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The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cover art by Braldt Bralds

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Matter of Britain, the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, has received many treatments over the years and centuries. They began as an oral tradition carried by balladeers and was embroidered upon by the courtly troubadors who shifted the focus from heroic combat to courtly love. As the medieval period drew to a close, the story-cycles began to take written form under a series of authors, Sir Thomas Mallory being only the most famous of them.

As modern popular publishing developed, various authors tried their hands at re-interpreting the Arthurian saga for modern sensibilties. Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet-laureate of England, produced the verse Idyls of the King, a very Victorian retelling. T H White's Once and Future King took a more grittily modern and ironic view of the Arthurian legendarium, while Mary Stewart's Arthurian tetralogy drew upon contemporary scholarship to create a Camelot that doesn't project backward the culture of the High Middle Ages onto an earlier era. Even J. R. R. Tolkien tried his hand at a treatment of King Arthur, although like so many of his projects it foundered not long after he undertook it

When Marion Zimmer Bradley set her hand to writing her own interpretation of the Arthurian legendarium, she was already being viewed as the doyenne of feminist science fiction as the result of her ground-breaking novel The Shattered Chain. Thus it was hardly surprising that she should pay particular attention to the women who surrounded King Arthur. Certainly she had fertile ground on which to work, for the traditional tales had presented them as spear-carriers, minimally characterized figures who moved in and out of the story at the demands of the plot. Often they seemed interchangeable, with the same character being called by different names in different tales or the same name being given to characters who seem very different.

Thus one of the first issues MZB had to tackle was the question of how to reconcile the apparent contradictions between the various tales. She resolved the issue of the multiple names of the Lady of the Lake with the device of it being the title of an office held by a succession of women.

Specifically, the title belongs to the chief priestess of the sacred Isle of Avalon. In this interpretation Avalon is the central holy place of the Druids. Geographically it corresponds to the Christian holy place of Glastonbury, but partially out of phase, shrouded in the titular mists which hide it from all save those initiated in the mysteries of the Druidic faith. At the beginning of the novel the title of Lady of the Lake is held by Vivienne, an older woman and the sister of Morgaine's mother Igraine. Vivienne sees Christianity primarily in terms of the monastic order founded in the First Century by Joseph of Arimathea (who in this novel is equated with Jesus' foster-father rather than the rich young ruler he's traditionally identified with), and her highest hope is to reach an ecumenical accommodation between the two faiths, the culmination of which is to be the Mass celebrated using the Druidic Holy Regalia.

To that end she sets about a series of machinations to bring together a group of people with a foot in each world and put them in positions of power. She takes Morgaine to the House of Maidens on Avalon to be trained as a priestess, with an eye to Morgaine's becoming her successor as Lady of the Lake. Vivienne is also instrumental in putting Arthur in a position to inherit the office of High King, and sees to his fostering in the household of Ectorius, a Romanized knight of his faher Uther's court.

However, in laying her plans Vivienne fails to take into account Morgaine's strong will and fierce pride. When Vivienne has Morgaine participate in the kingmaking ceremony known as the Running of the Deer, Morgaine is so outraged at having been tricked into a union with her half-brother Arthur that she abandons her crescent-bladed knife (the symbol of her priestly role) and flees Avalon. Determined to be rid of the child growing within her, she is gathering abortafacent herbs when she wanders into the timeless realm of fairie.

This is one of the more puzzling episodes of the novel, in which we have elements that are clearly magical rather than metaphysical. Even Avalon's mist-shrouded shores could almost be treated as metaphor for secrecy and obfusication, but this otherworldly sojourn has clearly physical effects upon Morgaine's aging process, and particularly upon the development of the child within her womb.

At last Morgaine decides not to take the fairy headwoman up on her offer of fostering Arthur's son as a prince of the Fair Folk. Instead, she flees northward to the household of her aunt Morgause, who will foster the child as her own. But the rejection of this role thrust unwilling upon Morgaine soon bears bitter fruit. She finds she can no longer take her turn in the spinning of thread, for the repetitive nature of the task puts her into a trance state in which visions come unbidden. And all of them are dark.

The rest of the novel is in a very real sense Morgaine's tragedy, as the consequences of her defiant pride unfold. Opportunities to set things right slip through her fingers, and when she does take action on behalf of the old pagan Britain that's rapidly slipping away, her efforts repeatedly go awry. Consequently, she increasingly becomes the mirror image of everything she hates about the Christian hierarchy, particularly the adamant belief that they hold the sole claim on truth and everyone else is not just Other, but outright liars and enemies. The result is a very literary feel to the storyline, which is compounded by the pacing and level of detail, which is closer to the thick historical novels of James Michener than the typical genre fantasy novel.

I think this may be the reason behind the complaints I've heard from a number of people (including fans of MZB's other works) that they found The Mists of Avalon boring or draggy. If they came to it with expectations of a treatment similar to what we see in the Darkover books, they're going to be disappointed by the slower pace, the more in-depth examination of character, and more literary handling of the storyline. But a reader that can approach it on its own terms will be happily rewarded.

Review posted July 21, 2011

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