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Not Your Shero: Merlin’s Morgana, magic, and the perils of gaslighting

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Aug 15, 2018

Everyone loves a hero, but we worship a good villain. Strong women come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, and sometimes that means looking up to a character who has no interest in being your role model. All this month, we're presenting Not Your Shero, a series that celebrates anti-heroes, villains, and all the women way too busy wreaking havoc to save you.

Morgana, Morgaine, Morgan le Fay. She has been known by many names over the centuries she’s been casting spells throughout the myths of Arthur and Camelot, but whatever name you know her by, one thing is for certain: the oft-vilified, sometimes sister of the once and future King of Albion usually gets screwed. In the process, though, she has become one of the most interesting characters in literature. In the BBC series Merlin, she is a walking, talking, hell-raising example of why you should be careful how you speak around your children. One day, they might murder you and try to raze your kingdom to the ground.

Merlin took a lot of liberties with its medieval source material, an act not uncommon for anyone adapting the popular myths of Camelot. It told the story of the rise of the fictional utopia from the perspective of a young Merlin (Colin Morgan) as he learns to use his magical abilities while serving the young Prince Arthur (Bradley James). Along for the ride are his mentor, the palace physician and former sorcerer, Gaius (Richard Wilson); palace servant, Guinevere (Angel Coulby); King Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head); and, of course, the Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath). Over the course of the series, Merlin gets to know the major players in Camelot, helps Arthur ascend the throne, and works with him to build the kingdom into the utopia of legend, realizing his destiny in the process.

But while the show was about Merlin, and therefore far more interested in his story and more sympathetic to his personal plight, Merlin’s destiny wasn’t the only one at play. As anyone who is familiar with the myths of Camelot knows, Morgana, too, possesses a magical ability, and as in the vast majority of these adaptations, her fate is diametrically opposed to Merlin’s. From the start, she is fated to be his ultimate enemy.

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Long before Merlin and Morgana face off in their ultimate battle, however, they both face the fearsome rule of Uther Pendragon and his single-minded hatred of magic and its users. Uther is responsible for the “Great Purge,” a time in which he exterminated all but the smallest vestiges of the Old Religion and his strict laws mean death for anyone caught practicing magic. Both Merlin and Morgana are painfully aware of the consequences of their existence, but where Merlin is guided and nurtured by Gaius, made not to fear his abilities but to embrace them even while he keeps them secret, Morgana is afforded no such luxury. In fact, early in the series, when Morgana first shows signs of magical ability through prophetic dreams, Gaius goes out of his way to try and convince the frightened young woman that she is foolish to think her dreams are anything more than dreams. Despite his own fears and experiences, when Merlin learns she has magic, he does not reassure her or seek to forge a bond with the other young magic user in Camelot. Instead, he tells her he will “keep her secret” and approaches her from that point forward with wary caution.

Over the next two seasons, Morgana is forced to figure out her abilities on her own, all while living with the constant angry voice of Uther both in her mind and in her daily life. She is told that magic is evil and by that merit so must she be. It is no surprise, then, that she finds friends in the Druids, a peaceful, magical race of people who are the first to ever tell her that she is not a monster and that magic is an intrinsic part of her. But Morgana cannot stay with them, and she is quickly forced to return to her life of hiding and shame and fear. Soon thereafter she is betrayed, Merlin tries to kill her, and she is rescued by the sister she was never allowed to know existed, a powerful sorceress named Morgause.

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From the moment Merlin makes her drink that poison, Morgana becomes an enemy of his and of Camelot. She learns quickly of all the ways she has been lied to (turns out that she is actually Uther’s illegitimate daughter, a secret kept to keep her from any claim to the throne), and as Morgause teaches her to use magic Morgana quickly uses it to plot the death of Uther and Arthur and the end of Camelot itself and despite her cruel intentions and evil ways, you cannot help but understand and, at least to some extent, root for her.

While, technically, the series never really presents Morgana or her actions as anything other than objectively evil and unnecessary, a combination of basic observation and Katie McGrath’s excellent performance makes it difficult to do much more than love her. She is full of violent fury and a kind of rage one only gets from a life of being lied to and threatened. She hates because she wanted so badly to be loved and the only reaction anyone ever had to her and her magic was to assume she was evil to her core.

Sometimes you cannot forgive those who wronged you. Sometimes you’ve just got to raise a little hell.

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