The real story isn’t as straightforward as the ones you might have heard. In most versions of the tale, of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Camelot, I am a witch. I am jealous. I am evil. I am a seductress. My manipulations tear down the greatest kingdom that has ever been built upon these lands and consign it to legend.
I am Morgan LeFay. I am the dark to Arthur’s light, he is morning, I am night, I am left, and he is right.
It’s true, I was the only one left when Camelot had fallen, and the only inhabitants left were the owls and the foxes. It’s also true that I am a witch, and that I have taken my share of lovers. But the rest? Ah, the true story is both simpler and more twisty and capricious than the story of good King Arthur, wicked Morgan and gorgeous Sir Lancelot.
Arthur and I shared a mother. Yvaine, duchess of Cornwall, famed for her icy beauty, her hair pale as moonbeams and her heart as cold and unyielding as a sword. She married my father, the Duke, for his wealth and lands. I was the only child of their dispassionate union and was a canker in the eyes of both parents. For my father, I wasn’t the desperately needed son, and for my mother, I represented her one great failure.
By the time I was seven, I knew there was no love or warmth in the great castle that huddled on the clifftop, pummelled by the winds and sea-storms and the howls of the gulls. I left it, each morning, to wander on the shore, to dabble my toes in the sea, to climb the blackened rocks of the cliffs. And it was there I found my sisters.
The women of the water. Sea witches, selkies, naiads – to this day I cannot tell you what those women are, for I don’t know. Nor do I care. They welcomed me, embraced me, loved me. As I loved them.
And they were my teachers, my instructors. They knew the magic of the seas, the great waters that imprisoned men on the lands they brawled to possess. They knew the magic of the air, of the birds that held themselves aloft on winds that were made of nothingness and yet were so forceful. And they knew the magic of the creatures that live in the betwixt places, places that are neither one world nor the other, that are both and neither.
By the time I was ten, I was an accomplished magic-user. I hid my gifts, shrouded them in silence. I was young but not naïve.
When I was eleven, Uther Pendragon visited the Duchy of Cornwall. He was tall, fair, merciless, humorous. And he cracked open Yvaine’s steely heart as if it were a hen’s egg, before strolling off to die a glorious death on the battlefield.
Father died before my brother’s eyes opened, which was a mercy for both him and my baby half-brother. One glance at Arthur and it was clear who he took after. I didn’t care. I loved my brother. He was as fair as I was dark, as merry as I was serious. We complemented each other perfectly.
I knew the hand of destiny was upon him, of course. My magic told me that. Whenever I held him, I heard whispers, of greatness, of adventure, of danger. The world would fade, and my eyes would perceive a shining kingdom, a cadre of brave knights, enemies of supernatural shape. I also saw a druid.
Merlin. He came and went with the winter, eying up Arthur like a butcher would a cow. To see if he was ready or needed fattening further. Perhaps that’s a bit unjust, for I know Merlin was truly fond of Arthur. But Merlin, a great and knowledgeable druid, had no time for a mewling girl who knew a handful of conjuring tricks. He patronised and condescended to me until I was ready to scream.
Once, when he told me to run along and return to my embroidery, I lost my temper and ordered the blackberry bushes in our garden to imprison him. They grew tall and impenetrable in less time than it takes for an archer to draw his bow. I left Merlin in there for an entire day, until his will crumbled and he humbly asked to be set free.
Merlin never forgave me. And I never forgave him either. A wild resentment took root in my heart against all who sought to diminish me. And that was the source of many difficulties, but not it was not the chief cause of Arthur’s downfall.
There were two things that caused the fall of Camelot. One was Arthur’s weakness for beautiful golden-haired women. And the other was a knight named Lancelot.
I shall hop-skip over the intervening years to when Arthur was King of Camelot and all was good and just and prosperous. I was one of his most trusted counsellors and worked my magic for the good of all, healing the sick and protecting the city. The lowly people loved me, but some knights and their fair ladies were less enamoured. It’s true, my habit of bedding married men was a bad one (it kept things simple). And I never bothered to soften my words. I never sought to win approval.
Yet all was well, until the Lady Guinevere appeared. At Merlin’s invitation. Arthur needed a queen and Guinevere was descended from kings. She would ennoble the royal blood of Camelot and bring a little gold to sweeten the bargain.
She was beautiful, I cannot deny it. Hair so fair it was almost white, eyes so pale they were shaded silver, as graceful as a swan on water. Arthur was smitten.
I wasn’t. I was biased, because she was Merlin’s choice, but even so, I thought Guinevere would be a poor queen. She was a milk-and-water creature, with no strength or resolve to aid her in times of trouble. She was a terrible flirt. She revelled in masculine attention. And she absolutely loathed me.
I never understood why Guinevere hated me so much. I suspect it was jealousy, of Arthur’s love and regard for me – not to mention the lovers I still had my pick of, despite being nearly twenty years older than her. I soon hated her too – quietly, you understand. I loved Arthur and wanted to keep his affection.
But I underestimated Guinevere and Merlin. She was adept at playing the victim and wore Arthur down with her whining and complaints about me. And Merlin, blast his eyes, had a solution. To wit, I was summoned to the King’s presence and informed a marriage had been arranged for me with Sir Urien, a lumpish knight who was infamous for his dullness and passed his days sulking in his family’s manor house.
I refused, which gave Merlin excuse to suggest Arthur banish me. Furious at them all, furious at myself for falling into such a poorly contrived, simple trap, I made the mistake of telling them what I perceived in Camelot’s future.
‘This kingdom will fall, Arthur,’ I told him, my voice even and eyes blazing. ‘It will fall within three years, unless you cast off your queen.’
Then I assumed the shape of a crow and flew to freedom. I always wanted the chance for such a dramatic leave-taking.
My prophecy came true. Only a short time after I left, one of Arthur’s former flames, the Queen of Orkney (blonde, rosy, beguiling) arrived at court with her son, Mordred. Arthur’s by-blow.
Guinevere was incandescent. She threw a truly stupendous tantrum, shrieking about the disgrace Arthur had brought upon them, about how the throne was no longer safe, how she wanted the Queen of Orkney banished. (I know because I had shape-shifted into a dove and watched the scene from the window-ledge).
It was all nonsense. Arthur had fathered Mordred well before he married Guinevere. The boy was a bastard, he’d never get within shouting distance of the throne. Besides, he was a good fighter but slow-witted and gluttonous.
But Guinevere’s words had planted scheming seeds in the minds of certain men. She and Arthur were childless, after several years of marriage. And then Arthur made a grave mistake in banishing his former lover and Mordred, in a futile attempt to appease Guinevere. The royal family of Orkney took offence and declared war.
Arthur went off battling the invaders, as did most of his knights. Guinevere was left behind, bored and with only her ladies to entertain her. It was then than Sir Lancelot, who remained to guard Camelot, began his own campaign. He conquered the Queen in rather less than a fortnight.
I sent word to Arthur, of course. Even Merlin, in my desperation. But I was ignored. In my rage, I turned my back and vowed never to aid Arthur again. I found sanctuary within a lake and resided there, occasionally aiding a troubled woman or cursing a cruel man.
Besides, Arthur found out soon enough. Lancelot, who had bedded half the women and several of the men of Camelot, could never resist bragging about his conquests. The news travelled and Arthur found himself enduring the spoken barbs of his enemy, not just the metal ones. He left Sir Galahad to direct the troops and rushed back to Camelot.
Lancelot did a midnight flit as soon as he realised. There was only the tear-drenched, humiliated Guinevere left to punish.
She grovelled for forgiveness, but Arthur had finally had his fill. He packed her off to a convent and turned his attention back to the war. To ever higher stakes, for now Arthur had no chance of fathering an heir, and Orkney had Mordred to supply the deficiency.
For several years conflict raged, until at long last an arrow sank itself into Arthur’s flesh, and festered.
It was then that he sent for me. Not to heal his body, for he knew it was his turn at death. To heal another wound.
‘I am sorry, Morgan,’ he said, voice coarsened by pain. ‘For casting you aside. For letting everyone say such vile things about you.’
‘I never cared for other peoples’ opinions,’ I scoffed. He chuckled.
‘No, you never did. But I shan’t rest until I know we are reconciled.’
‘We are,’ I assured him, kissing his ember-hot forehead.
‘Bury me, Morgan,’ he asked me. ‘Lay me to rest, with your rites and rituals. And never let any man imprison you. Stay free forever.’
I took his body to the Isle of Apples, to lie with death, the brother of sleep. Merlin, shrunken with age and disappointment, watched me as our little craft glided over the glimmering mirror-sheen of the lake. He was gone by the time I returned.
Mordred never ruled Camelot. The Saxons invaded, claiming all they could hack at with their battle-axes, including what little was left of Camelot. The Saxons never caught me, though. No human ever has. I have fulfilled Arthur’s final wish and lived free. I returned to the ocean and went to live with my sisters of the sea.
Sometimes I visit land – Cornwall, my childhood home, or the Isle, to speak to Arthur. But I do so less and less as the years pass. Especially since humanity seems determined to paint me as the villain in Arthur’s tale. It stings, especially since everyone is equally devoted to fawning over that faithless Lancelot. But freedom always has a price. I shall continue to pay mine.
And is it worth it?
Decide that for yourself, my dear.
About the Author: Carys Crossen has been writing stories since she was nine years old. Her fiction has been published by several online and print publishers, and her monograph The Nature of the Beast is available from University of Wales Press. She lives in Manchester UK with her husband.
Twitter: @AcademicWannabe Instagram: swintonwriter