability of the course of events, Nimue merely epitomizes an instrument of higher power and not an active executioner of free will.
She appears in the Morte on several other occasions which all advance the positive, benign perception of her character. She first enters Malory’s narrative at the time of the celebration of Arthur’s wedding with Guinevere. “Right so as they sat there came running in a white hart into the hall, and a white brachet next him, and thirty couple of black running hounds ... anon came in a lady on a white palfrey.”101 This eerie scene so typical of the medieval romances introduces Nimue as an anonymous lady crying for help only to be kidnapped by a stranger knight in the next moment. Sir Pellinore sets forth to rescue her and needless to say succeeds in his quest. This introduction places Nimue into a submissive position, merely providing the knight with an opportunity to prove himself, but on the way back to the court she proves to be a wise and resourceful woman. When she falls from her horse she does not abase herself with lamenting but stoically announces “‘Alas sir, mine arm is out of lith, wherethrough I must needs rest me,’”102 and when Pellinore wants to ride after dark she warns him not to, which advice eventually results in their discovery of an enemy plot to poison Arthur. And finally when they pass around a lady and her lover who both died because of Pellinor’s reluctance toward the lady’s cry for help, Nimue gives Pellinore a sober advice to bury the knight’s body and to bring the lady’s head to the court. So although she is in need of physical saving she establishes herself as a fairly brave and able woman.
This resourcefulness of hers manifests itself in her following appearances in the narrative. She becomes the one who saves men and women and who does “great goodness unto King Arthur and to all his knights through her sorcery and enchantments.”103 She takes over Merlin’s position of an advisor and a protector of Arthur’s wellbeing. On one occasion she uses her learned crafts to save Arthur from being slain by Accolon.104 On another occasion, using her power of foreknowledge, she saves Arthur from the “great sorceress” Annowre who tries to behead him for not complying with her desire for him.105 She also establishes herself as a patron of love when she absolves Guinevere from the accusation of poisoning a knight.106 By defending Arthur’s queen, she helps the whole court and saves his marriage.
The most profound of Malory’s unique narrative inventions concerning Nimue’s character is represented by the story of Gawain, Ettard and Pelleas.107 Pelleas is a good knight of prowess and he is madly in love with Ettard who utterly despises him. Gawain promises to help Pelleas, but instead acts treacherously and seduces Ettard. Pelleas decides to lie in his bed and await death after he discovers Gawain’s betrayal. Here Nimue suddenly enters the scene and warrants that “he shall not die for love.”108 She decides to punish Ettard for her merciless conduct and by an enchantment she makes her fall in love with Pelleas until nearly out of her mind, and after the fashion of Merlin, she presents her action as “the rightwise judgement of God,” placing herself in the role of the executioner of divine will. She also rids Pelleas of his love for Ettard and by her enchantment he hates her as much as he loved her before, for which he thanks “Our Lord Jesus” rendering this act of magic approved by Christian community. Eventually Pelleas becomes her husband and Nimue is further on described as his loving wife. “And so he lived to the uttermost of his days with her in great rest.”109 This role of hers is also Malory’s unique invention.110
The character of Nimue proves that magic can have positive use and can be appreciated. Despite her unfortunate involvement in Merlin’s destiny, her love for King Arthur and her helpful interventions serve as a kind of redemption from her “sin”. She proves that the intention is the crucial part of the magical practice. Her positive role in the whole Arthuriad is most heightened in the scene of her final appearance where she accompanies mortally wounded Arthur on his last voyage. She appears in the company of Morgan le Fay, the notorious “villain” of the Arthurian legends. She represents a counterbalance to Morgan’s negative presence. With Nimue as her antithesis Morgan remains in her negative position which could be otherwise diminished by her original role of the healing goddess of Avalon described by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
By placing Nimue in the ship as well as Morgan, Malory extends both the influence of good and the influence of evil, of creation and of destruction, into Arthur’s departure.111
Therefore the initial bias surrounding Nimue is almost forgotten by the end. She replaces Merlin in the role of magical practitioner aiding Arthur’s court and her primary power resides in foreknowledge. She is the avatar of female power and an important representation of the positive side of magic.
3.3.2 Morgan le Fay
Classical stories of great heroes would probably not work without the presence of the “nemesis”. The balance in the world order has always been sustained by the presence of both positive and negative forces, and at the same time constantly threatened by their unceasing war. Morgan le Fay is the “nemesis” of the Arthurian legends. In the period dominated by courtly romances she becomes the archenemy of all the positive values and virtues of the Arthurian characters, and in this sense she represents only a shadow of the archetypal figure of the ancient Celtic goddess. Morgan enjoys quite a diversity in her character throughout the literary tradition.
She may be the most beautiful of nine sister fays, or an ugly crone. She may be Arthur’s tender nurse in the island valley of Avilion, or his treacherous foe. She may be a virgin, or a Venus of lust.112
In the Morte she follows the sinister path. Her character is given human essence with mere hints of a supernatural connections and her magic is learned rather than inherent.
In the struggle for power she is the most apt of the female enchantresses. She represents a woman capable of imposing power over men which is most often expressed in the attempt to possess the body of a knight, and due to her crafts she is able to threaten her opponents with physical harm.
The first mention about her in the Morte immediately establishes her as suspicious: “Morgan le Fay was put to nunnery, and there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy.”113 Which term, as Corinne Saunders puts it, “may signal human practitioners whose arts are extreme, dubious and sometimes villainous.”114 It also suggests her intelligence and determination which later allow her to become such a powerful fiend.
All the later accounts of her conduct depicted in the Morte unavoidably identify her as the villainous enemy whose only purpose in the story is to pose a threat and temptation to the other characters. The list of her “crimes” includes conspiracy, theft, abduction, imprisonment, torture and attempted murder. She does not create an obvious ambivalence in audience’s perception as Nimue does. She cannot find the redemption of her sins in any positive assistance to the heroes, and thus inevitably occupies the position of an evil adversary.
Morgan attempts to disrupt the stability of Arthur’s court and in doing so, her character tests the chivalric virtues of the knights. This trickster role is evident in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where Morgan is revealed at the very end as standing behind the whole scheme that tests Gawain’s chastity along with the renown of Arthur’s court. Although this role of hers has been of a considerable concern among scholars115 for its incidental character. Nevertheless it serves its purpose of testing Gawain and “however malevolent [Morgan’s] initial intent may have been, it has an ultimately salutary effect on Gawain because it presses him into the discovery of his own humanity.”116
Probably the most painful invasion into the midst of Arthur’s circle of knights in the Morte is the story of Accolon. Arthur, Uriens and Accolon ride on an adventure which starts, in a romantic tradition, with the hunt of a hart. They reach a water bank where suddenly Arthur espies an approaching ship dressed in silk and without a crew. This eerie scene echoes the supernatural atmosphere of many other stories of sudden appearances such as Gawain’s ‘fortunate’ discovery of Bercilak’s castle in the middle of the forest in the time of great need which turns out to be the Green Knight’s mansion117 The scene becomes even stranger when a hundred torches appear out of nowhere, followed by twelve ladies who welcome King Arthur on the board with no doubt of who he is. They are feasted with all kinds of drinks and food and put into adorned beds. But in the morning, Uriens wakes in Camelot, in bed with his wife Morgan le Fay, whereas Arthur wakes up in prison surrounded by lamenting knights and he is supposed to fight for Sir Damas, “the falsest knight that liveth,”118 in his conflict with Sir Ontzlake, whose champion, by an arrangement of Morgan, happens to be Accolon. Morgan sends Accolon the Excalibur and its scabbard so he can fight as he “‘had promised her when [they] spake together in private.’”119 Morgan’s conspiracy to kill Arthur is thus revealed to the reader. The bewildering part of the story is Accolon’s willing betrayal of his king and conscious cooperation with magic, exemplified by his own words: “‘She had made all these crafts and enchantment for the battle.’”120 Morgan’s cunning cruelty is expressed in her message to Arthur she sends along with a counterfeit Excalibur via one of her ladies: “‘Morgan le Fay sendeth here your sword for great love.’”121 There is no mistaking in her malevolent intentions. After Nimue intervenes the fight and helps Arthur to win over Accolon, he reveals to Arthur Morgan’s intent to kill him because “‘King Arthur is the man in the world that she most hateth, because he is most of worship and of prowess of any of her blood,’” and then to kill her husband Uriens to make Accolon her new husband and king.122 This outstanding betrayal of Accolon, who knew all of Morgan’s plans and gave his consent to carry out her will, is, although recognized, excused by Arthur since he is convinced that his sister “‘by her false crafts made [Accolon] to agree and consent to her false lusts.’”123 Arthur’s opinion on this matter seems to be constant in the narrative. He tends to dismiss the possibility of treacherous friends, of knights failing to aspire to the chivalric code rather than admitting the implications. There is no factual evidence pointing toward the use of enchantment to make Accolon cooperative, but this obscurity and uncertainty is at the same time the perfect opportunity for doubt over his consent.
Morgan’s fatal crime rests in her constant menace to the institution of courtly love. “She had been an enemy to all true lovers.”124 She sends to Arthur’s court an enchanted horn that has “such a virtue that there might no lady ... drink of that horn but if she were true to her husband,”125 in order to discover Guinevere’s unfaithfulness and hurt Arthur. By chance the messenger meets with Sir Lamorak who forces him to deliver the horn to King Mark to test Isoud. She obviously fails to drink from the horn as well as other ladies at the court. The king would have them all punished, but his barons “would not have
those ladies burnt for an horn made by sorcery”126 and therefore Isoud is excused. It is only Morgan’s reputation as an enemy of all and her suspicious practices that prevent Isoud’s death. Despite the effectuality of the spell (Isoud was an unfaithful wife) the negative perception of Morgan serves as an excuse for ignoring the results, same as in the story of Accolon.
Morgan’s attacks are not always explicitly magical. She uses the ladies of her court to lure Lancelot or Tristram into ambush and plots to have them killed by her knights,127 and she sends Tristram to a tournament with a shield depicting Arthur, Guinevere and “‘a knight that holdeth them both in bondage and in servage’”128 – Lancelot. She intends to reveal the truth to Arthur and punish Lancelot for his unreciprocated love. Arthur, reminiscent of her message, later on reminds himself “how his sister was his own enemy, and that she hated the queen and Sir Launcelot”129 and he dismisses the implications once again.
Throughout the narrative, Morgan applies various kinds of magic. But most of the time she practices the same kind as Merlin or Nimue do. She possesses the power of shape-shifting which demonstrates itself when she turns herself and her men into stones,130 which corresponds with the many shapes Merlin takes up on various occasions. She creates a sophisticated illusion of the ship which is found by Arthur, Uriens and Accolon. She also uses a sleeping-spell upon Lancelot so she can abduct him,131 as Merlin uses the sleeping-spell to save Arthur from Pellinore’s wrath. She is also a practitioner of natural magic. When Sir Alexander is injured during a fight, she brings him to her castle where she saves him from a certain death with ointments; and later on she also administers to him “such a drink that in three days and three nights he waked never, but slept.”132 But her services come for a price and Alexander is made to agree to a pact in order to be fully healed of his wounds. Alexander learns that saving his life comes in train with an imprisonment; and that Morgan saved him “‘for non other intent but for to do her pleasure with [him] when it liked her.’”133 When compared with the powers of Merlin and Nimue, her intention is once again the only difference in the implications of the use of magic.
Nevertheless, given the obscurity surrounding the origins of everything supernatural in the Morte it is no wonder that in some cases her magic spells seem very ambiguous. The only explicit connection with the devil though appears in the utterance between her and her son Uwain which follows Morgan’s attempt to murder her husband Uriens:
‘Men saith that Merlin was begotten of a devil, but I may say an earthly devil bare me.’
‘Oh fair son, Uwain, have mercy upon me, I was tempted with a devil, wherefore I cry thee mercy.’134
But given the premeditation of the murder evident from Accolon’s testimony, the reader can assume it was only an excuse to avoid punishment.
Her other attempt to kill Arthur135 or to discredit his relationship with the queen136 is not even hinted to be driven by the devil.
Merlin is also suspected from cooperation with the devil, but he never does anything to support this claim. On the other hand, Morgan’s actions full of malevolent intentions and harmful results make it hard to see the shared source of their powers.
The only accountable difference in the magical abilities of Merlin and Morgan seems to be her absence of the power of divination – the power which connects Merlin so firmly with the divine. In contrast, Morgan’s powers are never connected with God and she could be even considered an epitome of the illicit pagan tradition. She poses a threat to the characters as well as to the Christian values in general.
The Morgan Le Fay of Malory’s narrative is a character using magic in her advantage as well as in order to cause harm to her enemies, but these powers are not what differentiates her from the other practitioners of magic present in the Morte. It is her jealousy, her desire for revenge and her constant animosity toward the others that makes her the number-one enemy. It is not the kind of magic she uses but the attitude and intention of her actions driven by profoundly human emotions that establishes her as the evil “witch”.
3.3.3 Other Characters
Morgan and Nimue are not the only female practitioners of magic appearing in the Morte. Throughout the narrative, various other female enchantresses appear to either pose temptation and threat or to aid the heroes. Most prominently they serve as instruments for testing the chivalrous virtues of Arthur’s men. Their characters are often very ambiguous for their contradictory actions or the means of their conduct.
The first obviously ambivalent character appearing in the narrative besides Nimue is the Lady of the Lake. Merlin brings Arthur to the lake, where Arthur is “ware of an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword.”137 The positive character of the received sword Excalibur is undisputed, but the Lady herself represents an otherworldly character of obscure origins and most importantly with mysterious intentions: “‘ ... and I will ask my gift when I see my time.’”138 These intentions later on become the reason of her ambiguous reception. She enters the adventure of Balin and demands either his head or the head of a lady present at Arthur’s court, because both were responsible for death of her one of her relatives. Arthur refuses to grant her such a gift even though he promised to reward her for the Excalibur. The whole situation becomes even more complicated when Balin, knowing that she is responsible for his mother´s death, acts out his long sought revenge: “‘Evil be you found; ye would have my head, and therefore ye shall lose yours,´ and with his sword lightly he smote off her head before King Arthur.”139 This situation presents a duel between Balin’s chivalric responsibility and the supernatural forces personified in the character of the Lady of the Lake.
He justifies his act to the king with a claim that “‘ ... by enchantment and
sorcery she hath been the destroyer of many good knights’”140 Although she is supposedly liable for death of many, she is also a victim of injustice. Balin’s action displeases the king and he is banished from the court.
The events preceding the appearance of the Lady of the Lake at the court introduce another enchantress (whose head the Lady asks along with Balin’s), send by the Lady Lile of Avelion. She comes to Arthur’s court seeking for a “passing good man of his hands and of his deeds, and without villainy or treachery, and without treason”141 so he can draw a sword attached to her by an enchantment. This situation resembles a traditional adventure testing the virtue of a knight, but above that it is a complicated play of wills. The lady is proved by Merlin to be “the falsest damosel that liveth”142 because she came to the court with the intention to find a knight who would draw the sword and kill her brother with it. She was not a victim but a cunning conspirator obtaining the enchanted sword from Lady Lile and using it for her personal revenge, knowing that the knight that retrieves the sword “shall be destroyed by that sword.”143 Nevertheless Balin does not succumb to the grim prophecy of his destruction and with the same determination to rely upon God’s will that Gawain shows in his adventure with the Green Knight144 he accepts the adventure. But unlike Gawain, who proves that “he was not the victim of an unalterable fate, and that magic is not an omnipotent force,”145 Balin becomes a victim of a tragic destiny full of seemingly chivalrous actions which in spite of the good intention cause immense destruction. By his chivalric opposition to the supernatural forces which seem to control his steps he epitomizes the Christian opposition toward fatalism.
Morgan le Fay is not the only character posing a direct threat to the heroes of Arthurian romances. Especially due to their recurring desire to possess the physical bodies of men, many enchantresses appearing in medieval romances represent the malevolent face of magic. On one occasion Morgan and three other enchantresses abduct Lancelot and try to compete, unsuccessfully, for his affection.146 Another time, Lancelot suffers the advances from the enchantress Hellawes, who claims to love him and tries to possess his body at all costs. She seems to be a powerful practitioner of ‘nigromancy’ since she controls a group of ghostly knights who threaten Lancelot at the Chapel Perilous.147 The grimly atmosphere of this adventure strongly suggests a demonic intervention. In the end she challenges Lancelot to kiss her, but he does not submits to her temptation and thus saves his life, because Hellawes admits that: “‘ ... and thou hadst kissed me thy life days had been done ... ’”148
On yet another occasion, King Meliodas in led by an enchantment into a castle and held there as prisoner by an enchantress that supposedly loved him for many years.149
Not even Arthur is spared the amorous advances from a dangerous enchantress. The “great sorceress” Annowre schemes for his death after he refuses to give himself to her. Beside the customary testing of chivalric virtues, this situation also allows the negative forces to be pitted against the positive ones represented by Nimue who helps Arthur escape the treacherous snare. As a symbol of her victory, she hangs Annowre’s head from her saddle as she rides away.150
The common denomination of all those stories is the malevolent intention of the enchantress who aims at the destruction of a good knight who does not succumb to her temptation. But not all of the enchantresses in the Morte represent strictly evil force. The character of Brisen who orchestrated the conception of Galahad is an example of such ambiguity. On the first occasion she is only an agent working for a greater plan authorised by God and thus the means of her conduct are excusable. But the second time she tricks Lancelot into sleeping with Elaine151 she does that only to satisfy Elaine’s wish to be united with her beloved. There is no greater purpose in the enchantment. It almost looks like Elaine made a pact with Brisen to gain herself a chance to be with Lancelot. This corporal and utterly personal motivation along with the devastating consequences152 diminishes Brisen’s previously tolerable character.
The majority of the characters connected with the practice of magic are explicitly described as inflicting others with the consequences of their conduct, either good ones or bad ones. But given the obscurity of the practice of magic, some characters might be only hinted to possess supernatural powers or, as Queen Guinevere herself, might only be suspected from it. Guinevere obviously comes under suspicion for her relationship with Lancelot. He is said to stand above all other knights in his prowess, strength and honour, and susceptible only to “treason or enchantment.”153 His relationship with the queen is strikingly discordant with the chivalric responsibility and virtuous character of the rest of his life and therefore it is no wonder that some of the characters question the nature of their relationship: “‘But it is noised that ye love Queen Guenever, and that she hath ordained by enchantment that ye shall never love none other but her ... ’”154 Lancelot replies to this with unruffled disinterest in people’s talk, but also with statement especially incongruent with his future behaviour: “‘ ... ;and as for to say for to take my pleasance with paramours, that will I refuse in principle for dread of God; for knights that be [adulterous] and lecherous shall not be happy ne fortunate ... ’”155 A desirable explanation of this contradiction between his statements and his actions, as well as the overall justification, could be found in the concept of magic. Even though this suspicion of Guinevere is never given any real grounds, the idea is implanted in the minds of the characters as well as the readers.
The narrative of the Morte introduces a vast range of characters and environments which are all bound together by an ungraspable net of supernatural elements. Magic is used by humans for good as well as for evil purposes depending upon the intention of the particular practitioner. Some characters are more ambivalent then others. Some work for greater good and the others for personal benefit. What connects them is the desire to alter the reality of their lives, and what divides them is the intended result of their endeavour. They share the effort to exploit supernatural power, but diverge in desired goals.