The Mists of Avalon

A recurring theme/love interest in my life is Arthurian literature. I’ll read Arthurian lit in just about any incarnation. So it seems appropriate that the first book review I post here is for what may well be my all time favorite book.
The Mists of Avalon
by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Reviewed by KM
Morgaine speaks…
Probably my all-time favorite first line of a book. What wonderful potential is there in the statement! From the time I first picked up Mists of Avalon as a 12 year old girl, I read that line and was hooked. And thankfully so.
Mists of Avalon is a wonderful, feminist approach to the legend of King Arthur. It is told from the point of view of the women behind the throne, mainly Morgaine, Arthur’s half sister. It takes the legend and places it in a more historical context, placing more focus on political and religious concepts than on magic. The clash between the Old Religion of the Druids and the new religion of Christianity is central to the plot. It is sad to see how the Old Ways were forced to the side, how intolerance and inflexibility caused catastrophic damage to the society. In that way, I suppose not much has changed since the days of post-Roman Britain and today.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic or ridiculous, Mists of Avalon was actually a life-changing book for me. I read it for the first time when I was about 12, and it was the very first time I learned there was ever such a thing as goddess worship. Up until that point, I was so ignorant about religions that I thought the only ones were Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It introduced me to goddess worship, which led me to Wicca, which I practiced for several years before finding my eventual way to atheism, which is now the most natural worldview for me. So in this respect, Mists of Avalon helped me alter my whole approach to humanity and the world I live in.
I initially read Mists of Avalon because I have always enjoyed Arthurian legend. I came to love it because of the beautiful female characters, the imagery, the description of the old religion. Morgaine and Viviane are both formidable and wise. It was fascinating to see the evolution of their relationship, and the development of Morgaine’s skills as a priestess. Much of what we know abut Druidism has been lost, or is found in the annals of Roman archives. We all know what victors do to the vanquished and how they depict their societies after a conquest, so Roman accounts must be taken with a large grain of salt. But Bradley was able to flesh out the religion of the Druids in a beautiful, believable way. Whether it is how it actually was is something we will likely never fully understand. In this case, it is irrelevant as her portrayal of the religion is perfect for the story she has to tell.
Morgaine and Viviane are both central to the idea that women held places of importance in older societies. This is fairly well known, and Celtic women were respected in their societies. Morgaine goes from a role of high priestess, revered by her people, to a second class citizen, called harlot and witch by the patriarchal society of Christianity. Theirs is the role of past times, slowly being pushed away by new ideas and cultures, fading into the mists for good or ill. It makes my heart break every time to know how often this very thing has happened to so many cultures over time. How fiercely the people must have clung to their ways, how frightening to become irrelevant. And how angry to be viewed as obsolete or wrong simply because something new comes along and demands to be viewed as the one true path. As a reader, I feel all of these things when I read Morgaine’s tale. I connected with her as a woman and lover of history. I empathized with her as a human being.
Gwenhwyfar is a study in neurosis. She started out as a timid child. She apparently also suffered some kind of agoraphobia. I can only imagine how difficult such an affliction would have been to a person in any earlier times, let alone a woman who was by birth destined to marry highly and have many heavy responsibilities. I often wonder when I read Mists of Avalon if her adamant refusal to tolerate the Old Religion is because it is one of the only ways she has to exert any kind of control over Arthur. He knew his duty to the Tribes but abandoned it in favor of his wife’s pleas to do battle under a Christian flag. Whether she was able to truly convince him to convert, or if he just did it to keep some semblance of peace in his house is open to debate. I think he went along with her to keep her happy, and later was carried more by the inertia of his decision than any genuine belief.
I always enjoyed, too, the different spins on some of the generally accepted Arthurian themes. The idea that Morgaine (sometimes Morgan Le Fay and sometimes Morgause in other versions) intentionally tricked Arthur into fathering her child is turned on its head in Mists of Avalon. I really liked Bradley’s spin on this, and the fallout that happened because of it. Also, her take on chivalry is interesting and well suited to the tale.
After reading Mists of Avalon, all other Arthurian legends, including the original Malory, seem incorrect to me. This is the standard by which I judge all other Arthurian novels. I can’t recommend it highly enough to lovers of the genre, especially if you are interested in a feminist take on it.

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