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.