For today’s post, I would like to take a look at the importance of Faery women within the Arthurian legends, as well as how it is inspired by Celtic lore. There are numerous Faery women in the Arthurian legends. It can even be argued that each important female figure had origins in the realms of Faery! For the purpose of this post, I will be focusing on Morgan le Fay, Guinevere, Igraine, and Laudine.
Morgan le Fay is the most obvious example of a Faery woman, originally portrayed as a healing Goddess in Vita Merlini. It is later on that we get the vision of her as Arthur’s half-sister and the villainess who is set on destroying Camelot. However, it is known that she is not simply an evil enchantress, being truly a Goddess of transformation and of Faery Magick. In each variant, we can see different aspects of the Great Goddess figure.
Guinevere is the archetypal flower bride and May Queen. She was a princess in her own right who was promised in marriage to Arthur. It was their marriage that firmly cemented Arthur’s right to rule. Later it would be Arthur’s lack of attention that would lead to the fall of his Kingdom, as the rejection of the Flower Bride is the rejection of Sovereignty itself!
Igraine was the mother of Arthur, and in many tellings Morgan also (when they are half-siblings it is most often through the mother line that they are related). She has her own origins in the Faeryland of Avalon, just as Morgan, Guinevere, and Laudine do! This is likely why Marion Zimmer Bradley chose to have Igraine as the sister of Vivianne, the Lady of the Lake, giving her solidly Avalonian origins in The Mists of Avalon. The story of the conception of Arthur is one that showed how far a King like Uther would go to bed with the woman he desired. She becomes a divine mother figure here, having given birth to a King destined to be the greatest ruler of all time.
Laudine has roots as the Lady of the Fountain. She is the Faery woman who married the Knight of the Roundtable Yvain (or Owen, or Owain depending on the telling). This marriage took place after the death of her previous husband. He famously had to leave on a quest after marrying her and coming into her Faery Queendom. She only asked that he return within a set time frame and not forget her while on the quest. Of course, this tale would not have a moral if he did not do just that! The rest of the story is about the Knight proving he deserved a second chance with the Lady of the Fountain, helped by her maid Lunette!
Each of these Faery women has the commonality of testing Kings and Knights. This is a primary function of Faery women in the Arthurian legends! Morgan tests Arthur and his Knights countless times, with the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight being a prime example. Gawain has to prove his worth in knightly virtues and is blessed by “the Goddess Morgan” as she is called by Sir Bertilak when he explains how the Green Knight came to be through glamour magick. Guinevere tests Arthur’s loyalty to the land, in that she is a representative of Sovereignty and a Sovereignty Goddess in her own right. When his interest in her wanes, his control over his Kingdom lapses, eventually leading to the downfall of Camelot! Igraine tests Uther by stoking his desire (whether on purpose or by accident) she does not want to cheat on her husband, so she ends up being tricked by Merlin’s glamour (making Uther look like her first husband). This would lead to the conception of Arthur and since her first husband died on a battlefield simultaneously with Uther and Igraine’s night of passion, they would marry. She is the ideal Queen and mother figure, who remained loyal to her husband and had to give up her young son to be protected and tutored elsewhere. Finally, Laudine tests Yvain by making him keep his promises and earn back her trust when they are broken. This is a test of not only knightly virtue, but also romantic loyalty! All of these stories of testing of Kings and Knights by Faery women can find parallels in early Celtic myth and folklore, making them the obvious lingering Pagan parts of these tales, even if when they were written in by Christian clerics!
I hope you have enjoyed this look at the importance of Faery women in the Arthuriad. Who is your favorite Arthurian Faery woman? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
- Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth
- The Faery Gates of Avalon by Gareth Knight
- The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
- The Mabinogion translated by Sioned Davies