The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley) flawed 4*

The oldest fanfic is the best.  I love that even today, long past the days of wandering bards, we still have living epics to be endlessly reworked. You know that Excalibur was the sword in the stone. But the Lady of the Lake gave Excalibur to Arthur. Eh? Arthurian legend is fanfic with a serious pedigree.  It even has insane crossovers (see Camelot 3000, MacGuyver, Stargate).

The Mists of Avalon
Cons: Its feminism and theology is a bit daft, and it’s overcomplete at 800 pages.  Not any kind of brilliant prose.

Pros: Probably a banned book.  Also, upon consulting Wikipedia, Bradley appears to have read every possible source material and shoveled it all in somewhere, so it’s a good jumping-off point for Arthurian geekery.

With judicious skipping of pages, I upgrade Mists to 4 stars because it leaves the reader feeling queer, which is always good.  This is not the legend that anyone else has ever told. The protagonist is Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), who is typically portrayed as an evil sorceress.  Here, Arthur’s half-sister is a pagan priestess battling Evil Christian Intolerance.  No one in the book can be described as evil, though the clashes between paganism and Christianity are bitter and personal.

Likewise, the troubles of Lancelot and Guinevere are complicated and fraught with guilt and good intentions.  As with all Arthurian legend, Mists rides a great tide of tragic inevitability, but it is composed of such small greeds and prides, little cowardices, and failures of imagination.  There is no Eye of Sauron or Morgan le Fay driving Arthur to his downfall.  There is no Axis of Evil.  Mists is a boldly human retelling of the legend.

Part of the fun is spotting all the characters of legend in the book.  A distinctive slipperiness in names gives Mists an authentic feel — we get the sense that Morgaine is telling it like it is, and the intervening centuries have confused and conflated the identities.  Arthur starts life as Gwydion (an old Welsh hero if you recall your Lloyd Alexander) and is baptized Arthur only when he is fostered to Sir Ectorius.  Lancelot starts life as Galahad and picks up the name Elf-Arrow amongst the Saxons, which the British translate as Lancelet.  In tender moments, Arthur and Lancelet still call each other by their true names of Gwydion and Galahad.  The Lady of the Lake is the title of the high priestess at Avalon, so there are multiples of her.  The Merlin of Britain is also a title. We start with the famous bard Taliesin and end up with a crippled harpist named Kevin (yes, really). The world is small on horseback, so there is a King of the Orkneys, a King of Cornwall, a King of every tiny place, and Arthur is the High King.

It’s a pro-pagan book, so it’s all about cycles of life, and what is interesting is that we literally watch these characters through their entire lives.  The story starts before Arthur is conceived, and we meet most of the characters as infants or toddlers, watch them rise and fight and be jealous of each other and have about a million kids, and then we watch the kids grow up, and toward the end Camelot becomes a retirement home out of legend.  I’m old enough to be moved by the end of the book (despite its old-people boring-ness) when Arthur and Morgaine and Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar keep thinking, There are so few of us who remember when we were young.


7 responses to “The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley) flawed 4*

  1. I reread Mists of Avalon every 5 years or so and always wind up in a happy pagan brain-fog.

    • I read this many years ago when I was but a maiden of 16… What I remembered most last time were the pagan rhythms when Morgaine found her priestesshood with Accolon, and how rational and joyous paganism seemed. Now what I will remember most is people growing old and passing out of memory. The end of Camelot is really so sad as each person retreats into himself or herself and gives up the old antagonisms.

      • Sadly, I have not read it, but I did see the miniseries/movie version. It was very hyped- Anjelica Huston, Joan Allen and all that- but I was not inspired to read it after watching that rendition. I am sure the dramatization didn’t do the book justice (when does it ever? Well, rarely) but the main thing I recall was being a bit grossed out by the incest. Also, it’s pretty pagan, but the closing image of the adaptation was Christian symbolism, not so much a retirement home, and there couldn’t have been any retirement because most of the main characters were killed off. So maybe it wasn’t a very true adaptation of the book.

      • Incest has long been a part of the Arthurian legend, so it didn’t seem terribly out of place to me. Since everyone is related to everyone else by blood or marriage, there are a lot more kissing cousins in Mists than I’m used to, but then again, it’s the Middle Ages and everyone’s a teenaged mother.
        In conclusion, Arthurian Britain = Deep South.

      • Man, I totally read the Mists of Avalon when I was a kid! We were such pagan wannabes. I could write essays on our pagan adventures and rites. It was also pretty racy for some pre-teens. Flatmate read it as a kid too, and re-read it recently to see if it was as good as she remembered. She quoted passages here and there to me, and it was hilarious.
        Kind of like the Lord of the Rings films, which are indeed a fantastic, but when you watch it on your laptop with Flatmate on Burrito Night it’s somehow easier to stand back and laugh your ass off at every over-acted aphorism, which by there very nature were born over-acted, which we repeat endlessly.
        “So. You Have Chosen Death.”
        “I Smell The Flesh Of Man.”
        “You carry the fate of us all little one.”
        “Time? What time do you think we have?”

      • I’ve always thought the LoTR movies hilariously campy.
        We Talk All Caps All The Time!

      • Man, if it’s campy and capitalized in English, just imagine the German translation.

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