The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The story of King Arthur, but with a twist. The story is told – at long last – from the woman’s point of view. All I can say about that is, it was about time.

The book is huge. I once had it open on the bar and a bar patron came over, leaned his nose close to the page for a moment or two, looked up at me, squinting, and said seriously: “Is that the Bible?”

It is not. But it does cover three generations. Morgan Le Fay(really named Morgaine) the bad girl of the Arthur legend, is our heroine. As she navigates her way from child to woman to High Priestess of the Holy Isle of Avalon, she tells the story of King Arthur and his knights from her perspective. The story is one of a King put on a throne by the scheming of Avalon. In Avalon, they worship the Goddess, but in Christian Britain, the gradual spread of the worship of only one God is seen as a threat.

The Merlin (he’s always called ‘THE Merlin”, not “Merlin”, because apparently, Merlin is the name for the High Druid of Avalon. There’s a High Druid and a High Priestess. Got it? Good.) So the Merlin and the High Priestess, Viviane, arrange for Ingraine (mother of Morgaine) to meet Urther Pendragon and the two of them get together and create Arthur; daughter of the Holy Isle and the King of Britain bearing a child to rule both lands equally…that’s the idea. And a fine idea it is, until the fates take a hand and everything goes terribly caterwampus.  I think what the real key of the book might be is that Ingraine’s first marriage is something of a mistake, and therefore Morgaine is sort of the bane of the story. If she hadn’t been born, Arthur would not have become the legend he turned into. He would have been beloved and all that, but probably just died of old age, with no complications about religious principles. So focusing on Morgaine, you really see why the story went the way it did.

But Ingraine did get married at fifteen to the Duke of Cornwall, and as a result, Morgaine is Arthur’s half-sister and eventual prime foe in the matter of the Christian God versus the Goddess. It all kicks into gear whenViviane comes to Ingraine and Arthur’s court and discovers that Morgaine has the Sight…the old Scotland second sight….and she takes Morgaine back to Avalon to start training her to eventually become High Priestess. Arthur is put in the care of a foster family, to protect him from unsavory people after the throne, and the sister and brother don’t see each other for years.

It’s in Avalon where you learn that the road to being a priestess is not particularly fun, but all in all, it’s better than being married or in an convent. (The only two options for women in those days) Morgaine learns all about the Mysteries, gets painted with a half moon on her forehead, and just when she’s feeling secure about her future as Lady of the Lake, she meets Lancelot, Viviane’s son, and falls in love with him.

All the women fall in love with Lancelot. It’s like bowling pins dropping, one after the other. But here’s the rub, Lancelot is two things: He’s a warrior, first and foremost, and has no desire to settle down and have kids, and he’s sexually confused. Although he runs off with Guinevere – ASIDE: She’s a pill. She’s the most annoying character in the whole book and you basically want to sock her about every other chapter. All she does is pray, cry, and have miscarriages. She’s a shut-in. She’s afraid of everything. She has absolutely no spine. She gets kidnapped and raped and even that is boring. She’s so freakin’ useless. Basically, she’s just in the way from start to finish and you keep rooting for her to just resign being Queen and go join a nunnery or something. But she waits until she’s ruined everything, and then she goes off to her convent. Ironically, this is when you really start to like her – when she has gained some life experience and finally starts questioning some of her neurotic beliefs. The most frustrating thing about it is that it’s not even her fault she hangs around ruining everything. She’s a pawn in the story, along with the rest of the helpless females.

What was I saying? Oh yes, Lancelot. He does run off with Guinevere, but just ’cause by that time, he’s forced to (the two get caught in bed and it’s either stay and be hanged or run away) but all along, his one true love is Arthur – his besty. So he’s gorgeous and perfect and all that, and he breaks hearts right and left, but deep down he’s all conflicted because he’s gay gay gay.

So begins the long, lurid tale of sex, kings, religion, paganism, and more sex.

Unknowingly, Morgaine is given to the Beltane fires…a ritualistic ceremony where she plays goddess to some guy they are crowning King…they had a lot of little Kings in England, so she didn’t think much about it. Plus she hadn’t been out of Avalon in like, ten years. To her intense horror (and the reader’s) in the morning she discovers she has slept with her own little brother, Arthur.

Viviane tells her its all good and somehow rationalizes it like, “He’s your HALF-brother, and you were the GODDESS,” or some crap like that, but Morgaine is at first furious at being a pawn in Viviane’s plan, and then traumatized to find herself pregnant. This is what Viviane was hoping for… to create a royal bloodline from the two of them to eventually rule England. Creepy. But true. But Morgaine won’t have it. She leaves Avalon and goes to live with her Aunt Morgause in the North Country. While she’s there she has the baby, a boy, and then, feeling conflicted about the fact that he is both her son and her nephew, she leaves him to her Aunt’s care and goes off see what her brother is doing as the new King of England.

Bradley took ten years to write this book. Her research on early Britain is astounding. All of it is historically accurate. Well, the Roman, Saxon, Britain bits, anyway. She mixes in the legend of King Arthur, and old Welsh legends, and expands on it. Brilliant woman. Brilliant writer!

The novel touches on the depths of belief. In the end it asks: How much of what we believe is subjective to our own experience? The answer, of course, is like all answers to that question: It is subjective to our own experience.

Basically Morgaine spends her whole life fighting for the equal representation of the Goddess alongside the Christianity that is overflowing Britain. Many of her allies end up quietly giving up, as Christianity shows no signs of receding. Essentially its the story of ‘the times they are a’ changin'” and most people are willing to change with it, but Morgaine is a Priestess and its her personal job to make sure her belief system doesn’t die out, and that Avalon doesn’t fade into the mists. In the end, she does not really achieve what she hoped, but she realizes that it doesn’t matter too much. The Goddess will exist whether people believe in her or not.

I really admire the way Bradley leaves you doubting that any of the rituals, mysteries, and God(s) or Goddess(s) are even worth all the struggle and fight that the main characters go through. If it weren’t for her beliefs, Morgaine would not have followed the path she did; running off because she’s pissed at Viviane. Leaving her baby son with that unscrupulous Morgause, and spending all her time trying to fit in at court. If it weren’t for the conflict of paganism and Christianity, Arthur would not have followed his path; trying to please everyone, refusing to put aside his barren wife, etc. etc.

The whole time, while you are reading, you want to tell them all to just get over it already and give it up. (And put that stupid Guinevere in a convent already!) But I suppose that’s why I like the book so much. It sucks you in and makes you feel like you are really a part of the story. I mean, if the characters infuriate you and you want to sit them all down and say “Hey, why all the fuss about this? Don’t you get that it all ends up becoming a myth anyway?” that’s the sign of an excellent novel.

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Filed under Epic Novels, Fantasy, History, Literature

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