Lady of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. New York: The Penguin Group, 1998. 380 pages.
Lady of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley picks up where The Forest House ended. Avalon has been established under the leadership of high priestess Caillean in the shadow of the holy Tor and close to the Christian brotherhood at Inis Witrin. The first book follows Eilan’s son Gawen and his contribution to Avalon, the second establishes Avalon’s active role in the politics and future of Britannia, and the third focuses on characters familiar to Arthurians — Vortigern, Vortimer, Viviane, and Taliesin and the Merlin of Britain.
Although the mythology and history are rich, the material is squandered in these nearly plotless, barely connected stories. While Avalon tries to preserve the degenerated wisdom that remained when Atlantis sank into the ocean, the world is being torn apart by the oppression and instability of empire and waves of barbarian invasions. Caillean, Gawen, and the daughter of the fairy queen, Sianna, save Avalon, then their successors extend its influence outward to manipulate kings, princes, and military leaders. In spite of the sacrifices and losses, Britannia seems no better off; Rome clings to it, and the barbarians keep coming. There are important victories, but they seem contrived when the goddess is called on to frighten off the Saxons, and they do little more than provide a break in the onslaught. The plots are so minimal and the useless details so many that it’s not clear to what extent Britannia’s rebelliousness and vulnerability contributed to Rome’s decline and fall.
The goddess religion of Avalon is murky at best. Unlike in The Mists of Avalon and The Forest House, the magic here is unquestionably real; the visions are not drug-induced hallucinations, and priestesses invoke the goddess to deter the enemy. The “ancient wisdom” seems to be centered on the power of the earth (focused along leys), the seasons, and reincarnated souls like Gawen, Sianna, Dierna, and Carausius. Practice of the religion is as ordered and artificial as the rule of Rome, with strict rules and elaborate rituals that owe more to the human predilection for control than to the concept of nature and the earth. Even the most natural of emotions and acts, love and non-ritual sex, are forbidden. Young men and women are drawn to Avalon, but their passion is poorly articulated, especially when they cannot know the mysteries revealed during training and initiation. There is nothing special about the character or intelligence of the many of the Druids and priestesses called to Avalon; why are they singled out to preserve the ancient wisdom and mysteries?
While the plots and the secondary characters are weak, the real problem is that so many of the primary characters are selfish and unlikable. Gawen, the “Pendragon” and “Son of a Hundred Kings,” from beginning to end is unremarkable, displaying predictable rebelliousness and nobility at the expected moments. He is so susceptible to suggestion that “the priest’s words had tainted the Druid ways as well.” Dramatically and childishly, he exclaims, “You both want to possess me, but my soul is my own! . . . I am leaving to seek my kin of Rome!” His soul mate, Sianna, has no more personality than Waterwalker, whose role is to pole the Avalon barge. High priestess Dierna does not seek the obvious path, proving the fairy queen’s point: “But I do not know what the purpose is, exactly, and if I did, I would not be allowed to speak of it; for it is often in working for or in avoiding a prophecy that people do the very things they should not.” We are told that Teleri, who is weak, pliant, and passive, is destined to become high priestess of Avalon; why would the goddess, the Druids, and the priestesses choose someone so unsuitable for such a position? At her worst, high priestess Ana is egotistical and petty, especially with regard to her daughter, Viviane. Is it Ana or the goddess who says, “I would gain nothing. I already have everything.”?
For reasons that are never explained, the enigmatic fairy queen insists that her daughter become a priestess of Avalon, and it is her line whose members impose their will on events rather than that of the goddess, proving their human side stronger than their role as conductor of magic. Of all the major characters, only Caillean, Taliesin, and perhaps Carausius are likable, revealing both human weaknesses and a greater wisdom. Although it is strongly hinted that Carausius is a reincarnation of Gawen’s soul, they are different enough that it raises the question of what these souls are and why only certain ones return again and again, while others are “once born.” The whims of the god and goddess, as channeled through these souls and through the Druids and priestesses, appear to be as illogical as those of any human.
Without a solid plot driven by strong, sympathetic characters, Lady of Avalon lacks the touches of historical and magical drama that made The Forest House at least interesting. Although the novel reveals some of the reasons for the decline of Avalon and the goddess religion, Lady of Avalon adds little essential to The Mists of Avalon.
29 June 2008
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf