Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Redefinition of Headstrong

Trigger warning: references to sexual harassment

This is the twelfth and final post in the Year of the Quest. As we come to the end of a year that feels at least three years long, it’s time for merriment, feasting and…decapitation? This version of ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ comes from a 1995 collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations called Sir Gawain, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, published by HarperCollins. It begins dramatically and a little unexpectedly with the fall of Troy and the foundation of a nation of warriors by Felix Brutus in Britain. Of all the hero kings of old, Arthur is held up in honour.

The king is holding court at Camelot for Christmas, celebrating with fifteen days of jousting, feasting and dancing. The New Year gifts are handed out, amidst much laughter and playful banter, but Arthur will not eat until he hears of a marvel or interesting adventure, or until a challenger enters seeking an opponent. Arthur is described here as young and boyish, unable to keep still for long, while Guinevere is a bright, grey-eyed beauty presiding over the court. This is a very different royal couple from the weary, sorrowful king and queen from Perceval.

Guinevere is seated between two of her husband’s nephews, Agravain on one side and Gawain on the other. When the food has been laid out to a fanfare of drums and trumpets, an enormous knight rides into the hall. Everything he wears, all of it well-made from expensive fabrics, is green; his hair is green; his skin is green. Even his horse is green. This man has an AESTHETIC. He comes without armour or shield, carrying a bundle of holly in one hand and an axe in the other, razor sharp and made of green steel. He is a fascinating sight to the gathered court, and a rather alarming one. Arthur, however, welcomes the Green Knight to his hall and asks what he wishes by coming here.

The Green Knight announces that he carries holly to show that he comes in peace, for he could have come fully armed if it was a real fight he was after. He regards Arthur’s knights as mere boys, not competition. What he wants is a Yuletide contest, a game really. If any man in the court will trade a blow for a blow, the Green Knight will gift him the axe he carries. To make it even easier, the Green Knight will stand still to take the challenger’s blow and the challenger will then have a year and a day before they must withstand his own.

Nobody wants to do this. I applaud their common sense.

The Green Knight looks around in disdain. He mocks the knights of the court, dismissing their achievements because they will not play his strange little game. Arthur angrily declares that he will take on the Knight himself. Gawain suddenly speaks up, asking to deliver the blow himself. He frames it as an honour that he can only ask because of his familial relationship with the king. Arthur permits it and Gawain comes to take the axe in hand.

The Green Knight is quite pleased with this. He asks for Gawain’s name, and then makes one further stricture: that Gawain is to seek him out at the end of the year and a day. Gawain swings the axe and chops his head off his shoulders.

Hm. Do you think, possibly, he may regret doing that?

The headless Knight does not fall to the ground, as dead bodies usually do. Instead he strides forward, grabs hold of his head and leaps up on his horse, even as the wound on his neck bleeds profusely. The severed head opens its eyes and orders Gawain to find the Green Chapel come the next New Year’s morning, so that he can receive a matching blow.

Arthur treats the whole thing as if it really was a game. He urges Guinevere to see it this way too, which indicates – though her actual reaction is not described – that she is not amused at all. Gawain hangs up the axe on the wall and sits with the king and queen to continue feasting as if nothing worries him at all. But as the new year turns, Gawain’s mood darkens. At All Hallows he reminds his uncle of the agreement he made with the Green Knight and takes leave on his horse Gringolet. The symbol on his shield is the pentangle, also known as the Endless Knot, because all the lines link together; on the inside of the shield is painted Mary, mother of Christ. Both are symbolic of his values as a knight. The court bid goodbye to him with no expectation of his return and grieve his inevitable death.

Gawain rides away from his idea of civilisation, out into wilder lands, asking whoever he happens upon if they know the way to the Green Chapel. Nobody does. Gawain must constantly battle to keep moving, fighting bears and boars and wolves, which you might expect in wild country, but also wood-trolls and ogres. The weather itself is against him, this being a bitter winter. On Christmas Eve he prays to Mary to guide him to lodging and as he rides through a deep forest, he comes to a castle surrounded by a moat. Gawain calls out to the porter, sending a message to the lord of the castle, and his request for lodging is promptly granted. He is welcomed by a throng of servants, attending to his every need. The lord of the castle, a big bearded man, is very courteous, inviting Gawain to treat his home as his own. When Gawain has been changed from his armour to comfortable robes, he is brought water to wash in and served an excellent meal. The lord of the castle and his people seem delighted to be entertaining one of Arthur’s knights.

When the meal is over, everyone goes to chapel for evensong, including the lord’s wife. She is very beautiful, and walks hand-in-hand with a very old woman half-hidden under layers of cloth. Gawain greets both ladies politely and sits by the fire with them, waiting on them with great gallantry.

Christmas Day brings feasting and dancing. The elderly lady sits beside the lord of the castle, which leaves his wife beside Gawain, who appreciates this seating arrangement. After three days of celebration, the lord’s other guests depart and he thanks Gawain for staying with him, considering it an honour. Gawain explains that a very important task brought him there and asks if the lord knows the way to the Green Chapel. The lord seems quite amused. He says that he does know but will not direct Gawain there until New Year’s Day, urging him to stay and adding that the place Gawain seeks is very close indeed. Gawain is more than happy to stick around, with such friendly company.

Furthermore, the lord asks if, while he goes hunting, Gawain would keep his wife company. The lord offers an agreement: whatever he wins in the woods will be Gawain’s, if Gawain gives him whatever he wins inside the castle. Gawain agrees to this, perhaps without thinking it all the way through, because it is a strange bargain. Also, his last bargain did not work out so great.

The lord of the castle and his fellow huntsmen are gone early the next morning, off to kill things in the woods. This is described in far too much detail and makes me dislike everyone involved quite a lot. Gawain, meanwhile, has slept in. When he wakes, it is because his door has been eased open. He opens his eyes and sees the lady of the castle slipping into his room. She sits on the edge of his bed to watch him, thinking he is still asleep. After some internal debate, he ‘wakes’ and she immediately jokes about tying him to the bed. “You shall work on me your will, and well I am pleased,” Gawain replies, because of course he does, “for I submit immediately, and for mercy I cry.” The lady decides to hold him to that, refusing to let him out of bed then propositioning him for sex. “I have here wholly in my hand what all desire, by grace,” she says. Gawain delicately tries to remind her that she does in fact have a husband, but it is past mid morning before she gets up to leave. She teases her captive knight that if he really was ‘Sir Gawain the gracious’ he could hardly let her go without a kiss and Gawain agrees, allowing her to take him in her arms and kiss him.

When the lord of the castle returns, he gives Gawain all the venison from the hunt, and Gawain takes him by the neck to kiss him. He does refuse to explain where he got that kiss, but it does not take a genius to figure it out. This radiates bisexual disaster vibes.

The lord of the castle is content with the kiss anyway. That’s lucky, because when he returns from the next day’s hunt, he gets another in trade for a huge boar. The lady of the castle is a very persistent woman. Gawain, in response, is light, laughing and modest, refusing to accept her many compliments, but as she continues to subtly flirt even in front of her husband, he grows increasingly uncomfortable. He is also anxious to leave, for his appointment with the Green Knight is very near now but he still has no idea where to look for him. The lord tells him to stay for one more day and go to the Green Chapel on the first day of the new year.

The pattern holds. The lord of the castle goes out early and kills some poor defenceless fox, and Gawain gets cornered by his wife. She comes into Gawain’s room topless and kisses him awake, bringing him out of bad dreams about the Green Chapel. He realises she is determined to sleep with him and has to decide what to do about it. He doesn’t like telling her no – I gather this is not considered chivalrous – but it would be worse to betray his host, so he turns away from her. She doesn’t take the refusal gracefully. She demands to know if he has a lover, to explain away his disinterest. He answers honestly, saying that he does not. She takes another kiss, and as a goodbye gift, she gives him her girdle. It has a special power: if you wear it, no stroke of any weapon can harm you. Her only condition is that he does not tell her husband. With one last kiss, she leaves.

When the lord of the castle returns from the hunt, Gawain greets him with three kisses ‘as long and deliciously as he could lay them upon him’. OKAY. They feast together with music and laughter and Gawain bids a fond farewell to his host and the ladies of the house, with thanks to all their people. The morning dawns very cold and misty, and the road Gawain must take is a wild one. The guide sent with him actively urges him to turn around and take another road, maybe to another country, because the monstrous knight who waits for him delights in violence and Gawain will surely die there. Gawain, of course, thinks more of honour than of survival, and continues on his way when his guide disappears. He rides into a very unprepossessing valley and sees no chapel there, only a mound green with grass amidst all the snow. It is hollow inside, an old cavern. Gawain thinks it looks demonic.

As he considers the mound, he hears a grinding of rock and the Green Knight appears above Gawain’s head, sharpening a new axe. The latest in weapon fashion from Denmark, no less! Obviously, it is green. The Green Knight greets Gawain and Gawain responds with chilly courtesy. He takes off his helm and bares his neck, and the Green Knight swings his axe. Gawain flinches, very slightly, and is mocked for it. The Green Knight is very quick to point out that he let Gawain chop his head off and didn’t make a fuss about that. I mean, he obviously reattached it, which SOME PEOPLE might consider cheating, but clearly he has never heard the phrase ‘play stupid games, win stupid prizes’ and feels he has the high ground.

Gawain holds himself stone still. The Green Knight swings again but the blade stops, no more than nicking Gawain’s skin. Blood drips onto the ground. Gawain hastily snatches up his helm and leaps some distance from the other knight. He makes it clear that if the Green Knight goes after him again, Gawain will answer every blow with one of his own.

The Green Knight is pleased with him. Gawain honoured his word and came to meet him; he also passed three more trials without knowing it, returning the lady’s kisses to her husband – who is, in fact, the Green Knight. It was the Knight who sent the lady to Gawain in the first place, to test his moral fibre. The only reason he cut Gawain at all was because Gawain failed to give the girdle along with the kisses. Gawain, thoroughly ashamed, flings the girdle from him.

When the Green Knight, in great good humour, urges Gawain to return to his house and make friends with his wife, Gawain passionately lists Biblical women who made fools of men, bitterly reflecting on his own foolishness. He does agree to keep the girdle, not so much as a gesture of friendship as a token to remind him of his mistake so that he does not fail such tests again. Then he asks the Green Knight who he really is.

His name is Bertilak de Hautdesert. He was enchanted by Morgan le Fay, who learned such magic from her lover Merlin. I am utterly delighted to know that she’s now calling herself Morgan the Goddess. It was at her command that the Green Knight went to Camelot, to test Arthur’s knights and frighten Guinevere, with a hope of maybe even killing the queen with the shock of seeing a severed head talk. The ancient lady at the Green Knight’s house was Morgan herself, in disguise. The Green Knight asks Gawain to come back again, to see his aunt.

Gawain nopes out. He kisses the Green Knight one last time, which is a gesture of friendship, and rides for Arthur’s court. King and queen welcome him home joyfully and ask about his strange quest. Gawain tells them everything, revealing the scar at the back of his neck and the girdle that is symbolic of his perceived moral failure. He plans to wear it forever. Arthur soothes him and the rest of the knights decide to wear baldrics of green out of love of Gawain. Morgan might be Gawain’s aunt, but he has the love of family in King Arthur’s court.

This is a fascinatingly twisty, enigmatic story. If anyone knows any good picture book versions, please send me your recommendations, because I would love to see what visuals illustrators have created for this one! Gawain tends to be characterised as a womaniser, but his behaviour varies a lot depending on the versions you read and in this one, he seems to be more worried about hurting the lady’s feelings than really resisting desire for her. He is fine with kissing both lady and knight, and also seems fine with a little dirty talk about bondage, but he does not like being deceived and he definitely does not like to feel he has failed to hold up his own standards. No wonder he didn’t want to spend more time with Morgan. I believe that Gawain and Arthur may have won the award for weirdest family Christmas.

I hope you are very happy, healthy and safe through the holiday season, and that 2021 brings much, much nicer surprises for all of us.

Ladies of Legend: Morgan le Fay and Morgause

References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos

Trigger warning: references to rape

There is a tendency, in Arthurian legend, for Igraine’s daughters to be highly variable in number and almost entirely interchangeable in identity, their roles within different versions of the myth generally depending on which woman gives birth to which sons. The Vulgate Cycle, for instance, has a whole crowd of half-sisters, while other versions whittle it down to one or two. The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards credits Morgan le Fay with eight sorceress sisters – Cliton, Gliten, Glitonea, Mazoe, Modron, Moronoe, Thitis and Tyronoe – all living together on the island of Avalon and acting as good fairies at Arthur’s birth. Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies speculates that Morgan le Fay may have originally been a Celtic sea goddess or even a goddess of death. She has associations with the Morrigana, an Irish triple goddess represented by the three warrior queen aspects of Badb, Macha and Morrigan, the latter of whom is also strongly associated with fertility.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, there are three sisters: Morgause (alternatively spelled Margawse) being the eldest, Elaine the middle child and Morgan as the youngest. They were the children of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall and Igraine. When Gorlois was defeated in battle by King Uther Pendragon, Igraine had little choice but the marry the victor. She gave birth to a son, Arthur, who was taken away to be raised with a foster family, his very existence a well-kept secret. Uther then used his newly acquired stepdaughters to secure political alliances, marrying Morgause off to King Lot of Orkney and Elaine to King Nentres of Garlot. At this point Elaine promptly vanishes from the narrative.

Morgan was perhaps too young for marriage at the time because she was sent to a convent for an unexpectedly arcane education, learning the arts of necromancy and sorcery. Other stories have her trained at court by Merlin himself. Eventually, however, she was given a royal marriage of her own and became queen to Uriens of Gore.

Morgause had four sons with Lot – Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. The only one to inherit any magical tendencies was Gawain, whose strength increased as the sun approached its zenith. When Arthur emerged from obscurity and Uther’s former allies went to war against him, including Lot, Morgause calmly came as a messenger to the embattled young king (with all of her boys in tow, what’s more) and had a month-long fling with him that resulted in a fifth son, Mordred. The relationship appears to have been consensual and mutually misinformed.

When Merlin finally told Arthur the truth, it came with a side serve of apocalyptic prophecy and the two of them threw a full King Herod routine by having all the baby boys born on May Day sent to sea to be drowned. Mordred survived. What’s more, he appears to have been raised by Morgause, because he shows up later in the story as a knight in Arthur’s court, not quite popular but respected and running around with the other Orkney boys. How he got from one point to the other is one hell of a mystery that Malory never explains.

Nentres and Uriens were also aligned against Arthur, though that did not stop Igraine bringing Morgan along when she met Arthur for the first time. Which means that Morgan was present, listening, when Igraine told the court how Uther appropriated her husband’s face in order to rape her.

The fight for the throne was brutal. During the final battle, thirteen kings were killed; among them, Morgause’s husband Lot, brought down by Arthur’s ally Pellinore. This was the beginning of a labyrinthine tangle of messed-up relationships, as Gawain eventually killed Pellinore and the widowed Morgause later took Pellinore’s son Lamorak as her lover.

Arthur held a great funeral, attended by Morgause and her sons, Morgan and her husband Uriens, and their son Ewaine (also spelled Yvain). Eager to connect with his half-sisters on a non-sexual level that is also not a battlefield – this family is such a disaster in so many ways – Arthur entrusted his sword Excalibur into Morgan’s care. Apparently she had a trustworthy vibe or something. Arthur proved once again that he was a shocking judge of people because not only did Morgan plan to use that sword for a double regicide, she had learned enough about Arthur’s personality to arrange it that he took every step into the trap for himself.

Arthur went hunting with Uriens and a knight called Sir Accolon who, unbeknown to the others, was Morgan’s lover and accomplice. The kings and their companion spied a beautiful ship floating in nearby waters and were invited to stay the night aboard by the twelve beautiful women who were its only occupants. However, when Uriens awoke he was in bed with Morgan – and when Arthur awoke, he was in the dungeon of Sir Damas, a knight in the middle of a property dispute with his little brother and who had a habit of kidnapping promising fighters in the hope that one of them would consent to be his champion. Thus far, nobody had. Arthur grimly offered himself on the condition that the other prisoners would be released. He didn’t realise that the messenger girl he was talking to was a servant of Morgan le Fay, or that the sword he went to fight with was not Excalibur at all. Morgan sent Accolon to Sir Ontzlake, Damas’ brother, to volunteer as his champion in the upcoming fight, and he had the true sword.

It’s neatly done. It would have worked beautifully had the Lady Nimue not been among the spectators, because in Le Morte d’Arthur it is she who received the training from Merlin, not Morgan, and after she got rid of him for good, she took over the role of Arthur’s intermittent protector. She forced Accolon to drop Excalibur, so that Arthur could reclaim it. Accolon confessed to everything. Morgan’s plan was to kill Uriens as well, take Accolon as her consort and rule the land herself. I shouldn’t like that. But I sort of do.

Expecting Accolon to have already succeeded, Morgan had moved in for the next kill. She sent a handmaiden for Uriens’ sword so that she could kill her husband with his own weapon – nasty sense of irony that the lady’s got there – but the handmaiden had qualms and woke Uwaine, who was sadly prepared for exactly this kind of situation. “I may say an earthly devil bore me,” he said, catching the sword before his mother could strike. She might be willing to murder her brother and husband in cold blood, but Morgan loved her son and in exchange for his forgiveness, she swore that Uriens would be safe from her. She kept her word, too; as far as Malory tells it, she never made another attempt on her husband’s life.

Arthur was deeply hurt by Morgan’s betrayal. He settled matters between Damas and Ontzlake, and when Accolon died of his injuries, four days after the fight, Arthur sent the body to Morgan as a warning. She hid her grief, planning her vengeance. She went to see Guinevere before Arthur returned to court, acquiring royal permission to travel into the country. Travelling with a company of her own knights, she found the abbey where Arthur was staying overnight and tried to steal Excalibur from him, only to discover he’d taken to sleeping with it in his hand. She settled for snatching the scabbard, which protected its wearer from physical harm. Arthur soon woke and pursued her. Maliciously, she hurled the scabbard into a lake and enchanted herself to disappear into the landscape as a rock until Arthur gave up looking.

After that, Morgan rejoined her knights and travelled on. She encountered one of Arthur’s knights, blindfolded and pushed into a fountain by the man whose wife he was sleeping with. The imperilled knight was Sir Manassen, cousin to Accolon. Morgan turned the tables: it was the other knight who drowned and Manassen was sent back to court unharmed, as a message to Arthur: she saved one of his knights for love of Accolon and with all her magic, she did not fear Arthur. She then turned her attention to building up the defences and devotion of Gore.

Her next attempt to get at Arthur was presented as a truce. She sent a handmaiden with a beautiful cloak as a reconciliation gift, but Nimue was there once again to foil her; she suggested the handmaiden try the cloak on first and the court watched, horrified, as the girl burned alive. Though Arthur did not blame Uwaine for his mother’s actions, the young knight was no longer welcomed at court and when he left, his loyal cousin Gawain went with him. The children of Morgause and Morgan were fiercely clannish. Of course, Morgause decided to be on good terms with Arthur – as he had no children with Guinevere, Morgause’s children were his obvious successors, a good reason if ever there was one to take his side in this unusually bloody sibling squabble. But Morgause never seemed to be on bad terms with Morgan either.

Which is not to say Morgause didn’t have problems of her own. To begin with, her (favourite) son Gareth took it into his head to arrive at Arthur’s court incognito and prove himself as an unknown knight instead of claiming his royal birthright from the get go, so Morgause had to storm over there and tell off Arthur for not keeping a better eye on his nephews – and then she told off her other sons for not recognising their own goddamn brother when he was right under their noses. Upon hearing that the court bully Sir Kay nicknamed her son Beaumains (meaning ‘fair-hands’, this being a way of calling him a freeloader) she tersely retorted that Gareth was ‘fair-handed’ indeed, flipping the insult into a compliment to Gareth’s sense of justice. The adventure ended happily, with three of her sons all getting married at once.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s one woman war on Arthur continued undaunted. She started running with a girl gang of fellow queens, including the Queen of Northgalis, the queen of Eastland and the queen of the Out Isles. I swear, I am NOT making this up. They captured Sir Lancelot while he was out questing and tried to make him choose a lover from among them, but he held true to Guinevere and was rescued by another independently-minded handmaiden, the daughter of King Bagdemagus, who is not named by Malory but who Howard Pyle calls Elouise. Morgan preferred to work with women (she was later reputed to have a spy network of up to thirty women across the kingdom) but was prone to overestimating her influence on them.

One woman Morgan was completely disinterested in bonding with was Guinevere, who she appeared to view as nothing more than a weak spot in Arthur’s defences. She knew – well, everybody knew – that Guinevere and Lancelot were lovers, and came up with increasingly ingenious ways to try and drum home the message to Arthur. She sent a horn that could not be drunk from by an unfaithful lady, only for it to be waylaid and given to King Mark of Cornwall’s court instead; she depicted a king and queen on a shield with a knight above them both, imagining the symbolism to be obvious, only for Arthur to dismiss it entirely. He was too familiar with his sister’s traitorous habits to take her word for anything.

Morgan also captured Arthur’s knights whenever she could. One of her female spies tried to talk Sir Tristram and Gawain into an ambush. Though Gawain revealed her as one of his aunt’s servants, Tristram wanted the fight anyway, but (recognising a bull-headed hero when she saw  one) Morgan refuses to send out her knights. She later managed to imprison Tristram and made  him carry the suggestive shield in return for his freedom. That was not enough for her lover at the time, Sir Hemison, who chased after Tristram against Morgan’s advice and was killed in the ensuing fight.

Morgause, meanwhile, was thoroughly enjoying her widowhood with Lamorak. He was a contemporary of her sons, so presumably a couple of decades or so younger than herself, and who was the kind of fiery type who picked fights with anybody who implied Guinevere might be more beautiful than his own regal silver vixen of a girlfriend. He also beat a whole gang of Morgan’s knights to work off some steam. The sex was canonically excellent.

Unfortunately, Morgause’s sons were not on board with her having an active love life. Gawain resented Arthur’s fondness for Lamorak, seeing him only as the man whose father murdered his own, and taking Lamorak as a lover ‘shamed’ Morgause in Gawain’s eyes. All his brothers, apart from possibly Gareth, took the same view. Having intercepted a message that named the time and place for a rendevous, Gaheris stormed in on the lovers and cut off his own mother’s head. Covered in the blood of the woman he loved, Lamorak screamed that he would rather have died in her place, but he was unarmed and could not fight back. Gaheris’ twisted sense of honour would not allow him to kill a naked man and so he let Lamorak go, but the enmity between him and the Orkney brothers was bitter after that and Lamorak was eventually killed by Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Mordred acting as a mob. The only one who refused to be involved was Gareth.

It was a terrible end for a remarkable woman.

Both Arthur and Lancelot were horrified at Morgause’s death and Gaheris was banished from court. The narrative being what it is, Morgan’s reaction is not recorded, but her enmity with Arthur seemed to taper off after that. She went into small-scale acts of evil sorcery with the Queen of Northgalis as her partner. For instance, she allowed King Mark to talk her into using her sorceress connections to find an enemy of his…only to turn around and heal the young knight in question, swearing him to her service. She kept him at the castle of La Beale Regard. The castle’s true heiress soon showed up, brought the knight over to her side, then had the castle razed to the ground, once again proving that Morgan needed to stop underestimating other women.

It was possibly with that in mind that Morgan and the Queen of Northgalis cursed Elaine of Corbin, called the fairest lady in the land, leaving her to boil alive without ever dying until the best knight in the world came to rescue her. It’s a brutal act of spite. Of course, this could also have been an indirect attack on Arthur, as Lancelot’s rape by Elaine ends up triggering great turmoil at court, but predicting all of that might be beyond even Morgan’s talent for scheming.

In any case, Arthur’s court crumbled on its own, first losing many knights to the hopeless quest for the Sangreal before being shaken apart at the foundations when Mordred revealed Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair beyond any chance at denial. It was Mordred who took over the kingdom; it was he who led the final battle against Arthur and struck the blow that would kill him, even as he himself lay dying.

Arthur sent Bedivere, the sole knight remaining at his side, to throw Excalibur into the nearby waters. To Bedivere’s amazement, a hand rose to catch the blade. By the time he carried Arthur down to the water, a barge had arrived at the bank. Nimue was aboard it, and three queens: the Queen of the Waste Lands, the Queen of Northgalis and the Queen of Gore. Arthur laid his head in the lap of his sister and Morgan asked, gently, “Ah dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me?” They disappeared together, across the water to Avalon. Neither were ever seen again.

Morgause and Morgan were ruthless women, in their different ways – Morgause being the pragmatic one, willing to overlook the blood on the hands of the men in her life if she got what she wanted out of it, while Morgan pursued power with a single-minded force of will and fierce cunning. What is so glorious about Malory’s women is that they are, above all other things, people. Their motivations may be obscure, but they are their own selves, making decisions in their own interests. They are not shadowy seductresses stalking the edges of Arthur’s court; these women are queens, and the daughters of a queen. Their lives might be tragedies, but they lived them proudly – the political matriarch and the warrior witch. They are not interchangeable at all.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!