The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Recommended.
If a book or movie is successful, you can expect a sequel. In the case of The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley had begun with the culmination of the Arthurian tale — Arthur’s rule and death. With little of mythological interest to tell after Arthur, Bradley turns to his ancestors for her first prequel.
The Forest House, set primarily during the rule of Domitian (81–96 CE), is the tale of two people and two peoples. First, there is Gaius/Gawen, son of a high-ranking Roman official and his now-deceased Briton wife, and Eilan, daughter of an influential Druid, granddaughter of the Arch-Druid, and aspiring priestess. They represent the invading Romans and the native Britons of many tribes and lived in a world that is changing.
The Roman empire, overextended and increasingly dependent on its provinces for manpower, is on the decline. Briton, defeated but rebellious, is making its last stand. At the same time, the exotic Eastern religion of Christianity is taking followers from Rome’s patriarchal and Britannia’s matriarchal pagan beliefs. Like the Romans and Britons themselves, these religions coexist under an uneasy truce; as Joseph of Arimathea tells the priestess Caillean, “Surely then you know all the gods are one God,” which she completes with, “and all the goddesses one Goddess.”
While the Arch-Druid and the old High Priestess Lhiannon, together with Gaius’s father Macellius, contrive to keep the peace, Eilan’s father, Bendeigid, and her foster brother, Cynric, who is the result of Roman atrocities against the priestesses of Mona, want both to exact revenge on the Romans and to drive them off their island. Against this setting, the ambitious Gaius and the equally ambitious Eilan meet and fall in love.
Bradley sets up the history well, with touches that show how Britannia has slowly but inevitably succumbed to civilization. As one character notes, it has been decades since wolf- or bearskins have been available in the marketplace. Bradley establishes a good sense of time and place, although Caillean’s story of her indifferent mother with too many children to care for seems to introduce modern sensibilities.
The characters and the plot seem more influenced by soap operas than by history or realism. Neither Gaius nor Eilan appears to be a well-developed, consistent character; in fact, the senior priestess Caillean is the only complex character whose beliefs are clear and whose behavior follows them. The Arch-Druid, Ardanos, wishes peaces at all costs, but the motivation for the strength of his conviction, which leads him to suggests killing his own descendants, is never clear.
The most puzzling aspect of The Forest House is the practice of the goddess religion and its role in keeping the peace. Neither Ardanos nor Bendeigid seem particularly faithful to it, and Caillean and many of the priestesses know that Ardanos changes the goddess’s message delivered through the oracle of the High Priestess when he translates it for the common people. Bradley makes much of the Arch-Druid’s manipulation of the oracle, whether delivered by Lhiannon or his granddaughter Eilan, but does not offer any detail about what he changes, why it angers Caillean and others, or why the goddess allows it. Ardanos is painted as manipulative and shady, but without details it is difficult to judge him or what he does. Only once does the goddess bypass him, and it is to state the obvious — that the world is changing, and that the Roman and British people will become one whether they wish it or not.
As in The Mists of Avalon, Bradley refers obliquely to Atlantis. She also mentions the idea that Caillean, Eilan, and Gaius have lived before and will live again, but the significance is never revealed, unless it is meant to explain Arthur as the once and future king. Without a story of Arthur’s return, however, this seems an insignificant plot point that is given more significance than it seems to warrant.
At some point, the plot comes to a halt and struggles for some time. Events happen that are necessary to expedite the conclusion, but they take a long time to unfold and are not interesting on their own. Eilan talks about the importance of her “work” at the Forest House, which seems to be primarily to speak at the festivals for the goddess, who is reinterpreted anyway. Gaius marries, has children, travels, and meets influential people; this part of the story seems especially protracted and tedious. As they grow older, both Eilan and Gaius become more self-righteous and less likable so that, by the end, I found it difficult to care about the fate of either one. It is the Irish Caillean, who is sent to establish a new home at Avalon, who remains interesting and true to herself.
The Forest House is a pleasurable but disappointing novel that offers few surprises and, unlike The Mists of Avalon, adds little of note or interest to the Arthurian legend.
1 June 2006
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf