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).
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.