REFLECTION ON THE CREATION OF THE NOVEL-SEQUENCE DAUGHTER OF TINTAGEL
I recognise two well-springs for my Arthurian fiction: poetry and place. In adolescence, I was enchanted by the Idylls of the King and the ruins of Tintagel Castle. (Tennyson 1909, pp.308-474)
Interestingly, neither of these sources led me to the subject of this study: Morgan le Fay. Tennyson makes no mention of her. The heritage industry of Cornwall celebrates Arthur and Merlin, not Morgan.
For me, early ignorance is creative. A powerful motive for my writing is curiosity: the incomplete fragment, the action which demands explanation, the “what if?” To discover, in adulthood, fresh light on something I thought I knew makes me want to detain the wedding-guests on the doorstep and demand that they listen to my story.
A picture book shared with my small daughter opened my eyes to Morgan. It told of Morgan’s theft of Arthur’s scabbard, his pursuit of her through the forest, Morgan turning herself and her company into stones and casting away the scabbard of healing. I sensed I had discovered someone significant.
I learned more from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (Green 1953) It opens with the slaying of Morgan’s father and the seduction of her mother, required for the conception of Arthur. I was then a writer of children’s novels, a teacher and a mother. I saw immediately how Morgan must feel about that baby. My concern was for Morgan the child, not yet for the woman.
I read the startling sentence,
...she was sent to school in a nunnery; yet, by some means, she learnt much magic, which she used wickedly. (Green 1953, p.18)
This formed the inspiration for a novel, Dark Sister, (Sampson unpubl.) which evolved into the five-volume sequence, Daughter of Tintagel. (Sampson 1992)
In undertaking to reflect upon a fantasy novel, I am aware of the problem Anne Swinfen has defined, that in the view of many contemporary critics “the so-called ‘realist’ mode of writing is somehow more profound, more morally committed, more involved with ‘real’ human concerns than a mode of writing which employs the marvellous”. (Swinfen 1984, p.10). I would say with Alan Garner that “My most reputable reason for doing it is that myth is not an attempt to entertain, it is an attempt to explain something.” (quoted in Swinfen 1984, p.101). We revisit myth to learn more about our deepest self. Jung affirms my perception: “The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.” (quoted in Righter 1975, p.102)
As the work proceeded, a growing attraction for me of the subject of Morgan was that the fay of Arthurian literature is an archetype of the repressed powerful woman. (Pratt 1982, p.173).
I intend here to reflect upon my creation of Daughter of Tintagel. I wish to consider the following questions: How and why did my concept of Morgan change? How did my choice of narrative voices affect the outcome? What concept of power does my portrayal of Morgan show?
I wished to set the prototype, Dark Sister, in the period of the historical Arthur, post-Roman Britain. To research the physical background, I returned to Tintagel. The archaeologist Ralegh Radford showed us, on the headland beyond the Norman castle, evidence of smaller buildings, which he interpreted as a Celtic monastery. Tintagel in Arthur’s time, he said, was a community of monks, not warriors. I remembered that “nunnery” to which Morgan was sent. “Could they,” I asked, “have been nuns?” Startled, he admitted the possibility.
Faced with conflicting stories, I always feel excitement. I can, as a novelist, choose the one backed by the soundest scholarship, or the one which appeals to my fancy. I find the most creative charge comes from asking, “What if both are true?”
In my story, Tintagel is a nunnery and Arthur is conceived there.
I liked the tensions: Christian and pagan, male and female, the history of Arthur and the fantasy of Morgan. I do not play “goodies and baddies” in my fiction. I admire Ursula Le Guin’s resolution of duality in A Wizard of Earthsea, embracing the dark and the light in one being. (Le Guin 1971) I had not yet gone that far in my own writing. But I wished from the outset to show sympathy for Morgan’s dark side.
I read Malory (1969). I knew that his picture, of a vindictive Morgan, arch-enemy of heroic Arthur, was reinforced by modern retellings. I did not realise at this stage how much his version differs from the oldest sources. Alicia Ostriker writes: “thanks to myth we believe that woman must be either ‘angel’ or ‘monster’” Myth is..... “the stuff of dream life, forbidden desire, inexplicable motivation - everything in the psyche that to rational consciousness is unreal, crazed, or abominable.” (Ostriker 1986, p. 316f) I had found evidence of the “monster”; I had not yet discovered that she had once been the “angel”. Yet I felt compassion. I wanted to explain her bitterness towards Arthur. Frye (1976, p.51) says that when the best writers rework traditional tales they borrow the “and then” sequence of events, and supply their own “hence” connective tissue. Ostriker adds, “Whenever a poet employs a figure or story previously accepted and defined by a culture, the poet is using a myth, and the potential is always present that the use will be revisionist.” (Ostriker 1986, p.317)
In starting with Morgan’s childhood hurt, I chose a form of fiction which Kenneth Burke categorizes as gratifying the “psychological desire” of the reader, “when we expect a mental process within the fiction to run its course..... personal hostility to proceed to personal accommodation” (Stovick 1977, p.200). Even in Malory, at the end Morgan, ambiguously, takes Arthur away for healing.
I focused upon her startling childhood and adolescence. As a teacher, I saw Morgan in terms of a teenager fallen under the influence of vice or drugs. I intended to lead the reader towards an understanding of the wrongs that drove her to this. I did not intend to condone her actions. It did not occur to me to take the option Marion Bradley (1984) later did, and interpret the nunnery at which Morgan learned magic as a druidical college.
My concept of Morgan determined the mode of narration. I have never felt comfortable with the voice of the omniscient author; my children’s novels had been third-person narratives showing the viewpoint of one or more characters. Now I felt that the mind of Morgan was too dark for me to write her experience from the inside, even in the third person. Yet the immediacy of that experience must come from somewhere. I needed a narrator within the novel.
I divided Morgan’s career into four stages: childhood, youth, early adulthood, maturity ending in her disappearance. I elected to see each phase through fresh eyes.
I began with Arthur’s birth, and chose Morgan’s nurse as narrator. I had never written in the first person before. She had a grumbling Cornish voice,
It was the worst thing they ever did when they forgot her. That night above all nights. (Sampson unpubl., p.1)
Morgan is shown as contemptuous of her mother, passionately loving her father, trying in vain to be the son he does not have. Adrienne Rich has written that hating one’s mother was the feminist enlightenment of the fifties and sixties, a metaphor for hating oneself. (quoted in Showalter 1986, p.135) I may have been remembering the imbalance of my own childish feeling towards my parents, my wish to be a boy.
Yet I was no longer that tomboy. This was not to be another “knights in shining armour” romance. I wished to show the women’s view of war, as bereavement and rape, “to make serious what appears insignificant to a man, and trivial what is to him important”. (Woolf, quoted in Kolodny 1986, p.155)
In Dark Sister, Morgan almost destroys the baby Arthur, and herself. The nurse grieves for this nine-year-old girl.
The child in her was crying out to us, “Save him from me. I can’t do it by myself.” (Sampson unpubl., pp.51f.)
But she fears her too.
For Morgan’s adolescence, all I had was Malory’s one startling sentence.
And the third sister Morgan le Fay was put to school in a nunnery, and there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy. (Malory 1969, Vol 1, p.12)
I saw my own adolescence as the period when I made lifelong choices. Here, I chose a nun, Luned, as my narrator, to witness the young Morgan’s decisions. I was, perhaps, exploring the darker side of myself when I chose to have her destroyed by Morgan. The nurse had been sympathetic; I felt a different perspective was needed. Iser says, “we feel that any confirmative effect..... is a defect in a literary text. For the more a text..... confirms an expectation it has initially aroused, the more aware we become of its didactic purpose”. (Iser 1974, p.278)
There are autobiographical aspects in Luned, good at mathematics, aspiring to lift herself through education. Her voice is precise, at once objective and bitter, as she looks back at her ruined chances.
I hate Morgan. She corrupted me. (Sampson unpubl., p.54)
Sympathy comes not from the unreliable narrator, but from the evidence she supplies. The abbess might have saved Morgan, who admires her strength. Morgan is betrayed by Luned, assigned to be her soul-friend, but too proud to admit she cannot control the girl. Still, Morgan is bound for the dark.
In the third section, young Arthur emerges from obscurity to become a national hero. Morgan is his enemy. Again, the narrator is antagonistic, a blacksmith, socially her inferior but high in magic. He challenges her power and loses. When she has crushed him, she makes him serve her disguised as a woman. The reader is expected to condemn his crude masculinity and use of brute force. But Morgan is shown as culpable too. She goads him to use poison.
She made murder her art. (Sampson unpubl., p.151)
In her sister Margawse, we see a different, sexual, power of destruction. This section climaxes with Margawse’s incest with Arthur and the birth of Medraut. The three sisters have forged this baby as a weapon to avenge their father. Morgan wishes to rear Medraut.
‘I can teach him to hate Arthur better than any of you.’ (Sampson unpubl., p.157)
Thus far, I have shown my understanding for Morgan’s bitterness, but little ambivalence. Morgan uses her power negatively. As Sandra Gilbert has said, “Women writers have frequently responded to sociocultural constraints by creating symbolic narratives that express their common feelings of constriction, exclusion, dispossession.” (Gilbert 1986, p.35). But Morgan is also Judith Lauder Newton’s heroine of women’s fiction, “active, rather than passive, precisely because they do live in a man’s world.” She defines this power as ‘ability’, rather than ‘control’. (quoted in Robinson 1986, p.113)
Oddly, the incident which first drew me to Morgan, her theft and casting away of Arthur’s healing scabbard, does not find a place.
The balance begins to swing with the fourth section. The narrator Taliesin, bard to Morgan’s husband King Urien Rheged, is shown here as a precociously vain young poet. Taliesin views Morgan with a mixture of indulgent sympathy and awe.
The picture he gives us of her takes on new complexity. Living with the imagination of her pain, I was finding it harder to see her as merely the villain of popular fiction. Virginia Woolf appears to have experienced a similar shift of perception. A somewhat laughable minor character in The Voyage Out becomes, through Woolf’s immersion in stream-of-conciousness narration, the far more sympathetically realised protagonist of Mrs Dalloway. (Lodge 1992, p.43)
This choice of an intelligent, sensitive narrator deepened my understanding. Stone, in a discussion of patriarchy’s fear of earth, darkness and death, (quoted in Absher 1990, p.116) says the white male “talks a lot about being filled with light, and enlightenment. I think it is time for us to start talking about being filled with the dark, and endarkenment.”
Her darkness burns. Like a lantern behind a shutter. Like a smothered fire. Like the stars in the darkest night of storm, if you could only tear away the clouds. She holds them both, with difficulty, by great power, in her strong person. It is not easily done. The darkness with the light ...
They are two halves of a whole. They are not good and bad, as you have been taught to understand it. They are one rhythm, created for each other. Together they sing one song. (Sampson unpubl., p.163f.)
The figure of unrelieved darkness is transferred to Medraut. We find the first hint that Morgan may actually love Arthur.
When the sisters plot against Arthur, the weight of blame now shifts. Taliesin says of Margawse,
She is the destroyer, more than Morgan. (Sampson unpubl., p.183)
“I forged the weapon that will bring Arthur down when I opened my legs and let Medraut into the world... And now we have put him into Morgan’s hand. She is the man among us. She will strike the blow”
I wanted to shout her down for saying that. Morgan was pure womanhood to me. Goddess. Virgin... But I saw the truth of what she was saying... Morgan uses her womanhood like a warrior fighting for his life..... She could have matched Arthur. She was the shadow of his shape. The darkness to his light. She filled the space he left. Because he was a man, she was a woman. (Sampson unpubl., p.185)
In the first and last narrations, the more sympathetic ones, the narrators are less concerned with their own struggles against her. It is Arthur’s story which determines the shape of Morgan’s. I was acting here in the manner Ostriker ascribes to women poets who “rather than creating a new poetic language... revise the language of male myths from a woman-centred perspective.” (quoted in Showalter 1986, p.15)
Yet on the night before the Battle of Camlann, Taliesin comes upon Morgan washing Arthur’s bloody shirt, which has sinister ritual associations.
Do not breathe, Taliesin.
Rock. The form of a woman.
Do not grow up! Do not grow up, Taliesin! How could you begin to understand? You must not understand what you have seen! (Sampson unpubl., p.194)
After the battle, Arthur is believed to be dead. Morgan has disappeared. Even the loving Taliesin lays the responsibility for Arthur’s death on her.
How should I end this book? I had begun by rejecting as too dark the idea of writing it from Morgan’s viewpoint. I found, when I reached this stage, that my understanding had changed. Now she was demanding to speak for herself.
The epilogue was one and a half pages. Morgan challenges the reader.
I make no excuses. It matters less than nothing to me what you think. (Sampson unpubl., p.198)
More than with any other voice, there is that “almost hair-raising phenomenon... Someone inside the novel is talking to someone outside .” (Goldknopf 1972, p.33)
How could you understand?
He was not your brother ...
He is not your king ...
He is not your dead....
The herbs of healing. Soft and strange they feel in my fingers... I have the knowledge. I do not know if I shall have the power.
She has become more ambivalent.
My image changed in the writing, from a depraved girl for whom I had compassion, to a more complex woman. “I learn what I want to say in the course of saying it”. (Mary McCarthy, quoted in Lodge 1966, p.64). I had revised some earlier children’s books in the light of such discoveries. In this case, I let the inconsistency between the sections stand.
I had been uncertain at the outset whether to write Dark Sister for teenagers or adults. My decision, simply to write it and see how it turned out, produced the result I should have foreseen. Editors judged it too dark and sexual for teenage fiction, its themes not explored deeply enough for an adult novel. I put it aside.
Some ten years later I took it out again, deciding that, to do justice to its subject, it must be written for adults. “We appropriate different meanings... at different times... according to our changed assumptions, circumstances and requirements” (Kolodny 1886, p.153).
I now had a deeper understanding of Morgan, gained through the earlier writing. I had imbibed some feminist consciousness of the seventies and eighties. I understood better the ambivalence of Celtic mythology. I added more reading to research about the period done in the intervening years. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (1969) is devoid of references to Morgan. There is, however, his Life of Merlin (1973) . This is the earliest certain reference to her. Morgan (Morgen) is unrelated to Arthur. She is the wise ruler of a fairy island, who welcomes the wounded king for healing. She is a far cry from Malory’s Morgan.
The Lives of the Celtic saints struck an interesting note (Butler 1956). Arthur appears as a lusty thief, who has to be brought to heel by the local saint. I was finding clues that there might be another side to the story of ideal Arthur, wicked Morgan.
I was aware of an irony: I was using Arthur’s historical Dark Age setting for Morgan, a character from medieval fantasy. Yet this was not incompatible with my more clearly defined intention. I wished to write a novel on the borderline between history and fantasy, a work which could be read as a story about magic, or an historical novel about people who believed in magic.
In the rewritten nurse’s narration, Wise Woman’s Telling, Morgan remains an alarming child, but the potential for her healing power is signalled.
This narration became a viable novel on its own.
I found an agent who liked it, but asked if I could “up the sex and violence.” I looked at the novel honestly and decided it already had all the violence it needed. I did admit I had been too inhibited in the speech of its earthy peasant narrator. What I decided to increase greatly was the element of religion and magic, which I believe carries much the same emotional charge as sex. The narrator becomes a wise woman of the old religion. At the end of her tale, Arthur, spirited away as a baby, has reappeared as a young warrior. The nurse addresses her audience.
And she’s come calling us to help her right her wrongs. So, my sisters, I’ll put it to you. What shall we wise women do about the Pendragon’s son? (Sampson 1992, p.128)
Literary critics may be forgiven for thinking that creative decisions happen either as part of a grand plan or instinctively. The truth may be humbler. What happened next seemed to be a minor publishing decision, but it had profound creative consequences. There was a choice between marketing the whole story as four separate volumes or as a single doorstopping book. The contract went to Headline, who opted for four. I agreed to this. Only after I put the phone down did I realise the implication. Each of my narrators would have a book to themselves. But Morgan’s own voice would be two pages tacked on to Taliesin’s. If these minor characters warranted a volume of their own, so, surely, did she. This is not the first time a technical problem has inspired an unplanned creative leap. “This accidentality of inspiration has to be allowed for in writing... Follow the accident, fear the fixed plan.” (Fowles 1977, p.137)
The editor agreed to a five-book contract. I had no idea of what this fifth volume might contain, other than the night following the Battle of Camlann and Morgan bearing Arthur away. I pushed the problem aside and got on with writing the next volume.
In White Nun’s Telling, Luned’s account remains dark. I think now that I was overly influenced by Jessie Weston’s opinion (Weston 1980) of the sexual nature of Celtic rites. I had had to overcome an initial reluctance to write about female physicality, but I had been encouraged by my husband’s reaction to Dark Sister . I was now exploring the greater freedom of adult fiction to express this experience . But in this volume it is not a joyful episode. Morgan lures Luned to lose her virginity to exploit her power over the nun.
Yet Morgan’s healing side, which I had denied in the earlier version, struggles for recognition. Morgan’s old nurse has smuggled herbs to her. When the wounded Luned refuses to take her potion, Morgan tries it on two sick cows.
One of them recovered, but the other worsened, staggering now, and blind. One dark December day I watched it die, vomiting blood. I thought how Morgan had held that bowl to my lips.
I accused her.
‘The dun cow is dead.’
She stared at me blankly. Her eyes widened with shock then grew brilliant with tears.
‘It was not my fault. I had only enough of the herbs of power to heal one of them.’ (Sampson 1992, p.202)
The abbess and the wise woman wrestle for Morgan’s soul. To win Morgan’s freedom, the wise women drive the nuns from Tintagel.
Then Morgan rose. She looked long at her old nurse lying on the turf, smitten by the elf-stroke. She turned her head to watch Bryvyth’s bowed form dwindling away along the coombe. Lastly her eyes came back to me, glittering.
‘She was the only one who ever truly loved me.’
To this day I do not know which of them she meant. (Sampson 1992, p.271)
Morgan’s feelings for Arthur are ambivalent too.
‘We shall rule together, as equals. Sword and scabbard. The earth in balance. If he opposes me, I shall destroy him.’ (Sampson 1992, p.206)
Morgan is still dangerous. At the end, Luned’s hope is destroyed. She fears Morgan will use her for more violence.
In Black Smith’s Telling, also, I had to strive for a transparency which would prevent the reader from accepting the narrator’s self-justification. It was difficult to think my way into the character of a pagan blacksmith, whose experience and attitude were so alien to mine. “For the prose artist the world is full of other people’s words... whose speech characteristics he must be able to perceive with a very keen ear. He must introduce them into the plane of his own discourse, but in such a way that this plane is not destroyed.” (Bakhtin, quoted in Lodge 1992, p.128) The smith Teilo is here Booth’s dramatized and self-conscious narrator, radically different from the implied author. (Booth 1973, p.152ff)
Morgan is now established as a healer. Challenged to supply the other half of her basket of herbs, Teilo brings her poisonous plants.
‘So this is how you would choose to restore the balance. Why? You could have brought me the metals of the Black Smith’s art to match my woman’s healing. Why these?’...
‘Power!’ I blurted out. It was the first word I thought of....
‘Are you teaching me that the cure is not to be sought from the men’s side? That we must make it ourselves? That the balance lies ... here?’
She raised her head to me then and the look in her eyes nearly sent me staggering backwards. I swear to you there was terror in them. ...
‘Take back your gifts...Smith. Show me how a wise ... woman ... should understand the use of power.’ (Sampson 1992, p.307)
This is a large step from Dark Sister , where poison by subtlety was Morgan’s choice. As in the earlier book, Teilo reacts by poisoning one of her women and uses male force to administer it. But this time, his misunderstanding of her is greater.
‘Have you understood nothing? To wound and not to heal? To curse and not to bless? To hate and not to love? Is this your wisdom? I challenged you to use both sides of the basket, Teilo Smith. Both sides!’
Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s “both/and vision born of shifts, contraries, negations, contradictions; linked to personal vulnerablity and need” (DuPlessis 1986, p.276) is here clearly established.
When Teilo’s wife dies of poison, he believes this is Morgan’s revenge. Now, the possibility is left open that it might have something to do with the unwashed utensils he left. And when Morgan makes a cloak for Arthur, it is her sister Elaine who spikes it with poison, causing Luned’s death. Yet still Morgan agonises:
‘Tell me I am not Morgan the Destroyer!’ (Sampson 1992, p.440)
Morgan doubts her own innocence. Readers are left to make up their own minds. My understanding of the three sisters is that the Celtic triple goddess is not separable into Maiden, Mother, Crone. Each contains three possibilities within herself. In The Life of Merlin, Morgen is one of nine sisters. (Geoffrey 1973)
In Dark Sister, the smith’s section presents the bleakest picture. In Daughter of Tintagel it contains some of Morgan’s most explicit statements as the heroine who “sees the whole” (Le Guin 1989, p.56). But she retains the traditional character of a fay, capable of wonderful blessings, yet unpredictable, dangerous. It was not my wish to write a simplistic role reversal: Arthur bad, Morgan good. As Sarah Lefanu has said, “These role-reversed stories... do not necessarily challenge the gender stereotypes that they have reversed... an act of revolution can be achieved only through a subversion of the narrative structure that holds the protagonist in place”. (Lefanu 1988, p.35) But I did intend to use source material which restores the complexity of Morgan’s character and demotes Arthur from semi-divine status.
Morgan’s and Arthur’s power are symbolised by scabbard and sword. Arthur prizes Caliburn, though he has been told that the healing scabbard is worth ten times more. I have tried for a deeper understanding of Morgan’s theft of the scabbard. (Malory 1969, vol.1, pp. 139f) Morgan keeps it in a bid for equality of power. When Arthur scorns both the scabbard and her, she casts it away, and with it her hope of reconciliation, in this life. Without it, Arthur’s wounds can no longer be healed.
The fact that Arthur and Morgan are archetypally male and female, that the sword and scabbard are obvious sexual symbols, may lead the reader to assume this is simply a feminist novel. Doris Lessing (1977, p.172f.) says about the perception that The Golden Notebook is a tract about the sex war, “everything in it, says implicitly and explicity, that we must not divide things off, must not compartmentalize. ‘Bond. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love...’ ” I hope this novel, too, is about gender, and more.
Taliesin’s Telling was the easiest to write and, I think, the best narration. The playwright Allan Prior (1996, p.106) says, “It seems to me a rule of writing that anything written quickly and easily is almost always all right.” Taliesin is a wordsmith. I could let go and enjoy myself. In this rewritten version he has two voices: the high bardic tone, tuned to heroism and tragedy, and the teenage boy, sometimes vain and precocious, sometimes wryly honest, showing us the reality behind the fine words.
Morgan’s feelings towards Arthur are here both ambitious and erotic. Freud (quoted in Coward 1986, p.257f.) maintains that the plots of women’s fiction are shaped by unsatisfied, erotic desires, lacking the egoistic and ambitious fantasies which additionally dominate men’s plots. Rosalind Coward comments, “the smaller number of women’s novels which inscribe a fantasy of power imagine a world for women outside of love, a world, however, made impossible by social boundaries”.
For my consideration of such a power-game, the advantage of fantasy, as Anne Swinfen points out, it that it offers an independent context in which “a new corpus of values may more easily be presented”. (Swinfen 1984, p.92) The element of fantasy considerably increased in this rewriting, though psychological explanations remain possible. I saw this as a novel about power, a struggle between Morgan and Arthur, but also within Morgan, how power is to be used.
When Arthur is mortally wounded, Morgan disappears.
Why have you done this to us, Morgan? Why? (Sampson 1992, p.588)
Taliesin fears the issue has been decided.
I had contracted to deliver the later volumes at nine-month intervals. I finished Taliesin’s Telling in seven. This left me eleven months in which to face the challenge which had been awaiting me, to turn that page and a half of epilogue into Morgan’s book.
I still had available the night following the battle of Camlann, Arthur casting away his sword, Morgan and her sisters ferrying him to Avalon. I could retell events in the earlier books from Morgan’s point of view. I could introduce fresh scenes from her past.
I decided that I must find all the source material I could on Morgan. I particularly wanted the earliest traditions. For the first time, I consulted Arthurian bibliographies. Computer facilities were not as readily available then, but a librarian friend set the subject of Morgan as a training exercise and the resulting computer search provided an extensive list of articles.
The greatest help to my research was Lucy Allen Paton’s Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance. (1960) Her range of sources is far wider than I had yet read. Following these leads, I discovered a second story.
In Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin , Morgan is unrelated to Arthur. Her one contribution is to give the wounded king healing. She appears wholly benevolent, a fairy mistress, whose nature is “absolute supremacy whenever she pleases to exercise her control, and this control is primarily effective for the welfare of the knight whom she loves”. (Paton 1960, p.6) Within a century, the romances make her Arthur’s half-sister and arch-enemy, a vindictive, failed seductress, traitor to his court, plotting his downfall and death. This distortion became, itself, a tale I had to tell.
Even in my original epilogue, Morgan had scorned the narrators’ demonisation of her. This demonisation is not Paton’s argument, though the texts she surveys supply ample evidence for it. My own perception was confirmed by Margaret Jennings’s article ‘Heavens Defend Me from that Welsh Fairy’ (1981). She too surveys the sources to the fifteenth century, but she brings to the texts a different sensitivity from that with which Paton wrote in 1903. Jennings’s argument is Morgan’s transformation from benevolent fairy ruler, possibly mother goddess, into lascivious, vengeful witch, hag, occasionally buffoon, her power broken, her purposes defeated, her divinity swallowed up in a ruthless and repellent humanity.
I feared my ideas had already been voiced. But Morgan’s myth does not end with Malory. My novel would follow its progress into the present.
It was not my intention to write “the novel-about-itself, the trick-novel.” (Lodge 1977, p.105) The word “deconstructionist” was not in my vocabulary. My original impulse in writing Dark Sister had been to show why, in the light of what had been done to her, Morgan behaved to Arthur as she did. I now saw that a similar violence had been done to her traditional story. A mythic narrative about Morgan and a narrative story of her myth were two ways of exploring the same truth. The novelist “repeats but also remakes the form; he exercises options in a particular historical and cultural situation, but keeps attempting, afresh, to distil this as a signed and personal authenticity”. (Bradbury 1977, p.12)
I envisaged interweaving my Morgan/Arthur story with the tale of her degenerating myth. Would anyone want to read such a book? I worried about repetition if I were to recapitulate key events from previous volumes, even with Morgan’s very different viewpoint. I took my proposal to Milford, an annual residential workshop of SF/fantasy writers. The response of my peers encouraged me to go ahead.
The framing scene for Herself is set on the night after Camlann, when Morgan is struggling for Arthur’s life. Absher identifies immortality as a male quest. “At the heart of our patriarchal culture is the longing to control everything - to master even death.” (Absher 1990, p.18) Morgan has already relinquished the scabbard, and with it, her power. The feminine “is the wisdom of accepting imperfection... one’s physical and pluralistic humanity. It takes great courage to accept who you are.” (Absher 1990, p.98). I felt the symbolic truth behind the traditional version must be that it is Arthur, not his companion Bedwyr, who cannot bear to throw the sword of his power away into the lake.
The life Morgan offers him requires first a “death”. When Shakespeare’s King Lear abandons the masculine principle’s power, privilege, hierarchy, and reason, he loses his ‘shield against the human”. (Marilyn French, quoted in Absher 1990, p.4) He loses kingship, and gains humanity. What Morgan is demanding of Arthur is Frye’s “renounced quest”, the “creatively negative act”. (Frye 1976, p.185)
Fays are “instruments of darkness telling us truths” (Shakespeare, 1923 p.1102) But can Arthur really yield? Pam Wright, (quoted in Absher 1990, p.111) tells us, “Every goddess is larger, fiercer, more dangerous seen through the haze of patriarchal denial and longing.”
Frye (1976, p.88) shows how a romance’s heroine can be redemptive, using guile or froda to overcome the violent forza.
He is disarmed, and I am empowered at last. (Sampson 1992, p.813)
Through this narrative of Arthur’s struggle with mortality and Morgan’s memories of their past, I wove the second strand of her literary vilification. I carried it on beyond Malory, past Tennyson’s silence about her, to consider twentieth century versions.
How would Morgan react to Stephen Lawhead’s novel (1989) and Boorman’s film Excalibur? They make her so depraved she destroys herself before Camlann and so cannot heal Arthur, which was her sole original function. I re-read more ambivalent treatments by Stewart (1983) and Sutcliffe (1963). I saw these novelists struggling with my own problem, their imaginations imprinted with Malory’s vision, yet seeking to explain Morgan’s hostility, shuffling responsibility among the sisters.
Between my writing Dark Sister and Daughter of Tintagel, Marion Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1984) had been published. My editor forbade me to read it. I knew from reviews that it told Morgan’s side of the story, breaking new ground by making her the protagonist. In my novel, Morgan’s comments on her literary treatment must refer to this. I left reading it as late as possible, when my own book was almost complete. I found to my relief, though not surprise, that, while our intention is similar, our treatments vary greatly. Bradley does not vilify Arthur, but she has her own Either/Or, reversing the polarity of medieval Cistercian sources to celebrate paganism against a repressive Church. In my version, Morgan chooses paganism, but strives to maintain a balance with the Christian Church, symbolised by her painful but mutually respectful marriage with Urien.
This Morgan of Herself has a cool grasp of the literary fay’s traditional role.
I am the woman of your fantasies...
Never till now my own story. I am the immortal fay, the faery mistress, the wicked witch...
It is Arthur’s story you want to read, not mine. Or the love-affair of Lancelot and Gwenhyvar. Or the Quest for the Holy Grail.
For each telling, I become what you need me to be. Lover, mother, enemy. (Sampson 1992, p.818)
She says of Bradley,
The feminist version. A novel for the late twentieth century. Here is indeed my own story, not Arthur’s.
Saul Bellow remarks that the novelist’s “own books are also a comment on his contemporaries.” (Bellow 1977, p.54) I was being more explicit. In Morgan’s persona, I expressed scorn for many writers, including living ones. Logic and honesty dictated her final comment on a novelist,
No doubt Fay Sampson is using me here for her own ends. (Sampson 1992, p.821)
As Schon (1983, p.163) says, “the sense (the professional) makes of the situation must include his own contribution to it.”
These interweaving strands of Herself required two voices.
Morgan’s “narrative” voice, facing the tension of that final night and recalling the past, is one of controlled grief and longing.
Tonight I am whole and you are wounded. That is not how it seems. (Sampson 1992, p.591)
Her “reviewing” voice, as she comments on the use writers have made of her, is more detached, ironic. After recalling how Geoffrey originally portrayed her as wholly benevolent, she reminds us,
Geoffrey of Monmouth is notoriously unreliable. (Sampson 1992, p.601)
Sometimes the reader is left to detect the irony in the story. Showalter (1986, p.138) says “the feminist content of feminine art is typically oblique, displaced, ironic, and subversive; one has to read it between the lines, in the missed possibilities of the text”. For Fowles (1977, p.141) “irony needs the assumption of superiority... anathema to a democratic, egalitarian century like our own... that is why so many of us twentieth-century novelists feel driven into first-person narration”.
Yet, in spite of my changed perception of her, I am not Morgan. Iser’s comment on the reader is also true for the writer: “although we may be thinking the thoughts of someone else, what we are will not disappear completely”. (Iser 1974, p.293) I used minor characters to witness to my Christian viewpoint.
This critical Morgan has suffered centuries of abuse at the hands of writers. She is almost past hurting. But emotion sometimes breaks through.
Yes, I am jealous of Gwenhyvar. (Sampson 1992, p.671)
I originally chose Dark Matter as the series title . I saw a mythic resonance in the cosmologists’ concept of the parallel world of anti-matter. The publishers rejected this, but I insisted on keeping my “Author’s Note”.
In physics, Dark Matter forms an unseen world that is the inverse of the matter we observe. The two were created to exist in equal proportions. Together they hold the universe in balance. But when they come into contact, the result is mutual destruction. Morgan’s story is the Dark Matter of Britain. (Sampson 1992)
By the time I wrote Herself I had reached a more sophisticated and positive understanding of Morgan which could interpret that “mutual destruction” as an epiphany. Dark Sister had ended with the ambiguous:
He is ours now. (Sampson unpubl., p.199)
Here, the ending is a celebration of more genuine ambivalence.
In Avalon, the sword will meet its scabbard.
Welcome to my bed, Arthur.’ (Sampson 1992, p.822)
The concept of Herself was exciting and has touched a chord with some readers. But the extra two months I had gained for myself was not enough for the research, complex structuring and writing necessary . I should have asked for an extension. I placed too much importance on my self-image as a writer who delivers on time. I delivered a manuscript I knew was not yet as good as it could be.
[I took advantage of the Cosmos re-issue to make some revision.]
The narrative strand drags and lacks fresh invention. The immediacy of Morgan’s voice, waiting in the darkness for Arthur’s decision, is not matched in the chapters recapitulating her life. In this narrative strand, I did invent fresh scenes, as well as re-evaluating some accounts we have heard from earlier narrators. I wish now I had done more. Reading the novels in quick succession in the omnibus edition, I find the repetition in Herself more noticeable.
One opportunity I particularly regret. I wrote those recapitulated scenes from memory. When I compared them with the original narrations, they often differed, not only in giving Morgan’s interpretation, but in circumstantial detail. I rewrote Morgan’s narration to make the facts consistent with the other books. I wish now I had let those differences stand. Inconsistency would have been closer to the truth about memory. More importantly, it would have illustrated beautifully the ambiguity of my purpose.
In writing the reviewing chapters, I discovered both the fascination of extensive research and the danger of knowing too much. The crisp, ironic tone I aimed at becomes lost under the mass of evidence. It ceases to entertain. Large cuts were needed. I should have sat in front of the screen, as I did with Black Smith’s Telling, listening for my narrator’s voice in every sentence . I let my enthusiasm to present a comprehensive survey take precedence over my fundamental desire to give Morgan her voice.
Afterwards, I was delighted to realise that, without conscious planning, my narrators of Morgan’s story had resolved themselves into two female, two male, two sympathetic, two hostile, in shifting pairs.
I have been saddened by some women’s reactions to my writing of female physicality, yet I could have done more to show why I wanted to reclaim this ground.
I find I want to continue with the immediacy of first-person narrative.
I moved on to another vilified woman of myth, Inanna.
It is characteristic of my work that there are few villains, and even they are shown as capable of redemption. Engraved on a window of the railway station at Dorridge, as part of Solihull’s Year of Literature, is this line from Herself:
We are all trapped by the metaphors of warfare, opposing sides, the Either/Or. (Sampson 1992, p.821)
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