The Mists of Avalon. Marion Zimmer Bradley

What goes on in the shadows?

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: 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 reimagines of the Arthur Legend from the perspective of the women behind the throne. These include Viviane, Gwenhwyfar, Morgaine, and Igraine, all the women instrumental in creating Camelot. When Bradley’s book debuted it caused a  shockwave. No one had written a novel about the Arthur legend through a feminine perspective.

 Another key subplot involves the tension between the fall of Druidism and the rise of Christianity in Medieval England. This tension underlies a majority of the drama and philosophical discussion in the narrative. As the women exhibit different moral beliefs than a majority of the men some interesting events occur do to this disconnect

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” where she foresees Britain united under a high king. This high king will remain true to Avalon and champion the old religion over Christianity. To bring this vision about, Viviane chooses Igraine to birth this new king.

Morgaine, Igraine’s daughter, is trained to succeed Viviane as the next high priestess of Avalon. This plan go awry when Morgaine, a priestess-virgin, is chosen as the tribute to be deflowered by Arthur in his pagan coming-of-age ritual. Morgaine falls pregnant, which causes concern as Arthur is her half-brother. Neither one knew of this relation until afterwards. In a desperate fit of self-preservation, Morgaine flees Avalon, forsakes her High Priestess training, and sows the seeds for tragedy. From here on out the narrative follows the traditional Arthur Legend.

Gwenhwyfar, the Christian Queen, sets in motion the demise of Camelot. She becomes distraught over her infertility and lust over Lancelot. At her urging, Arthur flies the banner of the Cross and Virgin and uses the Goddess’s Holy Regalia in a Christian mass. They hope these actions will help Gwenhwyfar conceive an heir. This horrifies Viviane and triggers immense backlash throughout the realm. The Goddess takes revenge and scatters Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table on a quest for the elusive Holy Grail. This breaks apart Camelot and causes the decline of Arthur.

In most adaptations of the Arthur Legend, Mogan le Fay (Morgaine) is generally portrayed as a one-dimensional pagan witch. Bradley presents Morgaine as a woman with a unique gift in a time of political and spiritual upheaval. She defends her beliefs and matriarchal heritage in the face of a rapidly changing society. There are two sides to every story and Morgaine probably never saw herself as a villain, just underappreciated. Bradley chose to rewrite the legend 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 main narrative.

All the jousts and battles are included, along with the familiar lustful romance: Gwenhwyfar’s love for Lancelot and Arthur; Arthur’s love for Gwenhwyfar and 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 both 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.  

The Mists of Avalon, Ballantine Books, 1984, ISBN  9780345350497