Review: The Mists of Avalon

This post is sort of a test run, and in all likelihood nothing similar will happen until next month when I finish my next book. Oh, for the days of actual summer when I could read an entire book in a day. (Moment of silence.)

Anyway, I’m a member of Goodreads, which offers the chance to review the books you’ve read, but why write there when there’s more chance someone will read and discuss it here? I spent the better part of the last four years talking literature, and part of me misses it, especially when it’s about a book I actually enjoyed. So hopefully some of you have read it and will share your thoughts in the comments. (If you plan to read the book someday I advise you to skip this post.)

I just finished “Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley and it was an ordeal. This is only the second time in eight or nine years that I’ve managed it. Even though it’s a hefty book, I never really realize that it’s almost 900 pages long until I’m on page 750 and I’ve been reading for two and a half months.

This is not the most positive review, but somehow I still liked “Mists of Avalon.” I think its scope is impressive and its imagery is beautiful and it brings up some interesting questions about faith. At times it’s boring or depressing, but, like “Wicked,” I have a feeling I’ll keep going back to read it every few years, even if it’s not exactly uplifting.

“Mists” is certainly a very complex and impressive book. It weaves together the stories of seven narrators across forty or so years, keeping time with the events of the King Arthur myth. It’s obviously been well-researched – the history of post-Roman Britain, with all its petty kings and quarrels with Saxons, is well-laid-out, and the early rituals of Christianity are described in detail alongside pagan ceremonies.

But for all of its insightful backstories and unique characters, “Mists” is just too dang long. Arthur doesn’t even come to the throne until page 213, and the most famous part of the myth – the grail quest – is relegated to the background of some 50-70 pages. In a way, this could be expected, because this is a story about the women behind Arthur’s reign, not Arthur himself. None of these women went on the quest, and so it doesn’t occupy a lot of the narrative.

But the other key part of the Arthurian saga, the romance between Guinevere and Lancelot, hardly appears either. The only other Arthur story I’m familiar with is the miniseries “Merlin” (yeah, I know, but “Once and Future King” is on my list) and their, uh, over-the-top portrayal of the Lady of the Lake/Queen Mab forced me to look up whether or not Arthur actually sentenced his wife to burn at the stake for adultery, knowing Lancelot would rescue her. But that’s actually part of the myth! Their youthful passion causes the merciless downfall of Arthur’s hard-fought kingdom! But in “Mists,” the two lovers pine for each other for over twenty years, enjoying a few moments together every seven or eight years, until literally page 854 when they’re finally discovered together and Lancelet carries her off.

At last, I thought – they’ll be caught and humiliated and this is the fiery downfall of Camelot I’ve been waiting for. But no – Gwenhyfar asks Lancelet to take her to a nunnery and begs him to make peace with Arthur. The kingdom peters out while Morgaine watches from Avalon. The end.

“Mists” is certainly a character-driven book. It has to be, or maybe Bradley chose for it to be, because medieval women just weren’t allowed to do much, so they can’t really participate in actual plot. Even in Avalon, where women rule and choose their lovers and plot the future of Britain, time passes in a dreamlike state, and earth-shaking events (Arthur taking up his father’s sword, the final battle with the Saxons, Mordred’s fight with Arthur) occur while these women watch from the safety of the background.

But this is where “Mists” falls flat compared to other fantasy or historical fiction books that tell a familiar story from an alternate perspective (there’s thousands, but the best I can think of right now is “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory or “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire). In other stories, the character is present at major events, offering their own perspective and altering ours. Having her characters reflect on events from a distant first-person point of view, or reacting to them when another character talks about them, weakens their impact on the reader.

That said, the characters of “Mists” are varied and interesting. They are pagan, Christian, and atheist; male and female; priestesses and kings and queens. But as interesting as they are, I felt like they never came together as well-rounded characters. The main characters are never flat, but they’re usually the opposite – they change beliefs and reactions so frequently, they’re uneven.

Another issue I have with “Mists” is its treatment of religion. Characters bicker over it, alliances are made and broken because of it, the entire state of modern England is blamed on it. Bradley writes in so many theological debates between such cut-and-dried characters that by the end of the book, you can’t tell if she hates Christianity or just religion in general. (To my surprise, it was neither – apparently she was an ordained Gnostic Catholic priest.)Ā  The book’s unsettling ending neither makes the long-sought peace with the rise of Christianity, nor restores the dying glory of Avalon, leaving the reader with no affirmation of any kind.

One character achieves the balance I think Bradley tried to convey: Taliesin, acting as the first Merlin in this book, who is probably my favorite character. He’s tremendously wise and holds a great deal of respect for both pagan and Christian religions, who in turn respect and admire him. Unfortunately he fades out about halfway through the book, and he’s replaced with someone we’re supposed to believe is a traitor, but at that point, all the other religious-minded characters have become so one-sided that it’s hard to sympathize with any of them.

And finally, I have trouble with the view of “Mists of Avalon” as a great work of feminist literature. It certainly has no shortage of strong female characters, but the gender portrayals are still pretty stereotypical. The men have trouble expressing their emotions, especially towards women, and (according to the women) they only feel satisfied when there’s a war to fight.

The women, meanwhile, are constantly sad and/or pining for a man they love and/or angsting over their fertility or lack thereof and/or agonizing over the state of the world, inasmuch as it affects them. Morgaine, Viviane, and the other priestesses are never sure if they’re doing the will of the Goddess or what they want for themselves – an interesting question, but one that gets driven into the dirt by constant second-guessing, repetitive theological debate, and romantic angst. Even Morgaine, who should have been the strongest figure in the book, spends her entire life wishing she had been able to marry Lancelet.

However (compliment sandwich?), the story offers up dozens of Arthurian tidbits, some altered to fit the type of magic in “Mists.” Rather than pulling the mythical sword from the stone, Arthur, at the time ignorant of his parentage, takes his father’s sword from his tomb when they’re attacked during the funeral. Morgaine is responsible for crafting the magical scabbard that protects Arthur from wounds. The legend of Tristan and Isolde is connected to Morgaine’s claim to her lands in Cornwall. The most interesting one for me related to Arthur’s death, when he was escorted to Avalon by four priestesses. In “Mists,” all four priestesses are Morgaine, representing the different stages of her life and her eternal union with the Goddess.

So let’s wrap this essay up with a look at the major characters.

Igraine, Arthur’s mother, is the first narrator we meet, and her story starts the most promisingly. She’s the beautiful, unhappy young wife of a much older duke, raising their daughter Morgaine in a secluded castle in Cornwall. She was raised in Avalon and hates being under the rule of men and priests, but she also hates being the pawn of her kinswoman Viviane, Lady of the Lake, and her father Taliesin, the first Merlin. They married her to her first husband and then command her to seduce Uther Pendragon so that the resulting child will save Britain by restoring the country to the old ways of Avalon.

After some politicking, Igraine discovers she and Uther were lovers in a past life in some lost Atlantis-like civilization, which makes the whole seduction part a little easier, and she comes to terms with her own destiny as an agent of the Goddess. Unfortunately, after Igraine fulfills that destiny and gives birth to Arthur, her beloved husband dies and she becomes a doleful Christian, living out her days in a nunnery.

This is the first of many “wait, what?” moments in terms of this book’s character development. Igraine begins the book as a feisty, priest-hating, feminist daughter of Avalon, and winds up an old and pious nun.

However, Igraine gets one of the best lines in the book: “Why should I waste my breath with a curse? I would as willingly bid you Godspeed to your own heaven, and may your God find more pleasure in your company than I do.”

Morgaine (Morgan le Fay) is the main protagonist. Many key events in the story are revealed through her first-person flashbacks. She is raised to be Lady of the Lake after Viviane, whom she idolizes as the mother she never had, but she flees Avalon after discovering she’s pregnant with half-brother Arthur’s child, the result of an anonymous ritual. (Fun, right?)

Throughout the book, she grapples with her relationship with Arthur and her duties to Avalon. She does have a life-altering epiphany, but like most of the other life-altering events in the book, nothing really changes for another five chapters. She spends fourteen years married to the King of Wales while she regains her knowledge as a priestess, and only then does she really become the infamous Morgan le Fay, who plotted against the king, took back Excalibur’s scabbard, and used powerful magic.

Viviane is the powerful and influential Lady of the Lake, the mother of Lancelot, and the foster mother of Igraine, Morgause, and Morgaine. She’s one of the most poignant, tragic characters, since she’s the last truly powerful priestess of Avalon, and she always seems to know that no matter how hard she tries, Avalon will ultimately be lost to the world. Her greatest regret is never having a daughter of her own, and later, she regrets that she was forced (or chose) to treat Morgaine as a pawn for the Goddess.

She is the balance of Taliesin in every way – passionate where he is calm, loving when he is distant, biased when he is patiently open-minded, but every bit as wise. Of all the characters in this book, she felt the most human.

Gwenhyfar. Oh Gwenhyfar. What happened here? She began so promisingly – a young girl with zero self-esteem and a fear of open spaces, about to be married to a king she’s never seen, and she fell in love with his greatest knight on the way to his castle.

Then she turned out to be nearly schizophrenic, as she oscillated between self-loathing piety and fiery rebellion. At first, she’s determined to put aside her feelings for Lancelet and be a good wife to Arthur, but we all knew that wouldn’t last. Finally, a moment comes when Lancelet rescues Gwenhyfar from captivity, and she rides back to Camelot with him, boldly holding hands and finally unashamed that she’s in love with him. This, I thought, was the beginning of the end of Camelot.

But no, Gwenhyfar repents (again) and Lancelet goes on some quest to get away from her (again) and this all continues for another fifteen years. She and Arthur and Lancelet even had a threesome, for crying out loud – but no, Gwenhyfar alternately bottles her emotions and explosively rebels until she finally (maybe) settles down to live out her days in the nunnery where she was raised.

Morgause is either a character you love or one you love to hate. She should not be likable – from her first appearance, she’s sulky and sultry, slithering into her (much older) brother-in-law’s lap at the ripe age of fourteen. She begins plotting against Arthur as soon as he comes to the throne, and even permanently destroys the bond between Morgaine and her only son, Mordred, by taking him at birth to be her foster son.

Despite all this, she’s beautiful, humorous, and passionate, and her husband, King Lot, follows the Northern customs and takes her advice in all things. After his death, she’s a queen in her own right, a foreign concept to the rest of Romanized Britain. She has no shame in taking lovers, even while Lot was alive – after all, if he didn’t, why should she? For the most part, Morgause is a dame – cheeky, clever, seductive, but with a soft spot for her family. But her forays into real black magic, the kind requiring bloody sacrifices, set her just over the line into villain status. This makes her a great villain, though, because you’re still barely on her side.

Niniane and Nimue are the other two primary narrators, sharing a little time towards the end of the story. They were among the last women brought to Avalon to be priestesses, and they each play their roles in what they think will help restore Avalons power.

Niniane is another daughter of Taliesin, but she does not have much magical prowess. Even though she holds the title of Lady of the Lake for a time, she and everyone else knows that Morgaine should have been Lady in her place. Her romantic relationship with Mordred eventually leads to her death.

Nimue got an even worse role: seduce the traitorous second Merlin and lead him back to Avalon for his execution. She succeeds, but she’s fallen in love with him too, so she drowns herself.

And nobody lived happily ever after. We don’t even find out who succeeded Arthur, despite the book-long angst about what would happen to his kingdom if he died without an heir. Maybe in the original myths, there was no successor named. Maybe it’s just supposed to be commentary on our transient existence, and I, a child of the age of instant gratification, demand too many answers. My goal now is to read a few more version of the myth and see if this book becomes any more gratifying.

I admit I am curious about the miniseries, even though Arthurian adaptations tend to be less than successful (see: “Merlin,” the Clive Owen “King Arthur,” anything on TV in the last three years). Have you found a good King Arthur movie or show? Do you have a favorite book version (“Morte d’Arthur” versus “Once and Future King?”)

(Holy moly, that was a 4-page post. I hope someone at Linfield is proud of me.)

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Mists of Avalon

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: Book Club Picks « Ruby Bastille

  2. Pingback: How My Degree Made It Impossible to Enjoy Casual Reading Anymore | Ruby Bastille

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