This week, the first book of my latest series Morgawse, Queen of the North comes out, and for the first time I’m not just writing from the perspective of a character from medieval legend, but a little-known one, and one who – in fact – makes it into almost no modern adaptations.
Morgawse, sister to Morgan le Fay and half-sister to King Arthur (both of whom are household names to anyone who loves fantasy or folklore), is very little known, except by those who’ve read the medieval originals, or fans of Marion Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. But Morgawse (or as she’s sometimes called, Morgause) loses out here, too, as she’s sidelined in favour of Morgaine, and Bradley makes Morgaine rather than Morgawse Mordred’s mother.
In the medieval versions, Morgan le Fay and Morgawse are completely
Helen Mirren as Morgan, seducing Arthur with the help of wicked magic, in the 1981 film Excalibur.
distinct. Often, in adaptations, all of Morgawse’s functions are blended with Morgan’s, and the conception of Mordred all becomes part of some evil plot against Arthur. This makes the story simpler, draws the lines between good and evil more clearly, and most of all avoids people having to deal with two sisters with similar names.*
But Morgawse has her own unique history and significance in the legends. As queen of Lothian (and sometimes Orkney), and wife of the mythical King Lot, who (supposedly) gives his name to the area of (now) Scotland known as Lothian. As one might expect, then, Morgawse is a figure more popular in romance texts written north of the Scottish border, which also show a strong preference for her son Mordred as legitimate heir to the throne rather than wicked usurper.
Malory, too, in Le Morte Darthur gives Morgawse her own storylines and influence; she’s important as a mother to the knights Gawain, Aggravain, Gaheris, Gareth and Mordred. She’s important as a queen in her own right with a role – an exciting espionage-based role – to play on the political sphere, and as a scandalous sinner in the private sphere. Like many other Arthurian queens she takes lovers, deals with dangers, and negotiates complex political scenarios.
I think it’s about time her story was heard.
*(A few medieval versions call Morgawse ‘Anna’, but this is much less common).