Morgause first appears named as “Orcades” in Perceval, the fifth romance from Chrétien de Troyes, written in 12th century Old French, as the mother of Arthur’s Knights: Gawain, Gaheris, Agravaine, Gareth, and Mordred. She plays a minor role in Perceval and further Arthurian medieval texts in what is known as the 13th century’s French Vulgate Cycle. Her name of origin “Orcades” is synonymous with the Latin’s name for the Orkney Islands of the Northern Isles of Scotland, off the northern coast of Great Britain. It is suggested that (M)orcades became Morgause via the popular Celtic name “Morgan,” and from the 15th century forward we see Morgawse/Morgause as a more developed character concerning Camelot. Modern story tends to conflate her with her sister, Morgana/Morgan le Fay, whilst expanding on her role as a villainess in the Arthurian canon (which in medieval texts, is unclear). Some authors also refer to her as Anna (Monmouth’s Brittainae) or Belisent (Tennyson).
The daughter of Igrayne and the Duke of Cornwall, she is Arthur’s half sister and the eventual wife of King Lot of Orkney. Her famed sons Sir Gawain, Gaheris, Agravaine, Gareth, and Mordred appear in all contexts concerning Morgause, and often are the vehicle for her presence. With Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, she starts to appear more as her own entity- the context being an affair with Arthur that birthed the son Mordred. Malory ascribes some moral question to her, but beyond her affairs, she is not demonized. To the end of the affairs: there is a much-younger Arthur and a later relationship with Sir Lamorak (a peer to her sons as Knight of the Round Table, and troubling figure as the son of Lot’s killer in battle, Pellinore). The most perplexing of Morgause’s choices occurs with Arthur; it is revealed that they are half-brother and sister. Malory paints a picture of ignorance concerning Morgause’s knowledge of this incest. Earlier texts go so far as Arthur seducing a Morgause figure, realizing after Mordred is born that incest occurred.
Morgause in current literature ranges from being a conflicted woman of questionable intent to the wrench in the machine of Camelot, with accursed Mordred not far behind. Increasingly combined as one character with sister Morgan le Fey/Morgana (both ascribing to Celtic witchcraft roots), her figure gains a more central plotline- common modern threads involve Morgause heading into battle against Arthur, or seducing him in order to take over the kingdom.
Due to these modern story mixtures of Morgause, we must also examine Morgana, who is complicated in her own right. An apprentice of Merlin’s magic, in medieval literature she is known as an enchanted healer, but often Morgana is an adversary to both Arthur and his Knights. Morgause’s role concerning magic is unclear until the modern period’s marriage of her and Morgana’s traits in paganism and Celtic folklore.
Both Morgana and Morgause’s roots often traced to the ancient Welsh great mother-goddess Modron- taken from the powerful Celtic “Dea Matrona.” Parallels can be seen in this origin concerning Morgause as her main role of “mother” to many Knights. This carries further the question of manipulation of younger men in both affairs and its effect on her sons, namely Gaheris, who eventually kills her in a rage over her affair with Sir Lamorak in most medieval versions of her myth.
Morgause by Lucy Knight portrays its namesake as in the storyline of medieval texts; complicated, powerful, but without evil intent. This one act is an exploration into the psyche of motherhood, sexual ethics/agency, and the struggle of reputation while female (both before and after death). We see the moral conflictions of both Morgause as sorceress and her relationships within Camelot, while pushing the question of an audience’s reserve of judgement. What makes a “good” mother? How does purity of love affect moral boundaries (or their consequences, in the case of Mordred and Arthur)? Morgause’s tragedy is restored to its original nuance.
MORGAUSE by Lucy Knight
Directed by Marissa Skudlarek
Staged Reading on November 21, 2019 at The EXIT Theatre
Lucy Knight is thrilled to be joining the SF Olympians Festival for the first time- and from a distance. She majored in Theatre Arts at Birmingham Southern College and is rejoining the theatre world after attending the French Culinary Institute/International Culinary Center in NYC. Her path to Olympus included spending the past 7 or so years in pastry kitchens of fine dining restaurants, including Dandelion Chocolate and A16 Rockridge in the Bay Area. After traveling cross country and various stints at Husk Nashville and in NY, she has returned to Alabama, where she plans to hang up her apron to focus more intently on writing and pursue higher education.