King Arthur's Enchantresses, by Carolyne Larrington

Spellbound and sunk by the lake ladies
Click to follow

Anna and Hermesan, Vivian and Nimue, Morgause and Morcades, Iseult, Isidore and Igraine: King Arthur's extended family was full of names to conjure with. Carolyne Larrington's scholarly and fascinating study of Arthurian enchantresses offers a refreshingly different take on the age of Merlin and Mordred, Guinevere and Lancelot. Arthur was, it seems, more or less related to a positive coven of enchantresses, some benign, some malign. Innumerable ladies of, in and by lakes slip into and out of his family circle in the earliest romances.

The modernising mind of Sir Thomas Malory dispenses with most of them in Le Morte Darthur, offering only a brief glimpse of dark-robed sisters rowing the dying king to the enchanted isle of Avalon. But he immortalised the two most memorable of them, both daughters of Arthur's mother Igraine by her first husband. Morgause, Queen of Orkney, is mother of Gawain, Gaheris, Agravaine and Gareth by King Lot, all notable Knights of the Round Table. Then, on what Malory calls a spying mission, she sleeps with her half-brother and gives birth to Mordred, who will engineer Arthur's downfall. Morgan le Fay is mightier and more mysterious, the sister from hell who takes violently against both Arthur and Guinevere with violent jealousy, and will stop at nothing to do them down.

Now we can enrich our understanding of her motives, and of references both in Malory and Victorian legends of Arthur and Merlin. Larrington carefully traces their careers and those of the many other women of power who used their subtle charms both to aid and to frustrate Arthur's knights.

The enchantresses cunningly used the rules of courtesy and chivalry to trap them into "rash promises", and laid down impossible challenges. The most spectacular and unfair was magicked up by Morgan le Fay: a "Val Sans Retour", which no man who has ever been unfaithful to his lady love in deed, word or (and here's the rub) thought can ever leave again. Only Lancelot, who has never deviated from his secret devotion to Guinevere, succeeds in breaking the spell. But that raises Morgan's curiosity and leads to their downfall.

What makes these legends the more fascinating is the psychological truths they contain: how siblings deal with each other, how family loyalties become subordinate to political ambition or individual greed, how men and women vary emotionally and intellectually. It is also, in a sense, a history of men's attitudes to women, as Morgan changes from studious healer and white witch to malign fairy and necromancer.

Out of favour during puritan times and the science-obsessed Enlightenment, the legends of Arthur's enchantresses were reintroduced into the popular imagination by Victorian and European romantics. Over the last two centuries they have been mined for poems, paintings, novels, films and comics. Larrington deftly displays how Tennyson and William Morris, Mark Twain and TH White, Camelot 3000 and Spamalot all used more or less obsure versions of the Arthurian legends to tell tales fit for our own times. There are rich pickings here for those who enjoy wandering the lesser-known regions of faery.

Christina Hardyment's 'Malory' is published by HarperPerennial