Nine and a Half Morgens In Avalon

by John Holbo on November 15, 2012

My new research project, with my older daughter, is going to be Arthurian stuff. Specifically: what’s up with The Nine Morgens? That’s a lot of Morgens, kicking around in Avalon! (How ‘bout them apples!) Don’t seem to be so many stories about them. So I’ve ordered this book [amazon], and Zoe is going to read this book, and I figure I should probably reread Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mists of Avalon. So that’s my first question for you, readers. Good books about the women of Avalon?

Zoe: How can there be nine Morgens? I thought Morgan was one person.

Daddy: Apparently ‘morgen’ might be a term for a water spirit. Or a great goddess, or queen. There’s Morgan Le Fey. And there’s Nimue, I think. And there’s Madison Morgen, and McKenzie and Dakota, and Harley Morgen, the crazy one, and Lindsay Morgen, the sassy one, and the computer nerd – can’t remember her name – and the mopey goth, who’s kind of just an Emily the Strange marketing-type Morgen. And there’s Maple Syrup Morgen, their annoying niece, who appears in the later seasons. Basically, Arthur is like Commissioner Gordon. He’s ok, but mostly he and his men can’t handle the sorts of magical threats Britain faces. Hence the need for the Morgens. Who never get any credit.

[It turns out I was wrong! Nimue isn’t one of the Morgens, technically. Even though she’s clearly related somehow. So score it: Nine-and-a-half Morgens in Avalon.]

Zoe: Why don’t the stories make more sense?

Daddy: Well remember The Seven Soldiers of Victory? How there were actually, sort of eight?

Zoe: But that’s because it was stupid.

Daddy: True! But you know how we like reading all those Comics Everybody! comics? Myths are like that. A bunch of different people tell the story over and over, and it kind of adds up, but mostly it doesn’t quite add up, and if it’s still good, despite not adding up, then eventually it really doesn’t add up, and you get this big, delicious, sludgy mess. Batman is better for the fact that you have the gritty, dark version but also the whimsical Silver Age version. The most appealing characters are those that exist in various forms. In fact, if you use too much story logic, trying to jury-rig all the parts so they fit somehow, it only get worse. You look like you are trying too hard. Anyway, having lots of stories that can’t be part of one big story, that just sort of overlay, inconsistently, gives the whole thing a feeling of thickness that would be hard to replicate in any one story that actually made sense. So Arthur is Batman. And the Morgens are like Fiona and Cake. You wish there was more, but that only makes it better. It’s fanfic waiting for you to write it.

And speaking of such matters: it’s too bad that the Alien franchise is going the ‘try too hard to make it all make sense’ route, chasing vainly after continuity with Prometheus. I remember listening to an interview with Ridley Scott, way back when, when someone asked where the alien comes from. And he said something like: it’s better not to know. (Am I misremembering that he once said that?) Audiences like the aliens, and all these different directors and writers have tried their hands, with varying degrees of success. Let the continuity go, since it’s obviously in tatters, and tell a good story. Amazon has what they are now calling The Alien Anthology – the first four films, but none of that Predator stuff – on sale cheap! Blu-Ray, 6-discs. Twenty bucks. [sorry, you missed it.]

{ 29 comments }

1

Shane 11.15.12 at 4:26 am

MorgAn!!!!!

2

Shane 11.15.12 at 4:28 am

Go further back to the Morrigan, too. You will find your multiplicities of incarnation there.

3

Lisa Spangenberg 11.15.12 at 4:43 am

You’re sort of looking at the wrong authors and books, frankly.

The test for things Arthurian is:

Can the author read the actual texts in the medieval languages (and preferably in manuscript)?

If they can’t, pass ‘em by.

There’s an awful lot of truly wretched stuff out there.

I’d suggest as a really good starting place for all things Arthurian is The New Arthurian Encyclopedia edited by Norris J. Lacey. Good summary of characters, authors, manuscripts, themes, works, and bibliography.

For my part, I’d say ignore anyone who insists that Morgan Le Fay/The Morgan/Morgens are “descended” or derived from the Irish Morrígan. It isn’t possible linguistically, philologically or mythologically. Modron . . . maybe. That one might work.

I have a potted history of Celtic influences on Arthurian literature here: http://www.digitalmedievalist.com/reading-lists/arthurian-bibliography/

My dissertation focussed in part on the role of Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight so I’ve been following the Morgan/Morgen/Morrígan scholarship a very long time.

I frequently argue, by the way, that great swathes of medieval Arthurian texts are in fact fan fic—especially the Grail and Merlin cycles.

4

John Holbo 11.15.12 at 5:09 am

Thanks for the link. That looks like good stuff!

5

Z 11.15.12 at 6:42 am

Not very helpful, because you asked specifically for books and because it is in French, but if you do understand French, the lectures of Michel Zink at Collège de France are available in podcast form. They are quite generally exceptional but his cycle entitled Non pedum passibus sed desideriis quaeritur Deus and subtitled What were the knights seeking Grail looking for? is amazing. It contains in particular a deep and very well argued description of the close analogy between the role of love and care for the others (and especially how women play a decisive role in that respect in the education of knights), the quest of the Grail and cistercian theology.

So Arthur is Batman. And the Morgens are like Fiona and Cake. You wish there was more, but that only makes it better. It’s fanfic waiting for you to write it. [...] I frequently argue, by the way, that great swathes of medieval Arthurian texts are in fact fan fic—especially the Grail and Merlin cycles.

The author often explicitly say so (see the introduction of Chrétien’s Perceval and the introduction of its continuation by Wolfram von Eschenbach). BTW, I guess it is true in spades of the Gospels (canonical and apocryphal alike). And so were Perlesvaus and the gospel of Judas the Fifty shades of grey of their time…

6

Phil 11.15.12 at 8:01 am

I guess it is true in spades of the Gospels (canonical and apocryphal alike).

Mmmmyes and no. The sources of the Synoptic gospels are fairly loose-textured, and there is some rather lumpy stitching when Matthew, in particular, tries to make it all into one story without losing any of the detail (and then Jesus fed four thousand, and, and then he fed five thousand…). But they do fit together, kind of, and tell a believable story, in a sense. Both John and the apocyrphal gospels take a totally different approach – they really are Further Adventures Of.

I’d advise you, if not Zoe, to read Malory – the language really isn’t hard. Malory essentially took the multi-dimensional web of symbol and allusion which had been brought to perfection by Chrétien de Troyes and said “how can we get a story out of this?”; he’s the despair of serious Arthurians, but he did tell a good story. (That’s according to the introduction to my edition of Malory.)

7

Sancho 11.15.12 at 9:21 am

That’s got to be the first time anyone on the internet argued Prometheus tried too hard at making sense.

The near-consensus, my opinion included, is that it was a mess of inconsistency, pointless plot divergences, total ignorance of the established conventions of its fictional universe, and truly, truly stunning character stupidity.

8

Z 11.15.12 at 9:43 am

But they do fit together, kind of, and tell a believable story, in a sense.

A story that had already been told about the master of justice of the dead sea scrolls though (and in the prophecies of the old testament), so a typical case of fan fiction.

9

Brennan 11.15.12 at 11:59 am

Fun fantasy novels based on the women of Avalon: Sarah Zettel. The first one takes Gawain’s loathly lady. She definitely did research to make it a realistic dark ages setting, and everyone had clear motivations, rather than generic evil for evils sake.

10

Tom 11.15.12 at 1:52 pm

I’ve actually used this exact same analogy when I was a grad student about “Arthur = Batman,” in exactly the ways you’ve described. I, for one, thought it was a great pedagogical introduction to the way these things were written. So now I feel validated. Thanks.

11

rea 11.15.12 at 1:53 pm

Of particular interest is the part of Historia Regum Britanniae where the Nine Morgans want to pastoralize defeated Saxony, only to have Arthur persuaded otherwise by Bedwyr the Marshal . . .

12

RJA 11.15.12 at 3:42 pm

The Larrington book certainly is written by somebody who can read the texts in the original languages (she taught me some of them!) I would second Phil’s suggestion of Malory — its size can be daunting but it’s naturally amenable to being dipped into.

13

Leeds man 11.15.12 at 4:37 pm

Good books about the women of Avalon?

The biographies of Shannon Tweed and Mary Walsh.

14

Cheryl Rofer 11.15.12 at 5:07 pm

Somewhat continuing Lisa Spangenberg’s comments at #3…

It seems to me that there are two sets of Arthurian literature: that from the late 12th/early 13th century and that from Malory on. As Phil #6 notes, Malory tried to make one story out of the earlier material; he had his own preferences and perhaps political agenda, and, to my mind, missed the best of it. He particularly likes heads being split and the brains spilling out. Pretty much all of modern writing about Arthur and Avalon stems from Malory.

And there I agree with Zoe: the stories influenced by Malory don’t make sense. The earlier stories don’t seem to have been intended as a whole, to be sewn up neatly.

I would say that the best reading in terms of women’s roles is Wolfram’s Parzival. But he doesn’t mention Morgen, rather a number of other strong women. There are several translations. I would stay away from Joseph Campbell’s translation of parts of the book in Creative Mythology; I like Hatto better than Mustard and Passage. And keep in mind that what Wagner did with the book had much more to do with Wagner than Wolfram.

15

Phil 11.15.12 at 10:31 pm

I like Hatto better than Mustard and Passage

One wet summer in Wales, stuck in a half-closed theme park along with everyone else for miles around, we queued for over 90 minutes for what turned out to be a genuinely scary ghost train (this is not a good thing for a ghost train to be – not one without age restrictions, anyway). To pass the time, I introduced my family to “I love my love with an A”, as played by Alice in Through the Looking Glass; it involves thinking of six different things for each letter and consequently takes a good long time. We played it from A to Z, and then we played it from Z back to A. Then we waited for a bit longer.

But I’d love to know the game that includes “I like Hatto better than Mustard and Passage” – it sounds like it could go on forever.

16

Sylvia 11.15.12 at 10:52 pm

For fun fictional Arthur stuff with a fair amount of women’s angles you can’t beat Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave series. How well they conform to accurate scholarship I don’t know.

17

Plume 11.15.12 at 10:58 pm

A very important book to read: From Ritual to Romance, by Jessie L Weston. Deals with the roots of the myth. Was important for Eliot and his The Waste Land, which is also about Arthurian myths.

18

blavag 11.15.12 at 11:19 pm

Kind of tangential but the classics: Robert Graves work on mythologies and the triple goddess and especially his White Goddess. Also Marija Gimbutas’ work on Bronze Age religion.

19

32Groove 11.16.12 at 1:32 am

WOW! Lisa, thanks so much for the link. Fantastic!

20

John Holbo 11.16.12 at 2:30 am

Thanks for all the suggestions. Good thread.

21

Belle Waring 11.16.12 at 3:05 am

The thing is, John invented the Seven Sisters of Victory to tell bedtime stories about, realized it was a pain in the ass because there were too many of them and it was hard to get each involved in every story (plus one was duplicatable twins, as he alludes to) so he plans to solve the problem by turning to the NINE Morgens.
…………?/!!1!

He can read French and German, I’ll just volunteer him down here. I would read articles in Italian but not a huge long book. But still. I think there may be a flaw with the premise. Or I guess only one Morrigan is going to show up at a time, and then she’ll solve all of Launcelot’s problems for him and he’ll take all the credit and she’ll be “whatever, I don’t care about your Table, and I think you seriously overestimate the degree of awesomeness needed to construct a Round one rather than an Oval or Rectangle.” That could be pretty cool. OK, I’m in.

22

John Holbo 11.16.12 at 3:27 am

Just to be clear: the twin sisters were Duo and Do-Over. Duo has the power of turning into a pair of twins. And Do-Over has the power of turning back time 10 minutes.

But the joke is on the original Seven Soldiers of Victory – of which there are eight. But one of them was Chinese, so I guess he didn’t count.

23

Richard Thomas 11.16.12 at 11:03 am

You could also look at the early welsh stories – the Maboginion for example if you want to see how the story of Morgen in the Arthur canon is based on Welsh mythology.

24

raddy 11.17.12 at 5:44 pm

Another fictional Arthurian series is Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy (The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur). They are written with an emphasis on the Druids in the mix, and the collapse of the old religions in the face of encroaching Christianity. He has an interesting take on the women characters, as well.

25

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 11.19.12 at 9:31 pm

On a related subject, is there a decent kid’s version of the Welsh Mabinogi cycle? I have a bookshelf groaning with kid’s versions of the Finn McCool and Ulster Cycle, including Sutcliffe’s versions. But never have found a decent kid’s book on the Welsh myth cycles.

My son”s read the Taran books by Lloyd Alexander, and I’d like him to be able to read their inspirations.

It seems like there’s loads of kid’s book on the Greco-Roman cycles, the Norse myths, and (to a lesser degree) the Irish myth cycles, Russian folk tales, and some on the Amerindian myths (coyote, raven, mesoamerican) or Egyptian myth, but outside of those cycles, it’s hard to get e.g. kid’s books on the Chinese, Finnish, Indian, or Iranian myths & legends.

26

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 11.19.12 at 9:54 pm

“Mmmmyes and no. The sources of the Synoptic gospels are fairly loose-textured, and there is some rather lumpy stitching when Matthew, in particular, tries to make it all into one story without losing any of the detail (and then Jesus fed four thousand, and, and then he fed five thousand…). But they do fit together, kind of, and tell a believable story, in a sense. Both John and the apocyrphal gospels take a totally different approach – they really are Further Adventures Of.”

Having said that, the fact that the Canonical Gospels probably weren’t the first version of events, and were subject to editing, the same as most of the Old Testament, makes them Paragons of Coherency compared to sacred texts with much less editing (e.g. the Koran or the Book of Mormon).

27

Tom L 11.20.12 at 3:05 am

The test for things Arthurian is:

Can the author read the actual texts in the medieval languages (and preferably in manuscript)?

If they can’t, pass ‘em by.

There are some terrible, awful works of literature that do pass that test. ‘The White Raven’ by Diana Paxson (an allegedly philologically accurate retelling of Tristan’s story from the perspective of Iseult’s cousin) comes to mind.

28

Jeb 11.21.12 at 8:15 pm

Patrick Sims Williams, The Early Arthurian Poetry. in The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian legend in Medieval Welsh Literature.

Addresses the 3×3=9 question and you may find pp. 34-35 interesting for other reasons.

No references to Morgan in the paper but worth a read.

29

jeb 11.22.12 at 4:30 pm

p.s. Burlesque and Sport (I look at some themes in American wrestling alongside heroic verse sometimes) are also interesting along with the comic book in relation to this sort of thing in American culture.

A sporty/ Burlesque Morganna wild women below (she had a weird baseball thing going on).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Morganna_Wild_One.gif

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