Although Morgause remains, even in many modern Arthurian texts, a relatively minor character compared with women like Guinevere and Morgan le Fay, her small role is a crucial one. According to Thomas Malory, she is one of the three daughters of Igrayne and the Duke of Cornwall, half-sister to Arthur, and later, the wife of King Lot of Orkney and the mother of Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine, Gareth, and Mordred. Depending on the text, the same character has the name Anna (Geoffrey of Monmouth'sHistoria Regnum Brittaniae, Layamon's Brut) or Belisent (Of Arthour and of Merlin, Tennyson's Idylls of the King). Because of her minor role, she is frequently, as in John Boorman's film Excalibur, conflated with her more infamous sister, Morgan le Fay. While she is usually eclipsed by Morgan, Morgause is best-known for committing incest when she sleeps with Arthur and conceives Mordred. In medieval texts, specifically the French Vulgate cycle and the Prose Merlin, Arthur is attracted to a woman identified only as King Lot's wife and deceives her into thinking he is her husband. It is only afterward that Arthur realizes he has committed incest. Mordred is the product of this union.
Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur depicts Morgause as a woman ignorant of her relation to King Arthur at the time of Mordred's conception, receptive of Lamorak's love towards her, and overwhelmed with motherly concern for her young son Gareth. Truly, the only strike against her in this text is the fact that she commits adultery. Arthur's part in this affair causes the lifelong enmity between the two kings: "And for because that kynge Arthure lay by hys wyff and gate on her sir Mordred, therefore kynge Lott helde ever agaynste Arthure" (I.77). What characterizes her more than anything else in the text is her concern for Gareth's welfare; coming to the court while Gareth is away on his quest to save Dame Lyonesse, Morgause scolds Arthur fiercely, saying, "ye made a kychyn knave of hym, the whyche is shame to you all. Alas! Where have ye done myn owne dere son that was my joy and blysse?" (I.339). Upon Gareth's return, Morgause faints in relief but is revived by her son and thereafter "made good chere" (I.358). What becomes clear on reading Le Morte d'Arthur and its medieval predecessors is that Morgause was not a villain until the modern period. It is this fact that makes her death in Malory so surprising; Sir Gaheris, who is trying to track down his enemy Sir Lamerak, finds him in bed with Morgause, "for ayther lovid other passynge sore," and in response, "suddaynly [Sir Gaheris] gate his modir by the heyre and strake of her hede" (II. 612). She is ultimately a kind of sacrifice in the ongoing feud between the sons of Pellinore and the sons of Lot. In Richard Hovey's play, The Marriage of Guenevere, for example, Morgause feigns friendship with Guenevere, only to discourage her confidence in the new marriage and encourage the young queen in her admiration of Launcelot.
In modern adaptations of the Arthurian legend based on Malory, the incest episode is largely engineered by Morgause herself, and she is Mordred's mother not only biologically but psychologically as well, using him as her tool to destroy his father. T. H. White's The Once and Future King and Boorman's Excalibur demonstrate this concept brilliantly as Morgause/Morgana takes on a sinister nature that she never has in earlier texts. She becomes a kind of nightmarish mother figure in White, looming over her children even after she is dead. Mary Stewart's The Wicked Day demonstrates Morgause's insatiable appetite for younger men, notably King Pellinore's son Lamorak. Upon discovering her in flagrante with the young knight, Gaheris slays his mother in a fit of rage, and later, with the assistance of his other brothers, hunts down Lamorak and kills him in a clearly unfair combat. The notable exception to the grand tradition of villanizing Morgause in modern novels is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. In this novel, the first depiction of Camelot from an almost completely feminine perspective, Morgause is a caring mother figure, a strong intellectual wife to King Lot, and, later, a sexually liberated widow. While her ruthlessness in achieving her own political ends is highlighted, it is certainly eclipsed by the callousness of Morgaine and Viviane. Bradley's Morgause only meets her demise in old age, defeated by the rejection of a potential younger lover.
---Emily Rebekah Huber