Review: The Mists of Avalon

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Arthurian masterpiece is the sort of book that gets burned or banned by critics unable to refute and too timid either to try or to call in greater masters to do so, and unwilling to take the care that it find its way only into prepared hands. The unwary reader, if not repulsed, will certainly be drawn under its spell and left troubled; even the careful reader will have to careful sort through thoughts jarred loose.

What is this book? It has layers. From the title, anyone can deduce that it is a modern retelling of the Arthurian saga. The work, though, tells the story with the women around Arthur as the main characters; and for the most part devotees of – at least a literary version of – the Druidic religion, which is pointedly pagan and licentious.

And this is where the danger comes in: it seems to me that to a reader unfamiliar with other tales of Arthur, or without strong moral convications of his own, Bradley’s characters are so strongly drawn as to color the reader’s imagination ever after. The narrator’s opinion is that all religion is potentially a legitimate yearning for the supernatural Mysteries; the Druidic God and Goddess shade into pantheism; Christianity is not refuted and indeed triumphs – but the priests, mostly nameless, are the only persons routinely belittled, and for narrow-mindedness and ignorance even of their own faith. However, I suspect Bradley is most true to herself in the characters who are – openly or quietly – agnostic: they seem to me to be about the only likeable ones.

This is also an openly feminist work: the principle put forth by the Druidic priestesses is that men may be needed to fight and die for the land – and father children – but women should rule and guide, though perhaps never stated so succinctly. The wiser kings are made to consult with their wives; Morgause rules comfortably as Queen in her own right after King Lot dies; King Arthur in war is indispensible but in peace Gwenhwyfar comes more to the fore.

Yet this is not a perfectionist feminism: this is still a tragedy. I call it feminist because these women – mainly of Avalon – are made to bear the responsibility, while the warriors and courtiers do as they will. But this is still a tragedy: hubris is the name of the day and if at any point our various leading ladies had simply stopped meddling and let things go, a happy ending for all concerned would have been hard to avoid. But as a story-telling device, I must admit that providing motivations for the actions of all concerned is more satisfying, to my modern taste at least, than the older tales where a barge or boat or arm holding a sword or whatever shows up with no explanation or any reason beyond the necessity of the plot. On the other hand, Bradley does assume that the basic plot is known to the reader – however compelling the story she tells, some of her effect depends on the reader being expected to notice how the story is changed this time.

There are, I think, two faults with the book as a work of art. First, the main narrative is periodically interrupted with reflections by Morgaine in the first person, and I struggle to find anything that they add. They suggest Bradley could have told the story quite well in the first person, but the perspective is not in any significant way different from the main narration, so that the shift mostly seems to me to disrupt the flow of the story.

Second, the conclusion is handled awfully hamfistedly. Since this is an Arthurian retelling, the events are not really in doubt, and any number of the intricate schemes set up through the book could have gone awry and prompted them. Instead we have Morgause – whom any number of people have considered ambitious, but without real cause – suddenly dabbling in blood magic; Mordred claiming – without any previous narrative justification, but with no need or plausible case for lying – that Morgause put him up to proving Gwenhwyfar’s infidelity; and no real reason – every other war we get more, and again enough provocations are suggested that even a hint could easily be given – why Mordred and Arthur should fight. Of course, the story is well-enough known that the prepared reader can be assumed to interpolate from other accounts: but this is the one place the book really fails if taken purely on its own terms.

Despite these few faults and the great number of cautions, I have no doubt that as a literary work this is a worthy addition to the collection of the tales of King Arthur.

Fiction, War, and the Question

It would be pretentious of me to suggest that I read fiction in pursuit of some grand academic pursuit of truth or beauty (or whatever).  The fact is, I enjoy a good adventure story, and reading fiction – especially the science fiction or fantasy stories I prefer – satisfies that desire.  In fact, I probably over-indulge – an easy failing, as I read quickly enough that a large number of pages can take not that much of my time away from other things.

It is true, though, that the mode of fiction – the story, known to be unreal – allows authors, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately, to pose questions in a form which might not otherwise be possible.  Much of science fiction is also what is called “speculative fiction”: attempts to answer – or sometimes just ask – the question, “What if?” by providing an imagined context in which the answer becomes obvious (given the premises of the story) or the question becomes pressing (given the conditions set out in the narrative).  Other times, there is no particular point or question to a story in that speculative sense, but characters are free to offer remarks which have bearing not only on their imagined situations but (intentionally or not – and sometimes it is hard to tell) on real life difficulties.

I am going to, in this post, offer two examples from recent reading which reflect on the place of women in war.  The United States armed forces have, for several years, been moving towards integrating women in combat with men: attitudes towards this vary tremendously, both on ideological grounds (most obviously, conservative Christians vs. radical egalitarians) and on judgments of practicality (relative average strength differences: significant or not? – sexual tension: unavoidable or not? a cause for how much discipline? a cause to abandon the integration? – and so forth).  A significant portion of “modern” science fiction (which I am taking to mean written since the 1980s, or in other words, most of what I read) tends to assume the egalitarian viewpoint will triumph eventually – and the attitude is older than that, if not as widespread or settled.  The Lensman series – one of the first major science fiction series, published in the 1950s – includes women as “equal” protagonists – “equal” being in quotation marks because the work seems incurably dated, even by today’s standards.  Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) makes a sort of concession by calling women better pilots, but the grunts are men and the issue is mostly ignored.  Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) is an interesting case, in which the importance of men and women is presented as equal, but traditional-type social structures are assumed to have endured, for the most part.  This is of course a very incomplete picture, but will serve to demonstrate some of the history in the genre.

More recent writers – Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game  and his other works (now, ironically, under fire by egalitarians for some of his other Mormon beliefs), David Weber (of Honor Harrington fame, though it also shows in the rest of his work), Elizabeth Moon (Girdish, Familias Regnant, and Vatta storyworlds, among others), and others – pretty much have accepted that integrated militaries will be the order of the future, by analogy to the success of sexual integration in normal business.  (While complaints do still persist on this basis in real life – not to mention differences of opinion – the current hit show Mad Men should have reminded the public how much has changed even in fifty years.  Also, interestingly, the named authors and most of the others I have read assume – whether unthinkingly or for narrative purposes – that the argument will continue as well.)

All of this is prelude to the material I wish to quote.  From Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Vor Game, I offer a brief excerpt.  Miles, our hero, has messed up, and is brought in for a dressing down by his commanding officer:

Metzov was still expanding, self-stimulated. ‘In a real combat situation, a soldier’s equipment is vital.  It can be the difference between victory and defeat.  A man who loses his equipment loses his effectiveness as a soldier.  A man disarmed in a technological war might as well be a woman, useless!  And you disarmed yourself!’

Miles wondered sourly if the general would then agree that a woman armed in a technological war might as well be a man… no, probably not.  Not a Barrayaran of his generation.

And the story moves on, thought unanswered, dismissed, ignored – and hanging there, making the thoughtful reader wonder.

Bujold, at least in the Vorkosigan series just quoted, is clearly and deliberately telling an adventure story, not attempting commentary.  On the other hand, John Birmingham’s time-travel series which begins with the novel Weapons of Choice is equally clearly a serious attempt to comment on various social issues, within the framework of an action novel.  The premise: a 2020s American-led, combined arms task force is, by a freak accident, transported (and scattered) into World War II.  Chaos ensues.  As the various commanders try to explain 21st-century social expectations to FDR and company, Birmingham has Einstein (yes, that Einstein) say:

‘You seem to come from a militarized society, Admiral; the ease with which your men and women in uniform mix togehter.  The way you don’t appear to heed the race or creed of your comrades.  Some might see that as enlightened, and I suppose it is.  But you could also see it as the defensive response of a society that has been fighting for so long it has shed itself of all trappings save those needed to wage war.  You can see the same thing happening here and now, to a lesser extent.’

Now, Birmingham’s task force is coming from a future war which is implied to be a sort of second outbreak of mass terrorism, and his Admiral answers that these things were happening even in peace – but again, the thoughtful reader starts wondering: from World War II – which brought us Rosie the Riveter – to the Korean War, Vietnam War, defense-conscious ’80s, Gulf War I, Balkan interventions, Gulf War II – how long has the United States been honestly at peace for the last seventy years?  How did that affect us – even if not in the ways this fictional Einstein suggests?

I am not going to attempt to answer the questions raised, by either selection, at this time; the point was to demonstrate the unique place of fiction in discussion of important questions.