Friday, June 4, 2010

The Mists of Avalon

10% of the way through the challenge!

Marion Zimmer Bradley had been writing science fiction and fantasy since the late 50’s and was best known for the very popular and prolific Darkover series, which successfully combined science fiction with fantasy. In 1982 she published a doorstopper of a book called The Mists of Avalon. The Mists of Avalon was a retelling of the Arthurian saga, only this time from a female point of view.

Although the story of Arthur and his knights had been told many times since the legend’s first appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s somewhat misanthropically titled Historia Regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain) it was not until Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon that anyone thought to explore how the story was viewed through the eyes of the ladies involved. Prior to this the women in the saga tended to be poorly drawn, and regarded as ‘window dressing’ for the main story.

To make Bradley's view of the story fit, a number of things about the original legend had to change. Most notable were the names. Morgana Le Fay became Morgaine and Guinevere was altered to the more traditional Welsh form of Gwenhwyfar. Merlin was not the name of the wizard/druid, but his title. The Merlin that many remember from the original legend was referred to as Taliesin. A number of the best known characters confusingly had more than one name. Arthur was known as Gwydion in childhood and only took the name of Arthur later in life. Lancelot was born with the name of Galahad and was actually the son of Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, when he was given the better known name it was spelled as Lancelet. Mordred, the result of a pagan fertility rite, and Morgaine’s son by her half brother Arthur was also known as Gwydion, and was only given the name Mordred by the Saxons, he adopted the better known name amongst Arthur’s court when he became a Companion of his father’s Round Table.

The story is narrated by Morgaine, but is told through the eyes of a number of the most involved women. These are: Igraine, the wife of Uther Pendragon and mother of Morgaine and Arthur. Morgaine, daughter of Igraine and Duke Gorlois and half sister to Arthur, mother of Gwydion/Mordred. Gwenhwyfar, wife to Arthur and Queen of Camelot. More minor players were: Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, aunt of Morgaine and Arthur, mother of Galahad/Lancelet. Morgause, aunt of Morgaine and Arthur, mother to Companions of the Round Table; Gawaine and Gareth, she also fostered Mordred. Niniane, the Lady of the Lake after Viviane, she was the granddaughter of Taliesin the Merlin. Nimue, the ill fated daughter of Lancelet and Elaine.

There were a few issues with me for the book. I doubt I was it’s target audience, being neither female or pagan. I found it hard to sympathise with any of the women in the book. Igraine was weak willed. Viviane was manipulative. Morgause was a schemer, using her physical attractiveness as a tool to further herself. We never really got to know the characters of Niniane and Nimue well enough to make any real judgement about them or their actions. Gwenhwyfar was mentally unstable, and for some reason was made into an agoraphobic (I’d never seen that even hinted at anywhere else and am unsure why the author felt the need to give the character that crippling phobia). I’ve seen her described as pious, and yes she was, she was also petty, but to a certain extent I understood her piety and why she turned into a religious fanatic. She was a young, convent raised girl who was thrown into a court where everyone seemed to be related to everyone else. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Camelot took inter relations to a new high. Gwenhwyfar was a genuine outsider and when she was unable to conceive a heir for Arthur, coupled with her forbidden love of Lancelet, no wonder she clung to the one constant in her life; the church. Morgaine herself has been described as being strong, but I didn’t get that impression of the character. She drifted with the story and let events take her where they would, rarely actively trying to influence her own fate until it was too late.

At the time of writing the book the author was an active neopagan and she felt a need to ram that message home with sledgehammer subtlety. I found the all too regular pagan rants and her tendency to compare the pagan religion against Christianity, with the latter coming off second best every time somewhat tiresome and largely needless.

It’s a good retelling and even though you know the outcome the story is still gripping and that it can hold interest over it’s 1,000+ pages is testament to Bradley’s skill as a storyteller. It was an interesting and, at the time, revolutionary spin on an oft retold legend. The book was a huge bestseller when it was first published and even now is still very popular. Marion Zimmer Bradley later expanded the concept to include a number of sequels and prequels, mostly written with Diana L Paxson. Since Bradley’s death in 1999, Paxson has continued to write Avalon books.

If you enjoyed The Mists of Avalon and wanted to explore other Arthurian stories, or if you didn’t like The Mists of Avalon due to it’s pagan and/or feminist slant, but still wanted to read about Arthur I can recommend 2 works. One is T.H White’s Once & Future King (I regard this as the definitive retelling of the legend), this can be enjoyed by child and adult alike. For a more realistic spin on Arthur, there’s Parke Godwin’s marvellous Firelord, Arthur as he could have been, but probably never was.

1 comment:

  1. Also the Pendragon quadrilogy by Stephen Lawhead, or the books by Mary Stewart (one of which is called The Crystal Caves, but I can't remember the other titles)

    It's been years since i read this, and I've read an awful lot of Arthurian stories both before and after. I do remember enjoying this one as it was written from the female POV, whihc is very unusual, especially for the time.

    Ooh, and another recommendation is the poem "The Lady of Shallot"
    (" and there she weaves by night and day
    a magic web of colours gay
    a curse be on her if she stay
    to look down upon Camelot")

    Annonymouse on the couch