Things I’ve Read: The Mists of Avalon

16 Oct

I don’t read as much Arthurian legend as I used to, but my love for that mythology is one that I don’t think will ever truly die. A few years ago, I went through a rather long phase where I read nearly every King Arthur story I could get my hands on. I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I read J. Robert King’s Mad Merlin and Lancelot Du Lethe (but not his Le Morte D’Avalon, yet). A.A. Attanasio’s The Dragon and the Unicorn (and its sequels) were challenging but rewarding. I can’t even recall all the less notable and more poorly written books I read, honestly. Regardless, I somehow managed to make it through all of this phase without reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

The Mists of Avalon

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

A few weeks ago, I was browsing through Amazon, growing my Wishlist to an even more preposterous size than it already was, when Mists popped up as a recommendation. I was familiar with the title, having worked in a bookstore for a couple of years and being a prolific reader, but I didn’t really know what the book was about other than that it was a retelling of the King Arthur story that was centered on the women characters of the legend. Thinking to myself that it had been a while since I’d read a good King Arthur story, I clicked through and started reading through some of the Amazon reviews.

When I read reviews on Amazon, I always start with the 1-star reviews first. In a bookstore, I read the last chapter of a book before I buy it, but on the internet I go straight to the negative reviews. Seeing why other people hate a book pretty much always gives me insight into whether or not I will like it. I knew after less than a half dozen reviews that I needed to read this book.

To hear the 1-star folks on Amazon tell it, The Mists of Avalon is nothing but man-hating, feminist, lesbian, witch-crafty, liberal, anti-Christian propaganda. All of this, of course, would make it a book right up my alley. I grabbed a copy at the Half Price Books near my work the first chance I got and started reading.

I’ve read a few other Arthurian re-tellings that have focused on the female characters in the saga, but this one is certainly the best of them. It follows the canon (such as it is) fairly closely, incorporating almost all of the really iconic episodes from the King Arthur mythology, and I really enjoyed that. It’s nice to see creative interpretations of the stories–I’m a sucker for retold fairy tales in general–but I also appreciate it when new interpretations of old tales are still recognizable as the stories I love. Marion Zimmer Bradley succeeds admirably here.

Mists as a feminist work

The number one complaint about Mists seems to be that it’s feminist propaganda. Interestingly, I’m not certain that I really agree that it’s feminist at all. It’s definitely not quite up to modern standards of feminist thought, but it was helpful to me to remember as I read that Mists was first published in the year I was born, 1982. For a book that is almost 30 years old, I think it holds up remarkably well.

I suspect, however, that the primary reason Mists is seen as being “feminist” has less to do with the ideological content of the novel than it does with the fact that re-centering the King Arthur legend on the lives and experiences is of women is subversive in itself. Women are rare enough in fantasy fiction in general (especially in the early 80s) to make the book remarkable for its time, and it’s still sometimes seen as a radical departure from the norm to make women the focus of stories in such a testosterone- and patriarchy-fueled genre. The canon of Arthurian legend has grown in volume to near-Biblical proportions, and many people seem to reject any tampering with such an archetypal foundation of the genre as akin to blasphemy. As often as not, the descriptor “feminist,” when applied to The Mists of Avalon, is an epithet rather than praise.

Simply being a book about women does not a feminist classic (or propaganda piece) make, however, and there is a fair amount of toxicity in the relationships between the women of Mists. There is also a fair amount of women stressing out and feeling guilty, ashamed, and worthless for not having babies, not having enough babies, not being “good enough” mothers and wives, and so on. In a way, these interactions between women and the concerns over childbearing are reflective of experiences that real women have and can relate to, but at the same time it felt to me as if these experiences were shown as immutable and inevitable parts of female existence. The women of Mists are strong, complex characters, but I didn’t like the uncomfortable feeling I had throughout the book that the Maiden/Mother/Crone view of womanhood is just as limiting and harmful as the Madonna/Whore dichotomy.

Igraine

There is a short prologue from Morgaine’s point of view, but the first woman we really meet is Igraine–the mother of Morgaine (and later Arthur); aunt to Morgause; and sister of Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. Igraine is one of the weaker characters in Mists, lacking much of the agency that the other women in the book possess in spades. She has been given, at age 14, in marriage to the Roman Duke Gorlois, and it is clearly a marriage of politics rather than love.

As the book begins, Igraine receives a visit from her sister Viviane and her father, Taliesin, who is the current Merlin (which is, in Mists, an office rather than a name). Viviane and Taliesin have come to give Igraine the news that, although she is already wed to Gorlois, it will somehow fall to Igraine to be the mother of a prophesied king who will unite Britain. Interestingly, the set up here very much parallels the Annunciation of the birth of Christ in the Christian Bible, and the Great King that is promised is treated as a messianic figure. Like Mary in the Bible, Igraine is confused and uncertain how these events can come to pass. Also like Mary, it is explained to Igraine that she doesn’t have to understand; she only has to trust and wait, and this sets up a pattern for Igraine’s characterization throughout the book as an essentially passive character whose primary purpose seems to be as a vessel for a mystical pregnancy.

Viviane

Viviane seems to be the character that people love to hate. As the Lady of the Lake, she is a high priestess in the pagan religion of the native Britons, but her position is also one of political power. She can be read as very manipulative–she arranges marriages for her sisters, sets up the circumstances that lead to the birth of Mordred, and generally does what she can to shape the future of Britain. I prefer to read Viviane as a powerful woman who is responsible for and to the people that she represents. She is trying to preserve a way of life that is under threat from the outside forces of Rome, the Saxons, and the Christianity that is slowly spreading through the land.

Although Viviane has no daughters of her own to carry on her work, she has several sons, most notably Lancelet, who figure prominently in the story. I actually find Viviane’s longing for a daughter interesting. She is a mother figure to her sister Morgause, who she nursed herself after their mother died in childbirth, and her niece Morgaine, who she grooms to succeed herself as Lady of the Lake, but she still regrets that she has no daughter of her own.

It seems that the ostensibly matriarchal society of Avalon’s priestesses only mirrors in reverse the patriarchal society of the Roman Christians. Bloodlines are still valuable, only on Avalon inherited power comes through the mother rather than the father. I’m found myself questioning whether or not there is much real difference between matriarchy and patriarchy as described in Mists.

Morgause

Morgause is the youngest sister of Viviane and Igraine, and she is possibly my favorite character in Mists. From the time we meet Morgause, while she is living with Igraine and Gorlois, it is clear that she is a far different sort of woman than either of her sisters. Morgause is much more overtly sexual, and this is a part of her character that is constant throughout the book.

Morgause has possibly the best experience of marriage of any of the women in The Mists of Avalon. She and her husband, Lot of Orkney, seem well-matched in their ambitions and appetites, and they conduct their relationship and rule their small kingdom very much as partners. Both Morgause and Lot are promiscuous and openly unfaithful, but Morgause is frank about her use of abortion to ensure that she only bears children by her husband.

However, unlike Igraine (unable to conceive again after Arthur’s birth), Morgaine (chooses to have no more children after nearly dying with Mordred), and Gwenhwyfar (numerous miscarriages), Morgause births four healthy sons and seems to have none of the struggles the other women in the book have with motherhood and fertility. She is the most easily maternal of any of them as well, mothering not only her own boys, but Morgaine’s son as well.

Also unlike the other women of Mists, Morgause does not particularly value female company. She lacks the religious sensibilities that all of the others seem to have, being neither a Christian nor terribly devout in following the Goddess of the old religion. Of all of the women, Morgause has the most agency and achieves the highest level of equality in her relationship with her husband. She never quite realises her ambitions, but she lives a long and fruitful life, keeping lovers far younger than herself for decades after Lot’s death and continuing to rule Orkney in her own right.

If any character in the book can be termed a feminist character, I would say Morgause is the one.

Morgaine

Morgaine is the main point of view character in the novel, and we are supposed to identify with her struggles and experiences throughout the book. Personally, though, I found the Morgaine of Mists to be relatively dull, especially in contrast to the significantly more interesting Morgause, the more emotionally compelling Gwenhwyfar, and the more driven Viviane. Sad to say, I found little in Morgaine to relate to at all.

Morgaine suffers from much of the same lack of agency as her mother, Igraine. Ignored by her mother, sent to Avalon to be raised by Viviane to become a priestess, Morgaine is as much her aunt’s pawn as Igraine ever was, and Morgaine is much more invested in the old religion than any other main character in the book, to the point of preserving her virginity to be a sort of  sacrifice in a spiritual marriage ritual with her own brother. The feelings of violation and betrayal Morgaine has toward Viviane following this incident send Morgaine running off to her aunt Morgause, in whose home Mordred is born.

Many of Morgaine’s actions have the external trappings of extreme agency, but her story is plagued with visions, prophecies, and obligations. There are even several missing years which she spends unknowingly trapped in the land of the fairies as time goes on without her. When it comes down to it, Morgaine is a reactive character (or simply an observer of other characters’ stories) much more than she is a proactive agent in her own story.

Gwenhwyfar

Before I read Mists, I saw Gwenhwyfar described as a negative caricature of Christian women. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can see how people of a certain mindset may read her that way (especially as a way to criticize the novel), but I (mean old atheist that I am) don’t think that she is quite a “caricature.” Instead, I found Gwenhwyfar to be one of the more sensitively and realistically written characters in the book.

We first meet Gwenhwyfar as a frightened young girl on Glastonbury (she is living in a nunnery), where she has become lost in the mists and stumbled onto Avalon. It’s been established earlier in the book that only priestesses should be able to find Avalon unaided, and Gwenhwyfar’s slipping from Glastonbury Abbey to Avalon seems to indicate that she could have had a place in a very different group of women than she found in the nunnery she was living at. However, Gwenhwyfar is frightened of Avalon (and her own womanhood) and desires only to return to Glastonbury Abbey where she feels safe. Gwenhwyfar’s agoraphobia and fear of her self and her sexuality, as well as her adherence to the patriarchal structures of Christianity and her distrust of worshipers of the Great Goddess, all seem intertwined throughout the book.

We see Gwenhwyfar having love-hate relationships with basically everyone as well. She hates and fears Morgaine for her connection to Avalon, but she loves Morgaine almost as a sister as well. She loves her husband, Arthur, but she also resents him for, well, pretty much everything, and late in the book Gwenhwyfar becomes increasingly aware of Arthur’s faults. She loves Lancelet passionately, but she hates him as well, seeing him as a temptation to be resisted and a pitfall to sin to be avoided. She loves and hates her courtiers, her friends, and even Mordred.

Most of all, Gwenhwyfar both loves and hates herself. She is often self-righteous, selfish, and petty. She feels guilt and shame over her infertility, and she is envious of other women, even as she becomes almost a mother to a whole generation of young ladies that she raises at Camelot. Her story is a tragic one, the story of a woman who is never truly free from the constraints and expectations of a patriarchal society and her own internalized misogyny. It seems to me that we shouldn’t read to judge Gwenhwyfar for her shortcomings–we should be judging the culture and society that prevent her from ever being able to actualize her own potential.

Men in The Mists of Avalon

One of the huge selling points in the negative Amazon reviews that made me want to read this book was that it was full of man-hate. Supposedly all the male characters in the book were weak and subordinate to the women in the book, and (**clutches pearls**) Lancelet was bisexual. Turns out, the only part of these allegations that is true is Lancelet’s bisexuality, and it’s not even entirely clear to me if he’s truly bisexual or if he simply loves Arthur. I suspect it’s the latter.

The men in Mists are pretty much the same as men have always been in Arthurian legend. They are deeply flawed, but this has always been true. They are often wrong, they don’t always treat their wives nicely, they spend years away from home fighting wars, and they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about sons and horses and swords.

I read at least one reviewer who claimed that all the women were perfect (except Gwenhwyfar, who is apparently a hateful stereotype of Christian women), and that all the men were stupid, violent brutes. I’m pretty sure this person didn’t read the same book I read. Men and women in Mists were pretty messed up–that’s sort of the point of the story.

Religious Conflict in Mists

As an atheist, I tend to pay keen attention to depictions of religion in literature because I find them fascinating, and religion is central to the story in The Mists of Avalon.

Marion Zimmer Bradley sets the Arthurian epic in the customary time period: just as the Romans were withdrawing from Britain, leaving the people of such far-flung territories without central leadership, but still with many influences from Roman culture. By the 4th century or so, Christianity was making considerable inroads into the native populations, and the over-arching story of Mists is one of an older, pagan religion struggling to survive in the face of hegemonic change.

In the context of modern history, we can easily place the book during a time in which there was some renewed interest in paganism, in particular a specific sort of woman-power neo-paganism that built itself around worship of a mostly-vague female principle. The worship of a triune goddess in The Mists of Avalon features highly fictionalized and romanticized practices, and it’s portrayed as a primarily female-focused religion in opposition to the heavily patriarchal Christianity that early bishops had brought to the land.

Reading the book in 2011, most of this just seems anachronistic to me now. Being an atheist, I’m inclined to see both Christianity and paganism as harmful and limiting in their own ways, and the argument can certainly be made that, in the context of the novel, every woman was affected negatively by her belief system. Morgaine never reveled in her power as a priestess, and Gwenhwyfar suffered immensely because of her Christian faith. As I mentioned above, only the irreligious Morgause seemed to be free from the negative effects of religion, and this was only because she abstained from all but the barest affectations of faith.

Final Thoughts

All in all, I found The Mists of Avalon more than enjoyable. I would go so far as to say that it is a must-read for anyone who is a devotee of Arthurian legend or even just the fantasy genre in general. The influence of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s storytelling in Mists can be clearly seen in many other modern author’s interpretation of the King Arthur story–especially in depictions of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar.

If you are looking for a piece of man-hating, anti-Christian, feminist propaganda, I’d say this book is maybe a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s definitely a book about women, which is notable and subversive in itself, and there are many serious criticisms of Christianity peppered throughout its 900 pages, but I think it will certainly feel dated to most feminists and progressives in my age group and younger.

We’ve come a long way since 1982, and The Mists of Avalon tells us a lot about where we’ve been, but not a whole lot about where we’re going now.

2 Responses to “Things I’ve Read: The Mists of Avalon”

  1. Dark_Sumerian 02/21/2013 at 3:04 PM #

    “If you are looking for a piece of man-hating, anti-Christian, feminist propaganda…but I think it will certainly feel dated to most feminists and progressives in my age group and younger.”

    So hating men and having a hostility towards Christianity is amusing to you? Does that define modern feminism for you? Christianity initially spread as fast as it did because of women converting to the religion. Emperor Constantine’s mother was a Christian. Jesus spent his days with women who the rest of society had deemed social pariahs, his message connected with women more than any celtic pagan spiritualism, be it historically accurate or completely made up as it was in this book.

    You suggest that the feminist message put forth in Mists of Avalon is outdated, yet it was Feminism at its strongest. It dealt with the unique issues women alone have to face without sniffing at femininity and superficially masculating the women. You sound like one of those young “feminazis” who is more obsessed with her perceived enemies than empowering herself.

    “The Mists of Avalon is nothing but man-hating, feminist, lesbian, witch-crafty, liberal, anti-Christian propaganda. All of this, of course, would make it a book right up my alley.”

    As George Kennedy said to a feminist reporter in The Eiger Sanction: “Lady, you need to go get yourself screwed.”

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