I’ve always been a sucker for King Arthur. In between my Robin Hood phases as a kid, I went through reams of stories about Camelot. And in college, I happily hiked around the ruins of Tintagel in Cornwall (supposedly the place of Arthur’s birth). But Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon was something new for me: the King Arthur legend from the perspectives of important women in his life, namely Igraine, his mother; Viviane, his eldest aunt; Morgause, his youngest aunt; Gwenhwyfar (a.k.a. Guinevere), his wife; and Morgaine (a.k.a. Morgana), his half-sister.
Morgaine is the main protagonist. And unlike in most retellings, she’s not an evil sorceress. Instead, she’s an initiate of Avalon, a mythical island that’s home to a sect of Goddess worshippers trying to stave off Christianity’s growing influence over Britain. Bradley includes the familiar love triangle between Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, and Lancelet (a.k.a. Lancelot), but the contest of religions is the core struggle in The Mists of Avalon. Viviane, Lady of Avalon when the story begins, places Arthur on the throne so that he may serve his Christian and non-Christian subjects alike. But Gwenhwyfar convinces him to become ever more Christian, and Viviane and Morgaine consider this conversion a betrayal of the oaths he swore to win the crown. In the years that follow, Avalon sets itself against Camelot and grows intolerant in kind.
Not everyone is as narrow-minded about religion, however. Morgause has little use for gods or goddesses, while the druidic Merlins (plural, in this version) believe all deities are one. Such a diversity of viewpoints is also present in how Bradley portrays the different spheres of influence available to women in her historical fantasy of early Britain. In Avalon, Morgaine and Viviane lead a matriarchal society. In the North, Morgause defies convention and rules as a queen who takes lovers as she wills. But in the South, Igraine and Gwenhwyfar (mostly) accept their priests’ advisements that they should be content to stay in their castles and make children and clothing for their husbands.
The overall story is more philosophical than I’m used to for a tale of King Arthur. It’s also slower; The Mists of Avalon spans generations and glosses over the usual knightly contests and heroic deeds. But if you want a Camelot that makes you think, Bradley’s seminal work is worth a read.
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