1. Morgan Le Fay, aka Morgaine, aka Morgana, etc.
Read about her in: Just about anything that treats with Arthurian legend, and that’s a lot. Just to skim the surface here, you’ll find her in the Vita Merlini (Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1150), if that’s your sort of thing, or Le Morte d’Arthur (Sir Thomas Malory, 1485), or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (unknown author, 14th century). More recently she turns up in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain, 1889), Ink and Steel (Elizabeth Bear, 2008) and, most famously of all, The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1982). There’s more, but that will get you started.
Where she: Aids, guides, and/or thwarts her half-brother King Arthur and his knights, depending on the tradition and the tale.
Why we love her: There are as many Morgans as there are Arthurian tales — sometimes good, sometimes evil, often enigmatic, never boring. She’s a feminist favorite, representing female power, sexuality, and spirituality with a Celtic twist; indeed, her name is etymologically related to that of the Morrigan, a Celtic triple goddess who reclaimed men’s souls after they died in battle. Plus, she actually has an atmospheric phenomenon named after her, the rare mirage known as the Fata Morgana. And how many literary characters can say that?
Who else loves her? Depends on what you’re reading. Traditionally, she’s married to King Uriens, who adores her but is too old to keep up with her, so she hooks up with one Accolon of Gaul (Uriens’ son, in at least some retellings). That ends about as well as you would expect it to. In the Vulgate Cycle [c. 1215-c.1235], Morgan has an affair with Guinevere’s cousin, Guiomar; this also ends badly for all concerned (particularly for Guinevere: Morgan retaliates for Guinevere’s interference by ratting out Guinevere and Lancelot’s liaison). Also, in some but not all versions of the Arthur legend, Morgan and Arthur are the parents of the evil Mordred… did we mention up above that Arthur is her half-brother? Yeah, thought so.
On screen: How much time do you have here? Morgan has appeared on screen countless times since the early 1920s and has been portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, Joanna Lumley, Catherine Oxenberg, Jean Marsh, Helen Mirren, Candice Bergen, and Myrna Loy, among many, many others. A filmed version of The Mists of Avalon appeared on television in 2001, starring Julianna Margulies as the adult Morgaine. Morgan has also popped up in some of the last places in episodic television that you’d expect, including Stargate SG-1 (where she is an Ascended Ancient, naturally), Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and – um — MacGyver. Irish actress Katie McGrath portrayed Morgana in the BBC series Merlin, Alice Krige played an evil incarnation in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, opposite Nicolas Cage. Morgan has also been featured in comics galore (she’s a foe of Spider-Man) and lots of art, and at least one clothing line is named after her.
For this is the thing the priests do not know, with their One God and their One Truth: that there is no such thing as a true tale. Truth has many faces and the truth is like the old road to Avalon; it depends on your own will, and your own thought, whither the road will take you, and whether, at the end, you arrive in the Holy Isle of Eternity or among priests with their bells and their death and their Satan and their Hell and damnation… but perhaps I am unjust even to them.”
— The Mists of Avalon (1982)