Themes Explored: Arthur Legend, magic, identity, fantasy, lore, witchcraft, historical fiction, mythology, romance, feminism, skepticism, incest, druidism, old ways, early Christianity, cultural identity, mysticism, loyalty, betrayal, kingship, masculinity
Synopsis: Here is the magical legend of King Arthur, vividly retold through the eyes and lives of the women who wielded power from behind the throne. Here is the tragic tale of the rise and fall of Camelot – but seen through the eyes of Camelot’s women: the devout Gwenhwyfar, Arthur’s queen; Viviane, high priestess of Avalon and Lady of the Lake; above all, Morgaine, possessor of the Sight, the wise-woman fated to bring ruin on them all… (From Goodreads)
Review: The Mists of Avalon is a reimagining of the Arthur Legend. Instead of focusing on the male perspective, Marion Zimmer Bradley tells the legend from the perspective of the women behind the throne. These include Viviane, Gwynyfar, Morgaine, and Igraine, all the women instrumental in creating the legendary Camelot. When Bradley’s book debuted it caused a bit of a shockwave. No other author had written a novel about the Arthur legend through a feminine perspective. Another key perspective is the exploration of the fall of Druidism and the rise of Christianity in Medieval England. The tension between a falling and rising religion underlie a majority of the drama and philosophical discussion in the narrative. And the female characters exhibit a different moral lens than a majority of the men, so some interesting events occur do to this disconnect. I infinitely prefer Bradley’s reimagining to Mary Stewarts, which I will review at a later date.
In this novel, Viviane is the Lady of the Lake, High Priestess of Avalon, and sister of the Lady Igraine. One day the Great Goddess grants Viviane a vision and she foresees Britain united in peace under a high king. This high king will remain true to Avalon and always follow in the old religion of Pagan Goddess worship while only tolerating the new religion that is sweeping cross the land. To bring this vision about, Viviane chooses Igraine to birth the forseen king. Morgaine, Igraine’s daughter, is trained to succeed Viviane as the next high priestess of Avalon. However, things go awry when Morgaine is chosen as the priestess-virgin to be deflowered by Arthur in a pagan coming-of-age ritual. Everyone is horrified when Morgaine become pregnant, especially since Arthur is her half-brother. In a desperate fit of self-preservation, Morgraine flees Avalon, forsakes her role as High Priestess in training, and sows the seeds for tragedy. From here on out the narrative follows the more traditional Arthur Legend.
Gwynyfar, the Christian Queen, sets in motion the demise of Camelot. She is distraught over her bareness and love for Lancelot. Under Gwynyfar’s urging, Arthur flies the banner of the Cross and Virgin and uses the Goddess’s Holy Regalia in a Christian mass. They both hope these actions will help Gwynyfar conceive the longed for heir. This horrifies Viviane and causes immense backlash throughout the realm. However, the Goddess takes revenge and appears before the Round Table and scatters the Knight’s on a quest for the elusive Holy Grail. This essentially breaks apart Camelot and triggers the decline of Arthur. Though this is an ironic twist, the Goddess’ holiest vision inspires one of the most famous quests in Christian legend.
In most adaptations of the Arthur Legend, Mogan le Fay is generally cast as a one-dimensional evil witch. And her antagonism towards the Round Table is never explained. Bradley presents Morgaine as a woman with a unique set of gifts in a time of political and spiritual upheaval. She is called upon to defend her beliefs and her matriarchal heritage in the face of increasingly impossible odds. Morgaine is usually cast as the antagonist; this novel places her as a secondary protagonist. There are two sides to every story and Morgaine probably never saw herself as a villain, just underappreciated. This novel is definitely a feminist interpretation of a normally male centered tale. Bradley chose to rewrite the myth by fully articulating the experiences of the women during times of cultural change and tensions about gender roles in society. King Arthur’s feuds, battles, quests, and prophecies round out the underlying subplots but are definitely secondary to the story of the women.
All the jousts and battles are still included in the narrative. And the familiar romance and sexual desire: Gwynyfar’s love for Lancelot and Arthur; Arthur’s love for Gwynyfar and sexual lust for Morgaine; and Morgaine’s love for her son and Lancelot. The Goddess, apparently, has no prohibitions against incest or hemophilia. Morgaine eventually learns that she is actually the Goddess and the Fairy Queen. This actually pays homage to the 14th Century tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In that poem the ending reveals the Morgaine had schemed to test Gawain’s chastity and to dampen Arthur’s pride. In a sense The Mists of Avalon merely pulls the curtains off of Arthur’s Legend and shows all the players in the background pulling strings. The novel is long, but the pacing is great and the narrative never drags. It is one of my favorite novelizations of the Arthur Legend.
The Mists of Avalon, Ballantine Books, 1984, ISBN 9780345350497