Academic journal article Arthuriana

From 'Unthinking Stereotype' to Fearless Antagonist: The Evolution of Morgan le Fay on Television

Academic journal article Arthuriana

From 'Unthinking Stereotype' to Fearless Antagonist: The Evolution of Morgan le Fay on Television

Article excerpt

Arthurian scholar Raymond H. Thompson has lauded the progressive trend of 'greater attention paid to women' in contemporary Arthurian fiction.1 The literary depiction of Morgan le Fay, in particular, has progressed from a one-dimensional evil-doer in early classic children's stories to a fully-realized heroine in recent novels, such as Fay Sampson's Daughter of Tintagel series, Nancy Springer's I Am Morgan le Fay, and, of course, the feminist masterpiece The Mists of Avalon.2 As Arthurian authority Alan Lupack contends, Morgan has transformed from Arthur's 'wicked enemy' to 'a woman whose own values and concerns [have] become central in some retellings of the Arthurian story.'3 And yet, on television, the evolution of Morgan's character has been slow and, for the most part, disappointing. Two recent TV series, however- Starz's Camelot and BBC1's Merlin-shatter the stereotype and present highly compelling versions of Arthur's half-sister and frequent nemesis.

EARLY DEPICTIONS OF MORGAN ON TV

In Herself, the fifth volume of Sampson's outstanding 'Daughters of Tintagel' series, first-person narrator Morgan the Fay admits that 'in countless children's stories, fantasy novels, television romps and second-rate films' she has been depicted as an 'unthinking stereotype...warped in character... always the baddie, always the loser.'4 Indeed, although she first appears in the twelfth-century Vita Merlini as a beautiful healer who works to save the wounded warrior Arthur after the battle of Camlann, by the fifteenth century she assumes a much more malevolent role.5 In Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, Morgan infamously uses her dark skills to try to eliminate her half-brother Arthur, first by stealing his magical scabbard and then by sending him a poisoned cloak. She also contrives ways to force Arthur to acknowledge Queen Guenevere's infidelity.6 Likewise, until recently, Morgan has been depicted in modern-day fiction as a malicious and 'shadowy figure working her will through various intermediaries and tenaciously holding on to her own defiant course.'7 This stereotype has also informed most versions of Morgan on television.

An early and especially egregious example of a thoroughly villainous Morgan appears in the 1983 made-for-TV movie Arthur, the King, starring Candice Bergen as the 'most vile and demented creature on earth.'8 Lacking all subtlety, Bergen's Morgan hisses maniacally and wears what one reviewer calls an outlandish 'red fright wig.'9 Her single-minded purpose is to kill the king so her nephew, and Arthur's illegitimate son, Mordred, can ascend the throne. Although her motivation is unclear, she seems to have an unnaturally affectionate relationship with Mordred, constantly fawning over him and pushing him toward greatness. Not only do her various assassination attempts fail miserably, but she looks a fool for even trying. 'Everything about this made-for-TV movie...is ridiculous,' Chicago-Tribune reviewer Jon Anderson writes. Included in that critique is Bergen, who 'snaps her fingers to cause lightning, pops uninvited into castles and hurls orders at her sidekick, a bald dwarf.'10 In the end, this Morgan is presented as little more than a silly caricature.

Equally ridiculous are the Morgans who appear in two other made-for-TV movies, Arthur's Quest and A Young Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.11 In the first, Morgana (Catherine Oxenberg) is portrayed as both King Pendragon's consort and the 'greatest warrior in the land.' Unbeknownst to the king, however, she is also in league with dark forces and wants nothing more than to conquer Pendragon's loyal subjects-whom she calls 'innocents'-and 'lead them into darkness.' When she threatens to steal Excalibur, a quick-thinking Merlin transports both the sword and heir-apparent Arthur to modern-day California, where Morgana eventually catches up with them. 'I sense a lot of evil in this century,' she slyly says, arriving in a sexy leather bikini and cape. …

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