The faeries who appear in the Arthurian mythos are a distinctive breed; ontologically different from the entities that most often surface in folklore. They usually have specific roles to fulfil, catering to the literate classes who were consuming the stories. But the genesis of the faeries in the Arthurian landscape is deeply rooted in an embedded folk belief-system, developed from a Celtic oral tradition, which informs many of the motifs within the legends. This article is a brief overview of a very complex subject, serving as an introduction for any readers who may be inclined to delve deeper. A version of the article appeared originally on the Ancient Origins Premium website.
The Development of the Arthurian Mythos
When Geoffrey of Monmouth produced his Historia Regum Britannia and Vita Merlini between 1135 and 1150, he became the central transmitter of the Arthurian mythos; from a largely oral testimony to a written body of legend that has continued to develop to this day. Geoffrey may have had access to some of the early sources, which suggest Arthur could have been a 5th/6th-century British chieftain, such as St Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (6th century) and Nennius’ Historia Brittonum (9th century), and possibly other lost literary sources. But it seems clear that much of his Historia and the Vita Merlini used an orally transmitted folklore to construct the ontology of the inhabitants of his Arthurian stories. Although many scholars of the following generation, such as Giraldus Cambrensis, derided Geoffrey’s account of Dark-Age history as ‘a book full of lies and made-up fables’, it retained its influence over later medieval authors and helped to imbue a supernatural ambience into the literary mythical cycle that would come to be known as ‘The Matter of Britain’. Writers such as Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Sir Thomas Malory took the core of Geoffrey’s Historia and Vita Merlini, and proceeded to convert it to their own literary ends. In part this involved them taking the opportunity to culturally code the stories to their own social milieus, but they were also channeling some of the deeply embedded folkloric motifs contained in the legends that have their roots in an ancient Celtic oral tradition. One of these sets of story motifs include the genus of characters who seem to be part of the physical world but also part of a metaphysical otherworld. These are the faeries, and they play a critical role throughout the Arthurian landscape. Their forms and functions contain clues to help decipher some of the deeper meaning ingrained within the Arthurian mythos.
‘The Matter of Britain’ was written for the elite class of European medieval society. The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems. Subsequently, the cast of characters specifically ascribed faerie qualities in the Arthurian mythos were invariably given the attributes of nobility. Much medieval and later folklore includes facets of a royal hierarchical organisation within the metaphysical faerie realm, but in the Arthurian cycle of stories the quality of ‘faerie’ is subsumed into an unique set of players whose nobility ensured their respect and credence among the aristocratic audiences listening to or reading the stories. However, the embedded supernatural elements of the medieval Arthurian landscape, most especially the faerie motifs, contain the footprints of an older, Celtic tradition, which demonstrates that the faeries who found their way into The Matter of Britain represent a deeper cultural legacy than their plot-line actors may suggest.
One of the primary faerie characters in the Arthurian mythos, throughout the medieval period and beyond, is Morgan le Fay. She makes her first literary appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, where she resides within the Insula pomorum que fortunata vocatur, that is “The island of apples which men call The Fortunate Isle.” This is evidently a faerie otherworld where Morgan le Fay retains some form of precedence. Geoffrey describes the isle and Morgan’s magical abilities:
“The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There, nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she will she slips down from the air onto your shores… Thither after the battle of Camlan we took the wounded Arthur… and Morgen received him with fitting honour, and in her chamber she placed the king on a golden bed… At length she said that health could be restored to him if he stayed with her for a long time and made use of her healing art.”
This is an important passage, which sets the gauge for all later representations of Morgan. Geoffrey’s spelling of the name as Morgen is also significant. The Morgens appear in Breton and Welsh folklore as shapeshifting water faeries, and it is possible that Geoffrey was basing his character on this folkloric oral tradition. Morgan represents a metamorphosic otherworldly creature, detached from physical reality on an enchanted island, with magical healing abilities. By the time the Arthurian mythos made its way to France and became what is now known as the Vulgate Cycle of stories, Morgan had become a more ambiguous personage, still retaining her faerie nature, but often with more malicious intent than in the early stories. In the late 13th-century Prophesies de Merlin, for instance, she is a shaman/witch-like character with zoomorphic abilities, living in ‘The Vale of No Return.’ In this text she even comes to be known as Morgan the Goddess. And in later medieval renditions of Arthurian stories, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century) and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (first published 1485), Morgan comes to be portrayed as Arthur’s nemesis, losing some of her faerie attributes and instead becoming an evil enchantress, bent on destroying Arthur and his chivalric order.
While Morgan slipped under the radar in many post-medieval Arthurian retellings, she re-emerged as a magical figure in the 19th century, most notably in the poetic cycle The Idylls of the King by Tennyson (1859) and through her portrayal in art, especially as a model for the pre-Raphaelite movement. And she has certainly found her place in modern cultural representations of the stories, most often as a malevolent character, as in John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur, but also in more sympathetic roles that emphasise her faerie roots, such as in the novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Fay Sampson. Since the mid 20th century Morgan has been characterised in over 200 portrayals, in literature, film, television, theatre, and even video games.
Of equal importance to Morgan in Arthurian plotlines, although less well-developed as a character, is The Lady of the Lake. She first appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart in the late 12th century, and thereafter becomes almost ubiquitous in the Arthurian mythos. Her main role in these stories was as a water faerie, responsible for raising Lancelot in an otherworldly land, usually described as a magical island populated by faerie maidens under the command of a queen; frequently this queen was The Lady of the Lake. The conception of a faerie island inhabited by maidens matches Geoffrey of Monmouth’s earlier description of ‘The Fortunate Isle’, which suggests that this plot device was being drawn from earlier folkloric and mythological sources. These sources may have had Celtic origins; early Welsh, Irish, Breton and Cornish stories including various supernatural islands, did not usually find literary form until the 12th century, but the convention appears to have been well modelled in an oral tradition before this time.
By the mid 13th century (in the French Arthurian prose cycle now known as the Post-Vulgate) The Lady of the Lake became a more integral part of the mythos, while retaining her faerie qualities as a metaphysical entity. Most importantly it is she that provides Arthur with the magical sword Excalibur from within the waters surrounding the otherworldly isle. In several stories she also appears as one of the faerie hierarchy taking the wounded Arthur across the sea/lake to the island after the final Battle of Camlann, and it is here that her personality becomes somewhat enmeshed with that of Morgan le Fay, perhaps demonstrating that in the original folkloric traditions they were one and the same faerie construct. In Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur The Lady of the Lake (here named Nimue) is used as a magical, usually benign, figure who appears every time there is a major transition in the plot.
The Mabinogion and the Metaphysical Roots of Arthurian Faerie Tradition
The Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay represent a consistent supernatural element in the Arthurian landscape. Their characters developed within the courtly story cycles of medieval Europe, always culturally coded to the times, but also maintaining the components of an earlier tradition, where they constituted faerie entities, manipulating plotlines where the physical world was consistently affected by a metaphysical reality. There are many other characters in the Arthurian mythos with faerie qualities; Lancelot, Niniane, Mordred, Merlin, and sometimes even Arthur himself, giving a legitimate interpretation that the entire cycle could be seen as an elite faerie folklore, taking themes and motifs from vernacular folklore and overlaying them with tropes acceptable to noble and literate audiences.
But these themes and motifs seem to have been spilling over into the medieval literature from older sources; an oral tradition that was encapsulating a deeply embedded belief system that included a metaphysical faerie otherworld. There is no direct route to this tradition but there is a cycle of stories, including many Arthurian narratives, that are disconnected from the main body of the mythos, and seem to retain a very ancient transmission, fossilised in writing during the later medieval period. This cycle has come to be known as The Mabinogion, a corpus of Welsh literature dated to the 13th and 14th centuries, but which were evidently drawing on much earlier material. Several of the stories are concerned with Arthurian narratives, and in them we can glimpse the genesis of the mythos, transmitted from a Celtic oral tradition that pre-dates Geoffrey of Monmouth and provides a window into the thought-worlds of early medieval culture. The Mabinogion Arthurian stories differ widely (in style and content) from the later medieval ‘Matter of Britain’, and there are none of the faerie characters, such as Morgan and The Lady of the Lake, that came to be central to the later mythos. But faerie themes and motifs are everywhere in the stories, creating a distinctly magical, sometimes surreal narrative landscape. The otherworldly nature of the stories seems more connected to vernacular folklore than courtly literature, and perhaps are filtered down forms of distinct early faerie belief systems in Wales.
Three of the stories from The Mabinogion, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, ‘Llud and Llefelys’ and ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ are especially replete with faerie motifs. In ‘Culhwch’ Arthur’s retinue are given faerie-like attributes, such as Sgilti Yscawndroed, who is able to transport himself great distances by treading over the tops of trees and even flying over mountains by utilising the tips of reeds. This was a skill shared with the Tylwyth Teg, the folkloric faeries of Wales. And in ‘Llud’ the first part of the story deals with the Coraniaidd, a hostile race of diminutive invaders with supernatural powers, including the ability to hear any conversation held outside, another feature in common with the Tylwyth Teg.
But it is ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ that perhaps captures the deeper roots of what faerie themes represented in this ancient culture. The story is in the form of a dream-vision of the various deeds of Arthur, instigated when Rhonabwy sleeps wrapped in an ox-hide, itself a shamanic motif described in 19th- and 20th-century Siberian shamanic traditions and in Old Irish texts such as Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. This initiates a metaphysical story, replete with supernatural faerie motifs and disjointed timeframes, where Rhonabwy interacts with the esoteric Arthurian narrative almost in the form of a disembodied consciousness. This Arthurian story from the perspective of someone in an altered state of consciousness is an explicit indication that the people listening to or reading these stories were aware, at some level, that the faeries in the Arthurian landscape were attributes of non-physical consciousness rather than historical figures operating in physical material reality. By locating the stories at some indefinite location in the past, a type of magical-realism was invoked, allowing the supernatural and metaphysical elements of the stories, dominated by faerie themes, to become acceptable plot devices within the mythos. But ultimately, the characters in The Mabinogion and the later magical faeries such as Morgan le Fay and The Lady of the Lake are pointers towards an Arthurian cultural legacy that treat the faeries with reverence, as arbiters of wisdom, alchemy and power. The faeries were representative of an esoteric and occult knowledge that physical reality can be interacted with, and manipulated by, metaphysical forces beyond our full understanding.
Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopaedia of Fairies (New York, 1976).
Green, Caitlin, R. Arthuriana A resource for all things Arthurian.
Green, Thomas. Concepts of Arthur (London, 2008).
Hebert, Jill Marie, Shapeshifter: The Manifestations of Morgan Le Fay (Western Michigan, 2008).
Lacy, Norris, J. et al. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (New York, 1996).
Parker, Will. http://www.mabinogion.info (2010). This site contains an in-depth discussion and interpretation of The Mabinogion, with links to the full translated texts with notes.
Wilson, Anne. The Magical Quest: The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance (Manchester, 1988).
Wilson, Anne. Plots and Powers: Magical Structures in Medieval Narrative (Florida, 2001).
The cover image shows a knight meeting a lake faerie from a manuscript illustration to Chrétien de Troyes ‘Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart’ (c.1350) – BNF Français 1433 Le Chevalier au Lion.