I, Morgana by Felicity Pulman
I, Morgana is a new interpretation of the King Arthur story, and a rich new addition to the much-loved (and hotly debated) canon. Morgana, the daughter of a king, half sister of Arthur and a powerful presence in her own right, has been portrayed in so many different ways over the years, from evil witch to heroine priestess and everything in between, and most readers are invested in their own preferred version. This can make her tricky to bring to life, but Felicity Pulman has succeeded in creating a character and a book that remain true to the myth, while bringing new energy and new perspective to it.
Told from her point of view, this Morgana is closer to the vengeful, ambition-fuelled king’s daughter of TV’s recent Camelot series, determined to take the throne she sees as hers at any cost, than the wise priestess of The Mists of Avalon, whose motivation seemed more about the protection of goddess spirituality against the rising tide of Christianity than her own personal power. But while I have a soft spot for the latter, there is no less magic or complexity in this tale.
Recounted by Morgana as an old woman filled with bitterness and regret, the story opens when she is a child, and she is revealed as clever, loving and strong, aware of her destiny and joyously embracing it. Her relationship with Merlin and their lessons together are a delight to read; her shapeshifting into other creatures beautifully written and evocative. She is a dutiful daughter, who takes her promise to succeed her father on the throne very seriously, and a loving big sister to an infant Arthur. Yet as she grows up she becomes twisted by what she sees as betrayal – by Merlin, by her mother, by her brother, even by the times in which she lives – and is transformed into a ruthless and cruel woman, unleashing chaos as a result of her desperation to rule, and responsible for all the tragedy that befalls both herself and the kingdom. This Morgana is much harder to love and empathise with than other versions of the character – she is selfish, arrogant, hard hearted and vengeful, the sole architect of her own unhappiness – but there are hints that she is not totally beyond redemption, in her love for Launcelot and her children, and her desire to help the mysterious woman she sees in the scrying pool, so in the end she is deeply flawed yet fully realised and compelling.
Felicity Pulman’s first adult novel is ambitious in scope, with new angles to the familiar story, new relationships between familiar characters and new motivations for familiar events, as well as fascinating new twists, such as Morgana’s ability to transport herself to other worlds, the possibility of travelling through time to save the past as well as the future, and a daughter conflicted between magic and religion. It is a beautiful, magical story that sweeps you away into another time and another world, and I was sad when it ended – but I’m very happy that the author has begun work on a sequel…