Originally written in 1983 as a series of short novels, Marian Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon has since then been united into a single brick of a book. Totaling around a thousand pages in all, Bradley’s epic re-tells the classic Arthurian legend from the perspective of the female characters. In contrast to the otherwise male-centered focus of the legend, Bradley’s tome homes in on themes such as sex, marriage, childbearing, and the clash of religions in a feminist-humanistic manner seldom dared in Arthuriana, especially in the early 80s.
Principally following Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), a Celtic priestess battling the ever-encroaching tides of Christianity, Bradley’s narrative retraces the major moments of the legend and contextualizes a humane Morgaine sharply contrasted to masculinist depictions of Morgaine as a harlot and witch. Also following the lives of Gwenhwyfar, Viviane, Morgause, Igraine and additional minor actors, The Mists of Avalon presented to readers a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere too filled with testosterone.
In my reading of the tale, I was surprised at just how much is gained from shifting the perspective. Because in most masculine renditions of the legend, the femme characters are given little room for identities of their own outside of the pigeonholed roles set out for them by male authors, a focus on the womanly identity adds an immense new space for discussion. Since the narrative traces the familial line of characters across numerous generations, by the end of the book, readers will have found just how important things like childbearing, fidelity, marriage, and agency are to the female characters of the legend.
With the inclusion of femme-centered issues to off-balance the male-ego, the Arthurian legend is finally told from “the other side”. Motivations for the womanly characters, the adultery and the general stance on Christianity in relation to the old pagan beliefs, find new life. Moraine no longer becomes an inane witch but an able defender of the pagan beliefs; Gwenhwyfar becomes less an adulteress and more a victim married against her will to a man she never loved. In short, the misogynistic problems which plagued previous iterations of the legend have been remedied by injecting plausible and humanistic reminders that the Middle Ages were not kind to women and that a woman’s response in such a situation would hardly be considered absurd today. Bradley’s book excels at this and is what makes the narrative such enthralling reading material.
Fans of the legend expecting bloody battle scenes and epic moments of conquest will have to look elsewhere, however. Because the focus of the book is on the impasse of one religion to another and how women respond to that impasse, there are no battle scenes to slate the violent. Since women in the middle ages couldn’t participate in battle within Christian societies, the conflict in the book replaces the violence of armed combat with the violence of politicking and theological debate. Because the characters are superbly written, though, this is a plus on Bradley’s part; full realized with inner-lives and ambitions of their own, Bradley brings to the legend characters as deep as Arthur, Lancelot, or Galahad.
I cannot find any fault with The Mists of Avalon. I could nitpick, I supposed, about the impulse to liberation not being more radical or trans-inclusive. But, seeing as how this was written decades ago and the text is not anti-Trans or anti-Gay in any discernable way (in fact, there is some Queer representation here and there if you want to read between the lines with Lancelot), I find little reason to pick apart threads. In short, Bradley’s epic is mandatory reading for anyone intrigued by the legend; finding an Arthurian rendition not compromised by sexist or woman-hating ideas is difficult enough, so any scholar wanting a real depiction of the women of Arthuriana, should read Mists if for no other reason than to offset the toxic histories conjured up by the male pen.