Top positive review
A Masterwork of Storytelling
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on December 3, 2010
Bottom-Line: "The Mists of Avalon" is splendid reading, and I highly recommend it. A more in-depth and authoritative recantation of the Arthurian legend is not available.
Like many children, I was raised on the tale of Merlin, Camelot, King Arthur, Excalibur, and the famed Knights of the Round Table. My first introduction to the post-Roman Empire era story was a cartoon in my early youth called The Sword in The Stone, which told the tale of how a teenaged King Arthur was able to pull the magically endowed sword Excalibur from the stone in which it was embedded, and thus win the throne of a newly liberated England.
In later years there would be many a movie made about the boy king and his mystical kingdom that in the end fell into ruin because of human weakness, but none has been as detailed as Marion Zimmer Bradley's, 1982 novel "The Mists of Avalon." Bradley's tome is an ambitious and sweeping interweaving of the oft-told legend of King Arthur and his celebrated Knights of the Round Table; of Merlin and Excalibur; of Camelot; of Gwenhwyfar and Sir Lancelot, all regaled through the eyes and experiences of a heretofore unknown character, Morgaine, priestess of Avalon and half-sister to the king. "The Mists of Avalon" is a masterful exemplar of accomplished historical novel writing. One might well finish this lengthy tome incensed at the oft-time unabashed anti-male, and anti-Christian passages, but one cannot honestly deny the addictive allure of grand tale.
The power of Bradley's prose is in its ability to draw the reader into the story with sharp, intelligent, and engaging narrative, such as this from the prologue:
"Morgaine Speaks...In my time I have been called many things: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen. Now in truth I have come to be wise-woman, and a time may come when these things may need to be known. But in sober truth, I think it is the Christians who will tell the last tale. For ever the world of Fairy drifts further from the world in which Christ holds sway. I have no quarrel with Christ, only with his priests, who call the Great Goddess a demon and deny that she ever held power in this world. At best, they say that her power was of Satan. Or else they clothe her in the blue robe of the Lady of Nazareth--who indeed had power in her own way, too--and say that she was ever virgin. But what can a virgin know of the sorrows and travail of mankind?"
From that opening paragraph to the closing, I was hooked, drawn in by the conflict between the old world and the new, between Pagan practice and the over-indulgent, self-righteousness binding of Christianity, and the lose of true personal freedoms it represented.
Written wholly from the perspective of the very strong female characters, throughout, within the pages--all 876 of them--of "The Mists of Avalon" we find a retelling of the epic Arthurian rein stripped of Christian moralizing, and replete with the heretofore untold mysteries of a Earth-bound goddess religion, a faith that is as ornate and beautiful--and indeed more fitting to the way in which the Britons lived their lives--as the Roman Catholic faith.
It primarily through the eyes of Morgaine, Arthur's half-sister, trained in the magical rites of the Goddess that this story unfolds like an awakening. Under the tutelage of her Aunt, and High Priestess of Avalon, Vivian, Morgaine is instructed in the arts of foretelling, herbalism self-discipline, and self-denial. Vivian seeing the disquieting influence of Christianity spread among her people uses Morgaine as the vessel to secure an heir inherently worthy of preserving the old religion by claiming birthright to the throne of England. This was the role Arthur, had been designated to fill but, by his conversion to Christianity, fails to adequately discharge. Vivian who at first one might anoint as a villain is instead a heroine; her actions are exonerated by the desire to serve the purposes of a Goddess, one who will not be denied, the mistress of Avalon, the font from which all magic and foretelling find their birthright.
Be forewarned, "The Mists of Avalon" is an adult tome, not meant to the eyes of pre-teens; there are frank sexual situations throughout the book, including rape, incest, as well as same-sex coupling. Violence too plays a vigorous part in the story-telling though we as a society seem to tolerate it much more than the frank discussion, or depictions of sex.
In setting down "The Mists of Avalon", Bradley used her extensive knowledge of history and legends to weave a most detailed and believable setting; at times it hard to separate fact from fiction. The characters she develops are at once likeable--or unlikable--and complex as any human relationship we might develop in their own lives. Morgaine is a heroin, but a deeply flawed one; Lancelot is not as chivalrous and honorable; Gwenhwyfar is not as pure and innocent; nor Arthur as noble of purpose. With the folds of "The Mists of Avalon" Arthur, though he is essential to the telling, is not the central focus of this body of work. It is the woman in his life that take center stage; Merlin and Excalibur are but minor actors in this world of Camelot.
Indeed the Avalon agenda is all-encompassing, with even the Druids of the Merlin's fraternity expected to acquiesce to the whims and wills of the priestesses of Avalon. In this story of Arthur and Camelot, men are a means to an end; women are supreme as dictated by the Goddess; women do not need men except in furtherance of Her will. In this telling of the Knights of the Round Table, men are insensitive and cruel; sex is wasted; men are basically animals to be controlled. And though men rule, they do so with the blessing and consent of the Goddess, and her maiden priestesses on earth cloistered at Avalon. As a man I see essential truths in the lesson, but I abhor the lesson none-the-less.
But more then a struggle for power between men and women, "The Mists of Avalon" is a struggle between the religion that was, and the religion that will be. Paganism (at least as I understand it) was widely practiced throughout Europe during the time when Rome held sway over all the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. But as Christianity swept out of the Middle East into Europe, Pagan practices were pushed aside, often times violently, replacing the freedom of Pagan worship with the restrictive laws of Christianity. Monotheism replaced polytheistic practices throughout the continent. Bradley captures that struggle brilliantly; some may say she is very uncharitable to Christianity throughout "The Mists of Avalon", but I believe she is being as true to actual history as any telling thus far. After all Christianity does enjoy a long history of self-righteous evangelism, a practice that often-times destroyed the society it missionaries claimed to want to save.
"The Mists of Avalon" is splendid reading and I highly recommend it. A more in-depth and authoritative recantation of the Arthurian legend is not available as far as I know (the movie version of this book was abysmal). Bradley's narrative descriptions are verdant without being overly tiresome, whether she is describing wardrobe, setting, battle scenes, religious services, sexual dalliances, or even mundane household items, her prose flows like water over a newly born leaf. The dialogue is imperative and the scenes fluid and not the least bit ill-conceived.
The ending left me chilled and disappointed, but I understood the necessity of the closing. One might walk away after reading "The Mists of Avalon" feeling as though Bradley despised Christianity, but I believe she was just being true to the history of the movement and its long lasting effect on human societies. And though men are oft-times depicted as weak throughout the book, truth be told guys, if we really love a woman to the depth of our souls, and with deepness of heart, we are but putty in their hands to be molded into that which she sees fit to accompany.