Book review: The Mists of Avalon
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Recommended.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley is a retelling of Arthurian legend through the eyes of the women surrounding Arthur. This sounds simple enough, but before this one is over, you’ll need a scorecard to remember who is kin to whom and how. Once you figure that out, you’ll want to learn more about the effects of inbreeding, since there is plenty of it here.
Viviane is Lady of the Lake and of Avalon, a mystical island that only those with the Sight can find in the Mists; to those not gifted, it is merely an island with a Christian church and monastery. Taliesen is the Merlin of Britain, the messenger of the [Druid] gods. Viviane’s half-sister and Taliesen’s daughter, Igraine, is married off to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and in due course gives birth to a daughter, Morgaine. She also is foster mother to her younger sister (half-sister) Morgause, a teenage girl who has the combined gift of great ambition and little conscience and who will play a key role later. The young Igraine resents deeply how Viviane manipulates her, first into marriage with the much-older Gorlois. Later, Viviane’s prediction, which Igraine also resents, that Igraine will fall for Uther Pendragon, comes true. Uther becomes High King after the death of Ambrosius, Gorlois rebels against him, and Igraine conceives Uther’s son, Gwydion, or Arthur, the night before Gorlois’ death. Arthur, as we know, is fated to become The Once and Future King in the Matter of Britain.
The story is not so much about Arthur or Morgaine as about the struggle between paganism and the rise of Christianity, with Arthur as Christian king and Morgaine as pagan priestess. Arthur is installed in a pagan ceremony that leaves Morgaine pregnant with his only son, Mordred — who in this rendering never plays quite the key role assigned him in other Arthurian tales. The plot points pretty much follow the tradition — Arthur marries Guinevere, who has an affair with Lancelot, who ends up married to Elaine. Meanwhile, Viviane is killed, leaving a void in the office of the Lady of the Lake — an office that will be filled, more or less, by another daughter of Taliesen.
Bradley’s sympathies toward the pagans (the feminine) are evident as Morgaine takes over Viviane’s mission of trying to turn Arthur and Britain away from Christianity (the masculine) and back toward the Goddess. As the tale progresses, however, Morgaine becomes an increasingly ruthless and unsympathetic figure, while Arthur appears to be doing what is expedient for Britain; he even manages to make peace with and convert several Saxon kings. Morgaine is too single-minded and fanatical to listen to the counsel of the Druid who becomes Merlin after Taliesen’s death, Kevin, and eventually punishes him for his “betrayal” of the Goddess.
In the end, Arthur may die, but his legacy was already set, as many had already told Morgaine. She leaves her own legacy — a trail of the murders and the deaths of nearly everyone important to her, including two of her lovers and Lancelot’s daughter. Only at the very end does she realise she has lost; Christianity has won. Perhaps this was the way the Goddess wished it, after all, although the price she pays to learn this is very high indeed. She also learns that she has always had the love of a great man, the man who was son, brother, and lover to her — Arthur, King of the Britons.
The Mists of Avalon is a worthy addition to the Arthurian cycle, especially since it takes into account what must have been a very real struggle between the old pagans of Britain and the new Christianity of Rome. The plot is intricate and imaginative, the characters are well drawn (if erratic), there are a few moments of subtlety and beautifully written prose, and there is enough fantasy to make one wonder if there really is a supernatural intervention throughout. Even the lost continent of Atlantis is worked into the tale. Highly recommended for Arthurians and fans of science fiction/fantasy. But don’t forget that scorecard.
6 January 2001
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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