Books: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon”
“Gwenhwyfar, I would have you bear this in mind – charms often work as you would not that they would do.” – Morgaine
It is now thirty years since Marion Zimmer Bradley’s book The Mists of Avalon dominated the New York Times bestseller lists and won the 1984 Locus Award for best fantasy novel. This retelling of the legend of King Arthur from the perspective of Morgaine, or Morgan le Fay, runs to almost 900 pages (yes, really!) and carries the reader through from Arthur’s parentage to the aftermath of his death. Yet he is not the most key player in the fifty-odd years of the book’s unfolding. Rather, it is the women around him – his mother Igraine, his sister Morgaine, his wife Gwenhwyfar – that most shape the trajectory of these years, for better or worse, as each woman seeks to do best what she feels her faith guides her to do.
Morgaine begins the book as a little girl. She trains through her teen years as a priestess of the Goddess, learning self-mastery and the rhythms of the earth so that she can dedicate her life to the will of the Goddess and serve Her through rituals to bless the earth. Then she plays a key role in bringing Arthur to the British throne – one that leaves her shaken and setting aside her life as a priestess. However, when he makes choices that seem against the oaths he swore when she helped him take the throne, she begins to redevelop her knowing, and works against him over the years in order to right what she sees as treason.
Gwenhwyfar enters the story as one of the angles in a complex relationship with Arthur, Morgaine and their kinsman Lancelet. Raised to doubt herself, anxious for her and her husband’s Christian souls, she makes choices in fear that have stark consequences for all four.
In all cases, we see that their best intentions always seem to bring about unforeseen consequences. Over their adult lives, Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar strive for the heart of Arthur and the will of God, and both come to bitter grief at times for their efforts. They seem often opposed and our sympathies lie most naturally with Morgaine – but the book does not shrink from portraying Morgaine as sometimes wilful and ruthless, or Gwenhwyfar as a sympathetic, understandably frightened character who has simply not been called on to do some of the growing up that Morgaine has done.
At times the depiction of Christianity in the book can seem quite negative, but Bradley’s quarrel is not with Christ – rather with the narrow-mindedness of some of those who claimed to be Christian. She concludes the book by reconciling the apparent chasm between Goddess worship and Christianity.
This book has lost none of its freshness and timeliness in thirty years; if anything, its message resonates all the more in a world where reverence for the earth and its rhythms is fading and there is the sense that it is all the harder to connect with the power and meaning of what Bradley points to as Avalon. This is the real magic of the book: Bradley, who had just been ordained as a Gnostic Catholic minister when she wrote it, presents a vision of a feminine, earth-centered spirituality that resonates deeply. As Diana L. Paxson put it, “[readers] realized that it was possible to create a religious practice that would meet our needs, and that the Goddess, far from being confined to ancient mythology, was alive, well, and eager to communicate.” Somehow, through the 900 pages of The Mists of Avalon, a deeper reality is being evoked, a memory of interconnection, and the promise that if we look beyond the temporal charms of human wanting, it can still be so.