Game of Thrones’ Melisandre compared to the Arthurian Morgan Le Fay

Morgan Le Fay is a great enchantress of Arthurian legend with the complex and ever-evolving characteristics typical of mythological figures, and it is easy to see parallels between Morgan and Melisandre’s character in Game of Thrones. George R. R. Martin may or may not have had Morgan Le Fay in mind when he was creating Melisandre, but he would have been familiar with her, and there is no doubt that both characters spring from similar founts in the Celtic mythic tradition.

Morgan Le Fay by Frederick Sandys (1864)

Where does Morgan Le Fay first come from? The character first appears in a small role in the medieval Vita Merlini (‘The Life of Merlin,’ 1150 AD) by the Norman-Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, as a sorceress attached to the The Isle of Apples (in latin: “Insula Pomorum,” which eventually becomes “Avalon.”) Morgan Le Fay appears to be a mishmash of mythic figures including the Welsh goddess Modron (‘mother.’) The first spelling of her name is ‘Morgen,’ derived from an Old Welsh/old Breton word meaning “sea-born,” later possibly transforming into the Old Irish/Christian Muirgein, a female saint who was a shapeshifter from the sea. Morgan’s epithet ‘Le Fay,’ is from the French la fee, or ‘fairy.’ Her genesis is most likely founded in the old goddesses of Welsh mythology, including the Welsh and Briton water spirits called ‘Morgens.’

In the early chivalric romances by Christian de Troyes (late 12th century), Morgan takes on the talents of a healer. Her role steadily increases through the Post-Vulgate Cycle and in Sir Thomas Malory‘s classic Le Morte d’Arthur (‘The Death of Arthur,’ 1485 AD), Morgan Le Fay has become a much larger, and much more sinister, part of the Arthurian legend: Morgan is now a half-sister to King Arthur and a former apprentice/lover of Merlin’s, and a dark nemesis to both; she also hates the Knights of the Round table and Arthur’s queen, Guinevere.

So where do we see the parallels between the characters of Melisandre and Morgan Le Fay? In Le Morte d’Arthur, Morgan is a highly sexual creature, having had affairs with Merlin himself, among others. On Game of Thrones we are familiar with Melisandre’s strategic use of her sexual attractiveness (or, her appearance of such) to try to manipulate the men (Stannis Baratheon, Jon Snow) she has an interest in.

Melisandre is akin to a shapeshifter, or at least, she uses a glamour device (necklace-spell) to radically change her physical appearance. In the early Vita Merlini, Geoffrey of Monmouth describes Morgan Le Fay and her sisters as able to shapeshift and fly, though at this point they are creatures who only do good works.

Morgan Le Fay by John R. Spencer Stanhope (1880)

The dark and evil aspects of Morgan Le Fay bubble up in tangential forms early on. The Arthurian tale Geraint son of Erbin (based on Chretien’s Erec and Enide) supplies King Arthur with a chief physician named Morgan Tud. Arthurian scholars have long debated the roots of the male character of Morgan Tud, whom many suspect is derived from Morgan Le Fay. The epithet Tud could be sourced from the Old Irish tuath, which means “sinister, wicked,” and “fairy (fay), elf.” The 12th century knight and poet Hartmann von Aue wrote his own version of Erec and Enide, and in it he introduces an undead sorceress named Famurgan (Feimurgan, Fairy Murgan) who exists “in the defiance of god” and can raise the dead.

We have seen Melisandre resurrect Jon Snow through her powers associated with R’hllor, and it is believed that Morgan Le Fay carried King Arthur’s body to Avalon in order to resurrect him at a time when England was in need of its greatest hero. In both instances, the duplicitous but powerful sorceresses eventually (and finally) prove loyal to their hero and guard him with their healing powers.

Voyage of King Arthur and Morgan le Fay to the Isle of Avalon by Frank William Warwick (1888).

As we can see, there are a number of similarities between the characters of Melisandre and various versions of Morgan Le Fay: they’re both sexually powerful, have command of shape-shifting/illusion, operate in dark magics and have the ability to resurrect the dead. And while it is fun to look at the parallels in their mythological roots, is it possible to intuit something about the future of Melisandre’s character from the mythological story arc of Morgan Le Fay? Is Melisandre to Jon Snow as Morgan Le Fay is to King Arthur?

It is interesting to note that Morgan Le Fay is partly responsible for King Arthur’s death: she deprives the king of Excalibur’s protective scabbard and without it he is killed by Mordred at the Battle of Camlann. Morgan somewhat redeems herself in the end, by returning to Arthur as he is dying and assisting the other black-hooded sorcerer queens as they take him on his final voyage to Avalon. Morgan will keep Arthur under her protection and, when the time comes, she will use her powers to resurrect him.

If Melisandre’s story follows Morgan Le Fay’s lead, then the Red Woman will once again figure large in Jon Snow’s life. Jon and Melisandre are essentially enemies now (with the harsh terms of her exile), as King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay became enemies. But, in the end of the Arthurian tale, Morgan returns to help King Arthur move into (and possibly out of) the realm of death. As obsessed as Melisandre is with her faith, it seems impossible that she is going to be able to remain apart from The Prince that was Promised for long. Could Melisandre’s fate be entwined with the heroic death of Jon Snow in the final struggle, as is Morgan Le Fay to King Arthur, and is it her destiny to help her hero embark upon his final journey into the Otherworld?

It’s all speculation, of course, but it’s lots of fun. What do you guys think?