First published in 1983, Mists of Avalon by the late Marion Zimmer Bradley is a wonderful retelling of the Arthurian legend. I chose to reread The Mists of Avalon this week for two reason: first - as my reward because it is one of the greatest epic fantasies of all time, and second - it had been over a year since I last read it. This book was a watershed moment in fantasy literature for me, and for millions of readers over the years.
In Marion Zimmer Bradley's masterpiece, we see the tumult and adventures of Camelot's court through the eyes of the women who bolstered the king's rise and schemed for his fall. From their childhoods through the ultimate fulfillment of their destinies, we follow these women and the diverse cast of characters that surrounds them as the great Arthurian epic unfolds stunningly before us. As Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar struggle for control over the fate of Arthur's kingdom, as the Knights of the Round Table take on their infamous quest, as Merlin and Viviane wield their magics for the future of Old Britain, the Isle of Avalon slips further into the impenetrable mists of memory, until the fissure between old and new worlds' and old and new religions' claims its most famous victim.
The main protagonist is Morgaine, who watches the rise of Uther Pendragon to the throne of Camelot as high-king. When she was still a young child, she was taken to Avalon by High Priestess Viviane, her maternal aunt, to become a priestess of the Mother Goddess. While in training, she sees the rising tension between the old Pagan religion and the new Christian religion. At the age of fourteen, she is given in a fertility ritual to a young man whom she later discovers is Arthur, her half-brother. Morgaine conceives a child, Gwydion (who will later be called Mordred), as a result of the ritual. She conceals his existence from Arthur.
After Uther dies, his son Arthur proves himself in battle and ascends to the throne. Morgaine and Viviane give him the magic sword Excalibur and a bespelled scabbard as gifts from the country of Avalon. Using the sword, which is a pagan weapon, Arthur succeeds in driving the Saxons away.
But when his wife Gwenhwyfar is unable to carry and deliver a living child, she is convinced that it is a punishment of God: firstly for the presence of pagan elements (a position which Morgaine deeply resents), and secondly, for her forbidden love for Arthur's finest knight Lancelot. Hating herself for loving him, Gwenhwyfar becomes a religious fanatic, and the relationship between Avalon and Camelot becomes hostile.
The story is compelling at the outset, and it captivated me from page one. Upon finishing this book I immediately re-read it! Zimmer-Bradley immerses you in the culture and mores of the mythical Britain of the seventh and eighth centuries. The thoughts and feelings of each character are clearly drawn, and so are the places and the societies in which they live. The over-riding themes of love and treachery make for a tragedy with tremendous political ramifications.
There are good and wise men and women and there are greedy, shortsighted people, and all are depicted with an impartial eye in this tale. The flaws and the strengths of each character are drawn with compassion. The personal choices those in power make change their society for all time. The clear and visible change in the cultural values of pre-christian Britain is vividly portrayed, setting the place of women in the society of Britain for the next 1,200 years.
Within the two generations that this book spans, we see women going from having a respected voice and power in their society, to being relegated to the position of chattel; property of their husband and having less of a voice than his cattle.
This book crosses many genres, Fantasy, Romance, Historical Fiction--Marion Zimmer Bradley created a world that never existed before and breathed life into it, giving us real, solid people to envision when we think about the Arthurian Saga. It is masterfully woven to make a novel that sets the standard for Arthurian literature, and raises the bar for writers of fantasy in general. It is a book that I think of as a cornerstone-book, one of the real foundation books in the library of truly great, modern storytelling.