Book Review: The Mists of Avalon

Book Name: The Mists of Avalon
Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley
First Published: 1982
Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (1984)

Marion Eleanor Zimmer Bradley was an American author of fantasy novels such as The Mists of Avalon and the Darkover series, often writing with a feminist outlook and even, under a pen name, gay and lesbian titles. She was born on a farm in Albany, New York, during the Great Depression, to a father who was a carpenter and farmer and a mother who was a historian. Bradley first attended New York State College for Teachers from which she dropped out after two years. She returned to college in the mid-sixties, where she graduated from Hardin-Simmons University in Texas with a Bachelor of Arts. Bradley moved to California soon after and went on to pursue graduate studies at the University of California, Berkely. She trained not only as a psychologist but also as a parapsychologist. In the end, she became a drop-out once more from not one, but three departments of education, “owing to deep disillusion”. Bradley also trained as a singer, and at one time, in her younger days, worked as a target for a knife thrower in a carnival.

Married twice, both of Bradley’s unions ended in divorce. Her first marriage to Robert Bradley in 1949 lasted fourteen years and they had one son together. Her second marriage to author Walter Breen in 1964 resulted in a son and a daughter, but ended badly in 1990. She had been separated from him for many years before the divorce was finalized.

During the 1950s, as a young wife with a small son, she became involved in the phenomenon known as science fiction fandom, writing for a variety of fanzines for nothing, but in time moved up to sell to professional science fiction digest magazines. It was here that she gained her writing chops and moved on to create novels of her own, becoming a professional full-time writer and editor by the early 1960s. Her main novel series featured a sword and sorcery themed world known as Darkover, but she also wrote short stories, articles and books in other subjects.

As an author, her most popular novel was The Mists of Avalon which was later made into a major motion picture starring Angelica Houston. The book is a retelling of the Camelot legend from the viewpoint of the female characters.

Bradley died in September of 1999. The year after her death, Marion Zimmer Bradley was posthumously awarded the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

“There is no such thing as a true tale. Truth has many faces and the truth is like to the old road to Avalon; it depends on your own will, and your own thoughts, whither the road will take you.”
― Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon

The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of the female characters. The protagonist is Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon who is King Arthur’s half-sister. When Morgaine is eleven years old and her brother is six, there is an attempt on the young prince’s life. Viviane, known as the Lady of Avalon, and aunt to both Morgaine and Arthur, advises King Uther to have the boy fostered away from court for his safety. She also takes Morgaine to initiate her as a priestess of the Mother and to groom her as the next Lady of Avalon.

Time passes and both Morgaine and Arthur become adults. Arthur claims the throne of Britain and defends his kingdom against the invading Saxons. The Lady of Avalon gives him the sword Excalibur that is enchanted to help him gain victory over his enemies. In return, Viviane asks for Arthur to honor the old religion, to which he agrees.

Morgaine becomes a priestess with the full power the title bestows, being able to open the gate between our world and the fey world of Avalon. Morgaine conceives a child during a fertility rite and learns to her horror that the masked father was actually her own half-brother and that the escapade was arranged by her Aunt Viviane. In Viviane’s Pagan mind, the child’s royal blood on both sides is acceptable, but Morgaine was raised by Christians and she is appalled by the act. Morgaine leaves Viviane and Avalon, wishing to have no more to do with the ancient druid religion. She fosters her son Gwydion with her Aunt Morgause and King Lot, then joins her brother’s court.

Being a former priestess, Morgaine has a reputation for “magic”. She has visions and knowledge of herbal medicines. The childless Gwenhwyfar, Queen to King Arthur, asks Morgaine to create a fertility charm in order to help her conceive the son and heir she longs for. The charm works, but not in the manner that Gwenhwyfar expects. Arthur himself invites his best friend Lancelot to join he and Gwenhwyfar in bed as a threesome. This way, a child might be made “in the king’s bed” and thus still any talk that the child would be illegitimate. The Queen is in love with Lancelot and welcomes the chance to have him, but when the union does not result in a child, she grows angry. Gwenhwyfar rejects pagan magic and turns to Christianity to give her the desired heir. From that point forward, she is an advocate to Arthur to bring Christian values to Britain and to forsake the druidic past.

Eventually, Arthur learns that he has a son and he longs to bring the boy to Camelot. However, Gwenhwyfar will not hear of it. To try and create peace for the knight, Morgaine tricks Lancelet into marrying Gwenhwyfar’s cousin Elaine, which angers Gwenhwyfar further. In retaliation, the Queen schemes to marry Morgaine off to a Welsh King to remove her from court. Morgaine believes she will be marrying the king’s youngest son, Accolon who is a Druid priest and warrior, and agrees to the marriage, Later, she finds herself married to King Uriens himself, a man that is old enough to be her grandfather. Trouble ensues and eventually, Morgaine leaves King Uriens court and Wales forever.

Gwydion goes to the Saxon court when he is grown to learn of warfare away from his father’s notice. The Saxons name him Mordred, which means “evil counsel”. When he joins Arthur’s court in Camelot, he introduces himself as Morgaine’s son and Morgause’s foster-son with no mention of who his father might be. Due to his close resemblance to Lancelot, many in the court believe that he is the knight’s son and do not suspect that he is King Arthur’s heir. Gwydion wishes to earn his place without preferential treatment and challenges Lancelot to single combat during a tourney to prove his mettle. Lancelot and the King are impressed by his skills and Lancelot makes Gwydion a knight of the round table, naming him Mordred.

Mordred is not content with being a knight and eventually, he causes King Arthur more problems. You will need to read the book to learn the final outcome of this engrossing tale.

The Mists of Avalon Book CoverI first read The Mists of Avalon when I was in my twenties and it has stuck with me down through the years. I enjoyed the movie that followed and own a copy in my collection. Bradley’s prose is not the strongest, but her descriptions and characters are compelling. In Morgaine, Bradley has created a sympathetic character who makes mistakes, hopes and dreams of a better life and ultimately is swept away by the events of her times.

The central theme is the fall of the old Druid religion and how it was replaced by Christianity. Bradley is not complimentary toward Christians in her book, and normally I would find this to be a detraction, but the unfolding description of Pagan religion is fascinating in its depth. The isle of Avalon felt much like a character with its symbolic dissolving into the mists as the old religion faded from the hearts of the English people.

The book is extremely feminist in theme from the matriarchal Pagan society led by the Lady of Avalon, to the relationship struggles of the various Queens and their control over their Kings. I liked experiencing Arthurian legend via the eyes of its women, it was a unique viewpoint and not something that had been done before.

While I personally enjoyed The Mists of Avalon, I do not know if I would recommend this book to everyone. To men that prefer action and deeds, I fear that they would find this book to be slow and as full of relationships as a romance novel. To Christians who are strong in their faith, I would also be hesitant. The anti-Christian sediments of the author run strong. For people that enjoy a feminist message with fantasy elements, for there is true magic in the book although it is subtle, this novel will have a high appeal.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mists of Avalon”

  1. I never did care for Bradley’s facile “all pagans are good; all Christians are bad” approach, though I still have a first-edition copy in my Arthurian collection (as well as the movie, which IMO was one of those rare cases of being better than the book, but then what’s not to like about Anjelica Huston?).

    In one of life’s little ironies, Bradley died the very day that the first edition of my historical Arthurian novel DAWNFLIGHT went on sale (Sonnet Books, Simon & Schuster, 1999). I have since updated it, and in a Tolkien-esque move have invented a “Pictish” language as well as expanding my usage of Anglo-Saxon and Latin terms for Dawnflight and its sequels. If you would like to review what I have always considered to be an “anti-Mists” rendition, message me on Triberr or shoot me a tweet or something. 🙂

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