Morgan is My Name by Sophie Keetch

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Review by Annabel

In a publishing world that has been fairly swamped by feminist retellings of the heroines and heroes of the Ancient Greek myths, much as I enjoy reading them, it is a delight to encounter a fresh look at Arthurian legend, seen through the eyes of Morgan le Fay, who is traditionally seen as the antiheroine of the story.

Morgan is My Name is the first in a planned trilogy about the sorceress, taking us from her childhood up until she escapes her arranged marriage to start a new life. It begins in Cornwall with a brief prologue where Morgan tells us of her birth at the height of a storm. Then we jump seven years into the narrative proper. Morgan is the youngest of three sisters, and she is being teased about her name by ten-years-old Elaine and the oldest, Morgause.

‘I mean,’ Elaine added, ‘it’s quite obviously a boy’s name.’

‘It isn’t,’ I retorted. Since I’m not a boy.’ I had not long turned seven and was increasingly disinclined to endure insults.

‘Father wishes you had been,’ Morgause said from across the room. Remote and beautiful, nine years my superior, our elder sister sat gazing out of the window, cloaked in disdain for childish things. […]

Morgause rose and drifted across, regarding us down her delicate nose. ‘Morgana is neither a lady nor even a person. She’s half fox cub, found by Sir Bretel under a blackberry bush and taken in as a kindness by Mother and Father. ‘

‘That is not my name.’

That quote sets up the relationships between the sisters perfectly. Morgause will soon marry, of course. Morgan, as youngest, is indeed indulged in what her sisters would call tomboyish pursuits by her father Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, who takes her out hawking. But it is on the night that her father dies in battle that Morgan witnesses something that will change her life ‘a sudden wrongness in the air’ that King Uther glamoured by Merlin to appear as Gorlois coming to bed Igraine. (I still giggle when I think of that scene in Excalibur where Uther beds Igraine as Gorlois with his armour on).

We all know that Arthur will be born of this unholy union, whisked away by Merlin and Ninianne, the sisters and King Uther told he was stillborn. Morgause and Elaine will soon be wed, and Morgan’s turn as a teenager now is fast approaching. She hates Uther with a vengeance, and he her, and she knows he will try to force her to marry. She, meanwhile, is enamoured of a young French squire, Accolon of Gaul, who often chaperones her when she is out and about, and having lessons with the priest in the chapel on the cliffs at Tintagel. That all comes to an end, unhappily, and Morgan manages to stall the marriage question by moving with her maid Alys to the Abbey where she continues her studies with the Abbess, a noted herbalist. It is here that Morgan realises she has healing powers and she relishes in occasionally using them secretly alongside her growing herbal and other knowledge, having discovered a grimoire hidden in the depths of the abbey’s library.

Uther eventually forces her to marry King Urien of Gore from the north of England, who, initially at least, tries to be a good husband, although he will not hear of her healing and being a midwife for lowly folk.

Alongside Morgan’s story is, of course, the rise of Arthur to become King of England after Uther’s death, and the revelations that he is Uther’s son. Half-brother and half-sister get along really well, Morgan making any excuse to travel to Camelot, where she will cultivate Merlin for his knowledge, even though she hates him for what he did. Her relationship with Urien deteriorates too, despite their finally having a son, Yvain, when she discovers his long-term mistress.

This first volume ends with Morgan on the cusp of a new life, escaped from her marriage, free to develop her nascent powers and wreak her revenge on those who had wronged her.

I apologise for the rather full synopsis, but it is essential to uncover the events in Morgan’s childhood, adolescence and early adulthood that formed her. From sibling rivalries to sisterhood with her servants, from multiple betrayals by men in power, and of power in Merlin’s case, and her friendship with her half-brother who is valiantly bringing the separate kingdoms together under one ruler, this young woman is determined to buck the trend, she is not content to be the trophy wife. In particular, she yearns for knowledge, and how to control the powers that she knows she has. This, alongside her desire to not to succumb to the patriarchy any more, will lead her on a dangerous path in the following parts of the trilogy.

Given that this volume covers childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, Keetch manages the transitions in the girl’s life really well. By the time she is married to Urien, Morgan, thanks in part to her education, is already mature for her age with a superior intellect and that strong feistiness running in her veins. Keetch’s writing is engaging from the first page to the last, dripping with atmosphere in place and events, and full of details from Arthurian literature’s source material.

My previous experience of Morgan as the protagonist of Arthurian fiction was Marian Zimmer Bradley’s doorstop novel from the mid-1980s, The Mists of Avalon, which, having read it upon its publication nearly forty years ago, is faint in my memory, although I remember loving it at the time. It was certainly time for a fresh feminist take on Arthurian literature and that time period, and Keetch joins Lucy Holland, whose post-Arthurian novel Sistersongs was a delight, reviewed here; indeed, Holland provides a quote for the cover of Morgan is my Name, and has a new novel out this autumn.

It will be truly fascinating to see which in directions Keetch will take her heroine next – I can’t wait to read the second part.

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Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny New Books – and a self-confessed Arthurian obsessive.

Sophie Keetch, Morgan is My Name (Magpie, 2023) 978-0861545193, 350pp., hardback.

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2 comments

  1. This does sound wonderful! I can think of other memorable portrayals of Morgan in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, and of course The Once and Future King – but not sympathetic ones.

  2. Ooh that does sound good! Yes, I thought of the Sutcliff, too, and the Zimmer Bradley.

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